Charting charters

The good, the bad and the so-so: What a new report says about Memphis charter schools

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools

The first annual report on Shelby County Schools’ growing charter sector shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.

Under development for a year, the report released Tuesday identifies several charter schools that outperformed the rest of the district in suspension, graduation and student retention rates in the 2014-15 school year. They include Memphis Business Academy elementary, middle and high schools, Memphis School of Excellence, Power Center middle and high schools, Soulsville and Star Academy.

It also shows a charter sector that basically mirrors the district’s traditional schools when it comes to student scores on end-of-course exams and the state’s standardized tests.

The report is designed to be a tool to help parents make sense of charter school data and show how the performance of its then-45 charter schools compared with traditional schools in 2014-15. Its rollout indicates that the role of charter schools in the district are solidified for years to come as Shelby County Schools seeks innovative ways to improve academic performance.

“The presence of effective charter schools assists us in providing more high quality school options for families, which is a critical part of SCS’ Destination 2025,” Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said in citing the district’s strategic improvement plan.

The city’s charter sector has grown significantly in recent years. In the 2014-15 school year, there were about 12,200 students, or about 10 percent of the district’s population, in charter schools authorized by Shelby County Schools. That’s more than double compared to five years prior and does not include Memphis charters authorized by the state-run Achievement School District.

Should current trends continue, one in five students in Shelby County Schools could be attending charter schools by 2020, with total enrollment exceeding 20,000.

The report also outlines plans to better track and report on the quality of both charter and traditional schools.

The district will introduce a “school performance framework” that measures school quality on a 1-to-5 scale and will factor in state and college readiness test scores, academic growth, student attendance and teacher effectiveness. The timetable for the rollout is still being worked out.

Beginning this fall, charter schools also will receive a 1-to-5 ranking on its “operations scorecard” based on financials, federal and state compliance, and student discipline, among other factors.

Brad Leon, the district’s chief of strategy and innovation, said the annual report and scores will give parents easy access to already public information about charter schools and aid in their decisions on where to send their child.

This week’s report comes only months after confusion erupted over the district’s policies for revoking charters of schools that district administrators said were under-performing, under-enrolled or had administrative issues. This spring, Shelby County Schools came under fire for its fast-track revocation of three charters in the midst of a budget crunch. The operators lost their appeals to the State Board of Education in May, but not without the panel chastising the district over its process.

Shelby County Schools is trying to rebuild trust between the district and its charters.

“The spirit of this report reflects both the Board’s and administration’s belief that all of our charter schools are, in fact and in belief, Shelby County schools and that some of the historic challenges between the District and its charter sector can be overcome through improved relationships and a shared commitment to informing our community,” Hopson said.

To ensure clear guidelines for charters, Leon recently announced that each charter operator would sign a contract prior to being approved to open a school under Shelby County Schools. Until now, the operator’s application served as its outline of academic and financial expectations. The new contract will be based on the school performance framework guidelines once they are finalized, Leon said.

In addition to the contract, 4 percent of the public funds the charter would receive per student will be charged as an annual fee to the district to help cover administration costs. Three people in the district’s charter office oversee nearly 50 charter schools. The Achievement School District and the Tennessee State Board of Education charge similar fees to charter operators.

In January, Shelby County’s school board also approved the creation of a charter compact agreement. The compact is designed to help the district work with its charters through sticky issues such as how school space gets used and how schools get funding to serve students with disabilities.

To view the charter report in full, click here.

audit findings

Audit finds educational services lacking at Rikers Island, but corrections officials dispute report

PHOTO: Matt Green/Flickr

Corrections officials “systemically neglected” to ensure that young adult inmates knew they could enroll in school courses, according to an audit released Tuesday by Comptroller Scott Stringer. The audit also found that the city Department of Education failed to put mandated educational plans in place for incarcerated students with disabilities.

“That’s wrong, because if we’re going to reverse decades of backwards criminal justice policies, it’s going to be with bigger and better schools — not bigger and tougher prisons,” Stringer said in an emailed statement. “We have to do better.”

But officials from the city Department of Correction disputed the findings, and a response from the education department suggests the audit takes a narrow approach that misses “critical context.”

In 74 percent of sampled cases, the comptroller’s office couldn’t find evidence that inmates between the ages of 18 and 21 attended an orientation and were informed of their right to attend classes. In 68 percent of the sampled cases, auditors could not find required forms from inmates either accepting or rejecting educational services. In its response to the findings, a representative for the corrections department noted that some inmates may simply “refuse to sign the form.”

