YES Prep Public Schools, a nationally known charter management organization based in Houston, Texas, is pulling out of Memphis, where it had been scheduled to begin taking over a struggling middle school this August, the state’s Achievement School District (ASD) announced Wednesday.

ASD officials received word Tuesday from YES Prep leaders about their decision to withdraw from launching a single-grade, phase-in school at Airways Middle School in south Memphis, beginning with a class of sixth-graders this fall. About 100 students were enrolled to participate.

“We are as surprised as everyone else by this sudden decision and disappointed YES Prep is backing out of its commitment to Memphis,” the ASD said in a news release. “The sixth-grade families of Airways Middle deserve better, and we’re committed to working with Shelby County Schools to ensure they have access to a high-quality option next year.”

Contacted by Chalkbeat, YES Prep leaders said Wednesday that the organization’s departure is due to inadequate community support in Memphis, an increasing political shift against the ASD, and structural challenges in the ASD model. But the nail in the coffin was when Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson announced earlier this year that the district no longer would participate in co-locations – a model that YES Prep is built on – in which a charter school takes over a school grade by grade while the existing school district operates the remaining grades. Hopson said the model was unsustainable.

“The city doesn’t like the idea of phasing into schools,” explained Bill Durbin, the superintendent of YES Prep’s Memphis initiative.

YES Prep is the fourth charter management organization to pull out of the takeover process in Memphis in the last year. KIPP, Freedom Prep and Green Dot withdrew from the school “matching process” after being authorized to become Memphis charter operators by the ASD.

“Not everyone is cut out for this work,” said the ASD, the state’s program for turning around the bottom 5 percent of Tennessee schools. “We applaud YES Prep’s success with underserved communities in new, open-enrollment charter schools. But their decision today makes clear that YES Prep is not prepared to take on the urgent, more difficult work of turning around neighborhood schools in Memphis. And we wish that they would have come to this conclusion much sooner because this sudden decision puts Airways families in a difficult position for next year.”

Hopson expressed surprise and frustration over YES Prep’s departure. “I’m disappointed to go through a full process and to get the community stirred up and then, literally, at the 11-and-a-half hour, they change course,” he said.

The transition of Airways Middle to a charter organization angered many Memphians, prompting protests from parents, students and teachers who made “No Prep Zone” their rallying cry.

YES Prep is known for its work of getting hundreds of poor students into college. The organization has more than 9,000 students in Houston and another 6,000 youngsters on the waiting list.

“They’re one of the best charter management organizations in the country. … That’s why we wanted them to be here,” ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic told Chalkbeat. “But they’ve done this in open-enrollment environments. This turnaround work is different. Not every charter organization is cut out to do this work.”

Barbic, among the founders of YES Prep before coming to Tennessee in 2011 to oversee the ASD, said he was “frankly angry” about the timing of YES Prep’s decision. “This story is about YES Prep having two years to plan a single-grade school, and making a decision two months before to pull out,” he said.

The ASD and Shelby County Schools now must decide what to do next with Airways Middle.

“We have 14 other operators doing great work, and we’ll get this done without [YES Prep]. And we’ll move forward,” Barbic said. “We’ve built a solid foundation in the last three years. This is a step back, but we’ll move forward.

Contact Daarel Burnette II at dburnette@chalkbeat.org or (901) 260-3705.

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