Duplicating a Metro strategy, the Tennessee Department of Education is challenging the three school districts with the state’s lowest-performing schools to create so-called “offices of innovation” to find creative ways to spur turnarounds.
The plan, including its terminology, is identical to an approach Director of Schools Jesse Register unveiled for Metro in July when he announced the district’s 10 weakest achieving schools would be isolated  into a special innovation cluster.
Now, Metro Nashville Public Schools, Memphis City Schools and Hamilton Schools are all in the process of drafting formal plans for innovation zones that require state approval, Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman told reporters at an inaugural “brown bag” lunch gathering Thursday.
“Metro Nashville was already going to do this,” Huffman said. “It seemed like an interesting model, so we tried to sketch out some parameters.”
The three districts are required to turn in Office of Innovation proposals by March 31. At stake is $35 million in federal school improvement grants to be spread out among the districts over three years
“They’ll be district-led schools, and we’re intending to put significant funding into innovations zones,” Huffman said. “That funding will be contingent on school performance.”
Huffman said innovation zones should “provide more instructional time, greater autonomy, and manage their schools differently.”
Over the summer, Metro tapped British-based Tribal Group Inc. , an education support services firm, to design targeted reform measures for its innovation cluster, which the district’s Alan Coverstone is charged with overseeing.
Schools within Metro’s innovation zone are: Napier Elementary, Bailey Middle, Margaret Allen Middle, Antioch Middle, Whites Creek High, Apollo Middle, Cameron Middle, Wright Middle, Jere Baxter Middle and Glencliff High schools.
The Office of Innovation strategy is one of two ways the state is hoping to turn around Tennessee’s 85 lowest-performing schools, a figure that represents the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools in performance.
The federal government’s recent approval of Tennessee’s No Child Left Behind waiver application established an Achievement School District governance body in which all 85 historically failing schools are eligible.
With the ASD, the plan is to tap outside charter organizations to manage some of the schools and for the state to directly oversee others. For now, the ASD is governing only six of the 85 schools.
In creating offices of Innovation and the ASD, Huffman said education leaders started with one underlying question: “What are we going to do with the 85 schools in our bottom 5 percent?”
“The Achievement School District is one answer to the question, but the Achievement School District is relatively small, and will grow gradually,” he said.
“The innovation zone represents an opportunity for districts –– form Metro, Memphis and for Hamilton Schools –– to create zones inside of their own districts where they essentially create their own Achievement School District-like conditions within their districts,” Huffman said.
Schools in innovation zones that fail to show improvement over time could be moved to the Achievement School District, he indicated.