The corrections department wrote that it “disputes the overall finding” that inmates are not informed of their right to educational services. Furthermore, the audit “failed to capture” additional steps the department takes to do so.

In responses to the findings, included in the audit, corrections and education officials said all eligible students are offered the opportunity to attend classes. Every school day, the education department prints a list of eligible students who are in facilities with school programs, and the list is shared with corrections staff in the housing areas. Inmates who are interested can attend an information session and enroll immediately.

The corrections department’s response also states that inmates receive a handbook that includes information about enrolling in classes, and that signs are posted in common areas to inform inmates of their right to request educational services. Furthermore, the department conducts regular focus groups to create alternative programs of interest to young offenders who choose not to go to school, according to the response.

The audit also found that 48 percent of eligible students did not have a Special Education Plan, based on their Individualized Education Program, created for them within 30 days of beginning classes, as required. Those plans were never created for 36 percent of sample students, according to the audit.

The Department of Education responded that it is working to implement a new electronic system to track progress on education plans for students with disabilities, and that students who had such plans before being incarcerated continue to get the services they need.

The audit does note that all 16- and 17-year olds were receiving the educational services required by law. Those students have to attend school, whether they are incarcerated or not. Older students are eligible to receive educational services if they are under 21 years of age, have not already earned a high school diploma and will be incarcerated for 10 or more days.

Community voices

Memphians weigh in on Hopson’s investment plan for struggling schools

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson speaks Monday night to about 175 educators, parents and students gathered to learn about Shelby County Schools' plan to make new investments in struggling schools

After years of closing struggling schools, Shelby County Schools is changing course and preparing to make investments in them, beginning with 19 schools that are challenged by academics, enrollment, aging buildings and intergenerational poverty.

This May, 11 of those schools will receive “treatment plans” tailored to their needs and based on learnings from the Innovation Zone, the district’s 5-year-old school turnaround initiative. The other eight schools already are part of a plan announced last fall to consolidate them into three new buildings.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin talked up the new dynamic Monday night during a community meeting attended by about 175 educators, parents and students. In his proposed budget for next school year, Hopson has set aside $5.9 million to pay for supports for the 11 schools dubbed “critical focus” schools. 


Here’s the framework for the changes and which schools will be impacted.


Monday’s gathering was first in which Memphians got to publicly weigh in on the district’s new game plan. Here’s what several stakeholders had to say:

Quinterious Martin

Quinterious Martin, 10th-grader at Westwood High School:

“It really helped me to hear that the label of ‘critical’ is going to help us out, not pull us down. I was worried when I first heard our school would be on the list of critical schools, but I get it now. The point is to help the schools out, not make them feel worse. To me, one thing Westwood really needs is more classes to get us ready for our future careers, like welding or mechanics. My commitment tonight was to always improve in what I do.”

Deborah Calvin, a teacher at Springdale Elementary School:

“I enjoyed the presentation tonight. I think it’s so important to know everyone is on the same page. The plan will only be successful if everyone in the community is aware of what the goals are. I think they made it really clear tonight that just more money doesn’t help turn a school. It takes a lot of community support. We really need more parent involvement at Springdale. Children need support when they go home. They need someone to sit down with them and work through homework or read.”

Catherine Starks, parent at Trezevant High School:

“Honestly, I think this is just going through the motions and something to keep parents quiet. Some schools may be getting the supports they need, but not all of them are. Trezevant is one that is not. … We need good leadership and we need someone to be advocates for our kids. I want to see the kids at our school get the support they need from the principal, the guidance counselor, the superintendent. Trezevant has had negative everything, but now we need some positive attention. And we really need the community to step up.”

Neshellda Johnson and daughter Rhyan

Neshellda Johnson, fourth-grade teacher at Hawkins Mill Elementary School:

“Hawkins Mill has been in the bottom 5 percent for awhile and has been targeted (for takeover) by the state for about four consecutive years. …  It’s refreshing to see that, instead of putting us on the chopping block, the district is looking to actually invest in us and give us the tools we need so we can continue to have growth. … I’m looking to the district for academic supports with regards to reading, more teachers assistants, more time for teaching and less time for testing, and more after-school and summer enrichment programs. And in addition to supports for our students, I’m hopeful there will be supports offered for our parents. We have a need for mental health and counseling services in our area.”

You can view the district’s full presentation from Monday night below: