charter debate

NAACP call for charter pause puts Memphis in crosshairs of charter debate

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Students, parents and education advocates gathered Friday at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis to support #charterswork, a campaign against the proposed NAACP resolution calling for a moratorium on charter school growth.

The mother of nine children who have attended Memphis schools, Apryle Young-Lanier has witnessed a paradigm shift in the city’s education landscape, where the charter sector now consumes a fourth of the schools — and is growing.

Charter schools have offered her children a better education, she said, in a city that long neglected the deteriorating education of its black and poor students.

“They offer curriculum our children would otherwise not be exposed to,” she said, adding that charters have stepped in to help address neighborhood blight left by a trail of school closures. “The buildings were empty, not being used,” she said.

But that growth hasn’t come without pain, angst and outright anger in a city that also is home to one of the nation’s largest chapters of the NAACP, a leading group in the charge to stop charter expansion, as well as the state-run Achievement School District, which relies on charters for its school turnaround work.

The intersection puts Memphis at an interesting crossroads ahead of this weekend’s vote in Cincinnati by the NAACP’s national board to formalize its stance against charter school growth.

Memphis has become a battleground city in efforts to improve chronically low-performing schools, introducing charters as a tool for innovation beginning in 2003. Today, Shelby County Schools has 45 charters among its 186 schools, and the state-run district operates 28 charter schools as part of its turnaround model.

But their effectiveness, as well as the money they siphon off from traditional schools, remains a source of debate and sometimes outrage.

Last December, after a Vanderbilt University study said the Memphis district’s own school turnaround program has had more initial success than the state’s charter-reliant model, the school board for Shelby County Schools called for a moratorium on the ASD’s growth until it could show improvement. Soon after, the Memphis NAACP and black state legislators joined in the call.

“Our schools have been used as an educational experiment to test models of education theory,” NAACP leaders said in a statement, “while our students continue to struggle with the effects of years of debilitating poverty.”

At the same time, newly formed Memphis groups favoring school choice have steadily grown their ranks and heightened their voice in support of the ASD, charter schools, tuition vouchers and other changes they say can help put children of color on equal footing when it comes to getting a public education. Memphis is 63 percent black, and nearly 80 percent of the school system’s students live in poverty.

“Charter schools add much needed value to the fabric of our local educational landscape,” said Mendell Grinter, executive director of Campaign for School Equity, formerly a chapter of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, a national school choice group. “When given the option, parents increasingly are choosing to enroll their children in public charter schools and in many neighborhoods, the demand for charter schools is far outpacing the supply.”

At right, Sarah Carpenter, the executive director of education advocacy group Memphis Lift prepares to take 150 parents to Cincinnati, where the NAACP will vote to formalize its stance against charter school growth.
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Sarah Carpenter (right), executive director of Memphis Lift, prepares to take 150 parents by bus to Cincinnati, site of the NAACP board’s vote this weekend.

Memphis Lift is another organization that sprang up in 2015 to organize black parents wanting school choice. On Friday, the group dispatched about 150 parents from Memphis and Nashville to Cincinnati ahead of Saturday’s vote. Memphis Lift, which also advocated for more funding for traditional schools this year, has ties to the wife of the ASD’s founding superintendent, Chris Barbic.

“We just want the NAACP to know that this is not what we want,” said Sarah Carpenter, the group’s executive director. “We want a moratorium on low-performing schools, period, not just charter schools.”

The national board’s resolution instructs local chapters to advocate against preferential funding or tax breaks for charter schools and for increased transparency and oversight. It also denounces “disproportionately high use of punitive and exclusionary discipline” in charter schools, documented waste of public funds in some, and “increased segregation rather than diverse integration.”

Local NAACP leaders have kept a low profile in discussions over the resolution, the latest volley in decades of sparring by black leaders over the role of charter schools in public education.

Madeline Taylor, the chapter’s long-time executive director, declined to comment to Chalkbeat, and multiple calls to other leaders were not answered. Grinter and Carpenter’s efforts to engage the NAACP about charters have also been met with silence.

Three Memphians sit on the NAACP’s 63-member national board: Jesse H. Turner Jr., the organization’s treasurer and the president of Tri-State Bank of Memphis; Rabbi Micah Greenstein of Temple Israel of Memphis; and Bishop William Graves of Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.

Nationally, charter schools have a disproportionately higher black student population, and many black leaders in the charter sector have urged the NAACP to reject the resolution.

Apryle Young-Lanier, center, with her two daughters. She spoke at a Campaign for School Equity rally at the National Civil Rights Museum on Friday in support of charter schools.
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Apryle Young-Lanier (center) stands with her two daughters after speaking at a rally at the National Civil Rights Museum.

