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    Memphis-Shelby County schools merger panel picks six-regions model

    By Michael Kelley - The Commercial Appeal -

    The unified Memphis and Shelby County school district set to open its doors in the fall of 2013 will be divided into six regions, each with 20 to 30 schools and each led by a regional director, if a plan designed by the Transition Planning Commission is ratified by the unified school board.

    The structure, which was approved by the TPC Thursday night, would accommodate a strong degree of local autonomy on decisions such as hiring, budgeting, curriculum development, the length of the school day and the school calendar.

    The "Multiple Achievement Paths" model was approved by the Transition Planning Commission on a vote of 20-0, with one abstention, after a presentation by the Boston Consulting Group's J. Puckett, who assured TPC members that the multi-dimensional structure could accommodate their quest for high-performing schools throughout the district that would be accessible to every student.

    The model is a combination of two previous versions -- the United model and the Path to Autonomy. Its supporters insist that the structure was not designed to dissuade suburban cities from dodging unification with separate municipal school districts. Decentralization and local autonomy are popular trends in school district administration nationwide.

    However, should efforts by Shelby County 's suburban municipalities to break away from the new district fall short, the Multiple Achievement Paths model could partially satisfy separatist suburban impulses.

    Two of the unified district's regions would be carved from the current Shelby County Schools territory and four from the geographical area covered by Memphis City Schools.

    While still supporting a school system for his city, Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald said Thursday night that this was a more palatable "Plan B."

    "As a Plan B, it's a good start. There's a lot of fleshing out that still has to be done," McDonald said. "It does make some headway. If for some reason we were stopped from being able to have a municipal system, this would be, in my opinion, a better educational option for our children than the current system."

    Germantown Mayor Sharon Goldsworthy took a cautious approach to the model approved for recommendation Thursday.

    "We simply will need to take a look at it to determine whether it matches our vision that we have for a municipal school district," she said. "I saw elements of the plan that did not line up with what we are trying to achieve."

    Under the plan, the state and charter school operators would be substantially involved through management of schools targeted for academic turnarounds as part of the Achievement School District.

    Charter management organizations, including those potentially formed by suburban governments, also would enjoy a significant level of local autonomy.

    Some schools that are eligible for inclusion in the ASD would be managed by an Office of Innovation that reports to the superintendent of schools.

    The structure "allows the administration to focus its resources most effectively in the areas where we need to be focused to have high-achieving schools," TPC member Christine Richards said in a strong endorsement of the structure.

    It "incorporates the best of the United and the Path to Autonomy," said David Pickler, co-chairman of the Administrative Organization committee. It "provides an opportunity to bring the entire community together."

    TPC chairwoman Barbara Prescott reminded committee members they still have a lot of work to do. Recommendations still must be made on such issues as high-level central office organization, student school assignment policies and how to make the model sustainable as district leadership changes over time.

    Pickler said the committee will meet next Thursday to work toward that aim.

    -- Michael Kelley: (901) 529-2785

    Staff reporter Jody Callahan contributed to this story.