Memphis charter network Gestalt to pull out of two state-run schools

Leaders of a Memphis-based charter network announced plans on Friday to exit its operations of two local schools under the state-run Achievement School District due to declining enrollment.

Gestalt Community Schools will cease to manage Humes Preparatory Academy Middle and Klondike Preparatory Academy Elementary, both in North Memphis, after the 2016-17 school year.

The network is the first to pull out of operations of an ASD school since 2012 when the turnaround district began to take control of low-performing schools, usually assigning them to charter operators.

The state-run district operates 31 schools in Memphis and two in Nashville, and its leaders are eyeing expansion to Chattanooga in 2018.

Gestalt leaders say they will work with the ASD to transition the two Memphis schools to a different charter network or to another option.

“Our primary goal as a network is to provide high-quality public education to all of our scholars,” CEO Yetta Lewis said in a news release. “Despite diligent efforts to apply our successful model at Humes and Klondike, enrollment numbers have continued to decline, as families migrate to other parts of Memphis.”

Humes was in the first cohort of six schools taken over by the ASD in 2012, and Klondike became part of the second cohort the following year. They are the only two ASD schools operated by Gestalt, which runs four other Memphis charter schools authorized by Shelby County Schools.

Gestalt leaders placed the blame for its pullout squarely on problems related to declining enrollment. Humes is operating at 69 percent of capacity and Klondike at 33 percent.

“Despite initial capital investments and detailed scholar recruitment efforts, the impact of North Memphis’ declining population of families with school-aged children has affected both schools, causing cuts or reductions in programs key to the network’s model, such as STEM programming, tutoring services, teacher assistants and arts programs,” the release said.

The number of children ages 5 to 14 in North Memphis has declined by 31 percent since 2000, according to the Greater Memphis Chamber.

ASD leaders said they “understand and respect” Gestalt’s decision.

“We are going to continue to work with Gestalt Community Schools and communities in North Memphis to determine next steps with full input of communities,” spokeswoman Letita Aaron said late Friday afternoon.

Mendell Grinter, executive director of the Campaign for School Equity, a black advocacy group favoring more school choices for low-income families of color, called Gestalt’s pullout plan a “tough, but necessary decision” based on enrollment.

It’s the second high-profile pullout by Gestalt in as many years. The network had planned to open a school at the massive midtown development known as Crosstown Concourse but backed out of that deal last year. A group of local stakeholders have since obtained a charter from Shelby County Schools to open Crosstown High School in that location, planned for 2018.

The announcement comes weeks after Gestalt helped to dedicate a performing arts center next to its recently relocated Power Center Academy Middle School as part of a community partnership to revitalize the Hickory Hill area of south Memphis. The nonprofit organization uses an approach different from most charter operators and seeks to develop its schools alongside larger community revitalization projects.

packing up

Charter school in Tennessee’s turnaround district relocating out of neighborhood it signed up to serve

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
The new Memphis Scholars Raleigh-Egypt sign next to faded letters of Shelby County Schools name for the middle school.

When officials at Memphis Scholars Raleigh-Egypt Middle School learned that another school on the same campus could get extra help for its students, they made a big decision: to pick up and move.

Memphis Scholars announced Monday that the school will reopen next year in a building 16 miles away, where the charter operator already runs another school under Tennessee’s turnaround district. The network will pay to bus students from the Raleigh neighborhood across Memphis daily.

The move is the latest and most dramatic episode in an ongoing enrollment war between the state-run Achievement School District and Shelby County Schools in the Raleigh neighborhood.

Most recently, Shelby County Schools proposed adding Raleigh-Egypt Middle/High, which shares a campus with Memphis Scholars now, into the district’s Innovation Zone — a change that would bring new resources and, the district hopes, more students.

The Innovation Zone represents a “high-quality intervention” for students in the neighborhood, according to Memphis Scholars Executive Director Nick Patterson. But he said it makes the presence of his school less essential.

Shelby County Schools’ proposal “creates two schools, on the same campus, serving the same grades, both implementing expensive school-turnaround initiatives,” Patterson said in a statement. “Memphis Scholars strongly believes that this duplication of interventions is not in the best interest of students and families as it divides scarce resources between two schools.”

The move also allows the network to solve two persistent problems. First, enrollment at Raleigh-Egypt Middle is less than half of what it was supposed to be, putting so much pressure on the school’s budget that the network obtained an energy audit to help it cut costs. That’s because Shelby County Schools expanded the adjacent high school to include middle school grades, in an effort to retain students and funding.

Plus, Memphis Scholars ran into legal obstacles to adding middle school grades to its Florida-Kansas school. Moving an existing middle school to the Memphis Scholars Florida-Kansas Elementary campus circumvents those obstacles. Because state law requires that at least 75 percent of students at Achievement School District schools come from the neighborhood zone or other low-performing schools on the state’s “priority list,” the charter school can welcome any middle schooler in its new neighborhood.

But network officials want to keep serving their existing students, and they’re offering transportation to make that possible.

It’s unclear if Raleigh students will follow the charter school across town. Some parents reached by Chalkbeat on Monday said they hadn’t heard about the changes yet, but their students said they found out today.

“I hadn’t heard about the changes, but I don’t like that too much,” said Reco Barnett, who has two daughters who attend the school. “We’re here because it’s right by where we live. It’s right in our area. I don’t know what we’ll do yet, I just now found out when you told me, but I don’t know if we’ll be able to do that. That’s a long ways away from us.”

The move would free up the building for use by Shelby County Schools. District officials did not provide comment Monday.

Chalkbeat reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this story.

Notable departure

Last original leader resigns from Tennessee’s school turnaround district

The state-run Achievement School District began taking over schools in Memphis in 2012.

Margo Roen, who has been instrumental in recruiting local and national charter operators to Tennessee’s Achievement School District, has resigned as its deputy superintendent.

PHOTO: Achievement School District
Margo Roen

She said her departure, which is effective June 30, is not related to the State Department of Education’s plans to downsize and restructure the turnaround district by July 1.

“This decision (to leave) is an extremely hard one, and does not in any way diminish the immense belief I have in our schools and kids, and my admiration, appreciation, and respect for the ASD team, operators, and partners in this work,” Roen told Chalkbeat this week in an email.

With Roen’s departure, the ASD will lose its last original leader. She joined the state-run district in 2011 after its creation as part of Tennessee’s First to the Top plan. Superintendent Malika Anderson, who was once deputy to founding superintendent Chris Barbic, joined a few months later, along with Troy Williams, the ASD’s chief operating officer.

In addition to overseeing charter recruitment efforts, Roen has co-led the ASD’s Operator Advisory Council to give charter leaders more say in ASD decisions and collaborate across the district’s 33 schools.

Roen said she will remain in Memphis and plans to work on projects with school districts across the nation.