Withdrawing

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.

under study

No longer at the bottom: These 20 schools are Tennessee’s model for turnaround

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Whitehaven Elementary School students work on a robotics project. The Memphis school has moved off of the state's list of lowest-performing schools.

When Education Commissioner Candice McQueen gave a stinging assessment this week of Tennessee’s school turnaround work, she cited a small number of schools as the exception.

Twenty have improved enough in the last five years to move off of the state’s list of “priority schools” that are in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent.

Of those, the State Department of Education has conducted case studies of 10 former priority schools in Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga and Hardeman County:

  • Chickasaw Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Douglass K-8, Shelby County Schools
  • Ford Road Elementary, Shelby County Schools
  • Gra-Mar Middle, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
  • Hamilton Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Treadwell Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, Hamilton County Schools
  • Whiteville Elementary, Hardeman County Schools
  • City University Boys Preparatory High, Shelby County Schools
  • Springdale Elementary, Shelby County Schools

The first six are part of state-supported innovation zones in Memphis and Nashville. Two schools — in Chattanooga and Hardeman County — have received federal school improvement grants. The last two did not receive federal or state interventions but were studied because their scores improved at a faster rate than 85 percent of schools in 2015.

Ten other former priority schools, all in Shelby County Schools in Memphis, have improved with only local or philanthropic support. The state plans to examine these closer in the coming months:

  • Alcy Elementary
  • Cherokee Elementary, Innovation Zone
  • Hickory Ridge Middle
  • Manassas High
  • Manor Lake Elementary
  • Memphis Academy of Science & Engineering High (charter school)
  • Memphis School of Excellence High (charter school)
  • Oakhaven Middle
  • South Park Elementary
  • Whitehaven Elementary
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A classroom at Ford Road Elementary in Memphis, which is among those that have exited the state’s list of lowest performing schools.

McQueen told lawmakers Tuesday that it’s “a little embarrassing” that only 16 percent of priority schools have moved off of the state’s 2012 and 2014 lists that identify 126 failing schools.

The case studies, in part, have informed the school improvement component of Tennessee’s new plan for its schools under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

“… We have learned that a combination of school leadership, effective teaching with a focus on depth of instruction around standards, and services focused on non-academic supports has led to strong outcomes in these schools,” McQueen said in a statement Wednesday.

Tennessee’s proposed new plan for turnaround work would gives more authority to local districts to make their own improvements before the state-run Achievement School District steps in.

One ASD school — Brick Church in Nashville — also has moved off of the state’s priority list, but was excluded from the state’s analysis because there were not enough years of test data to compare since its takeover by the state-run district.

“What we can’t do as a state is support — in terms of funding and time — district interventions that don’t work,” McQueen said. “We have to learn from what is working because we know we have much more work to do and many more students that have need.”

Chalkbeat reporter Grace Tatter contributed to this report.

Unleashed

McQueen rips Tennessee’s school turnaround work as ineffectual, overdue

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks at an event in Memphis in 2015.

In a fiery speech to state lawmakers on Tuesday, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen gave a stinging assessment of Tennessee’s school turnaround work, even calling the outcomes “a little embarrassing.”

McQueen noted that the state has moved only 10 schools off its “priority” list since compiling its first list in 2012, beginning with 83 low performing schools.

“We can’t keep throwing $10 million, $11 million, $12 million, $15 million at solutions that are not solutions,” she told legislators on House education committees.

The remarks were a departure from McQueen’s usual placating tone — and her most direct condemnation of school turnaround work to date in Tennessee. That work includes programs spearheaded both by local districts and the state’s Achievement School District, which has authority to take over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent, generally assigning them to charter operators.

But her indictment stretched far beyond the state’s role in those programs, which serve mostly poor communities. She took aim at efforts that began with the 2002 federal education law known as No Child Left Behind, which prescribed how states must deal with struggling schools.

“This is probably going to come across as a little preachy, but it is preachy,” said McQueen, who became commissioner in 2014. “We’ve got kids who were sitting in schools that we knew — we knew — and I want you to listen to the years, back in 2002, 2003, 2004, that they were in a low performing school that needed to turn around fast. (Those students have) now graduated, and we did not have the increases we needed at those schools to set them up for success.”

While McQueen didn’t single out specific turnaround initiatives, she stressed that Tennessee needs to focus on what has worked — specifically, at 10 schools that have been moved off the state’s priority list so far and have undergone case studies. McQueen named common themes: strong school leaders, quality instruction, and community and wraparound supports, such as mental health care services.


No longer at the bottom: These 20 schools are Tennessee’s model for school turnaround


Those successes helped to inform the school improvement component of Tennessee’s proposed new education plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. Under that plan, the state would work with local districts to improve their lowest-performing schools through academic and wraparound services. The ASD, which McQueen refers to as the state’s “most rigorous intervention,” would be reined in, making it a last-resort when other efforts have failed. Lawmakers will vote on components of the plan in the coming months.

Under ESSA, states have more flexibility on how to spend money for school improvement. In the past, the federal government gave states school improvement grants with explicit instructions on how to spend them. But those grants ultimately didn’t work, according to a recent study by the U.S. Department of Education.

McQueen told lawmakers that, under the plan, the state would give low-performing schools more resources than ever, but also would expect a quicker pace of change.

“This work is about shorter time frames with more support and expectation of outcomes that ultimately will make or break the future of Tennessee,” she said.