In Memphis on Friday, Young-Lanier was among about 65 students, parents and education advocates who rallied in favor of school choice during a morning rally at the National Civil Rights Museum, a monument to Memphis’ proud but painful history in the crusade for racial equality.

“I think they have this cookie-cutter image of charter schools,” she said later of local charter critics. “I can’t speak for other cities. But here in Memphis, they work really well.”

Many disagree with that statement, and Shelby County Schools is seeking to sort out the facts.

The district came out with its first annual charter school report over the summer, showing a mixed bag of performance as the district seeks to better manage the burgeoning group.

iZone lite

How Memphis is taking lessons from its Innovation Zone to other struggling schools

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Sharon Griffin, now chief of schools for Shelby County Schools, confers with Laquita Tate, principal of Ford Road Elementary, part of the Innovation Zone during a 2016 visit.

One of the few qualms that Memphians have with Shelby County’s heralded school turnaround initiative is that more schools aren’t in it.

The district’s Innovation Zone has garnered national attention for its test score gains, but it’s expensive. Each iZone school requires an extra $600,000 annually to pay for interventions such as an extra hour in the school day, teacher signing and retention bonuses, and additional specialists for literacy, math and behavior.

But instead of just replicating the whole iZone model, the district is trying a few components on some of its other struggling schools.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Whitehaven High School is the anchor school for the Empowerment Zone, the first initiative to employ lessons learned from the iZone.

Last year, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson launched the Empowerment Zone, a scaled-down version of the iZone for five Whitehaven-area schools in danger of slipping to the lowest rankings in the state. The iZone’s most expensive part — one hour added to the school day — was excluded, but the district kept teacher pay incentives and principal freedoms. And teachers across the five schools meet regularly to share what’s working in their classrooms.

This year, district leaders are seeking to inject iZone lessons in 11 struggling schools that Hopson would rather transform than close. His team has been meeting with the principals of those “critical focus schools” to come up with customized plans to propel them out of the state’s list of lowest-performing schools.

As part of that effort, Hopson’s budget plan calls for providing $5.9 million in supports, including $600,000 for retention bonuses for top-ranked teachers at those schools. Spread across the 11 schools, that investment would shake out to about $100,000 less per school than what the iZone spends.

“We’re trying to provide targeted academic support based on the individual school needs. And that can include a lot of our learnings from the iZone as well as a host of other suggestions,” Hopson told school board members last month.

The iZone launched in 2012 and now has 21 schools in some of Memphis’ most impoverished neighborhoods. The initiative was thrust into the national spotlight after a 2015 Vanderbilt University study found the turnaround effort had outpaced test gains of similarly poor-performing Memphis schools in a state-run turnaround district.

Overseeing the iZone has been Sharon Griffin, the former principal who has become Hopson’s chief catalyst and ambassador on school improvements happening in Tennessee’s largest district. In January, he promoted Griffin from chief of the iZone to chief of schools for the entire district.

Griffin has long touted good leadership as the key to the iZone’s successes. The turnaround model relies on placing top principals in struggling schools and giving them the autonomy to recruit effective teachers to put in front of students. Academic supports and daily collaboration across iZone schools are also important tenets.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Shelby County Schools has branded its Innovation Zone to showcase one of its most successful initiatives.

In her new role, Griffin is trying to equip principals across the school system to carry out the district’s academic strategies and spread the iZone culture of leadership and collaboration districtwide.

The latest “critical focus” initiative represents the most significant investment so far to magnify the iZone model. It also shows the level of confidence that Hopson has in Griffin, her team, and their strategies.

“We recognize that if we truly want to turn around our schools, it can’t be just one teacher at a time. It has to be one team at a time,” Griffin said Monday. “And we know if we hire the most effective leader, they hire the most effective teachers, and we’re building a team and a cadre of greatness. … Human capital is going to be our secret weapon.”

As for which iZone components will be culled this spring for each of the 11 critical-focus areas schools, that’s under review. In keeping with the iZone model, those schools are being assessed to create a “school profile” that will determine the course for interventions. Among the possibilities: Adding staff, lengthening the school day, and ramping up after-school programs.

“We’re looking at all our schools and making sure that we’re not duplicating our resources. Then we’re taking additional resources and aligning them to one mission,” Griffin said. “ … We want to give our schools an opportunity to put their own spin on an aligned curriculum and professional development.”

The Fine Print

Why charter operators exiting Tennessee’s turnaround district can walk away

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Each of the state-run Achievement School District charter operators have an agreement that allows them to close for any reason.

When two charter school operators announced plans to leave Tennessee’s turnaround district this spring, many people were surprised that they could break their 10-year agreements.

“How could any charter management company come into a community and up and decide we’re not going to play anymore?” asked Quincey Morris, a lifelong resident of North Memphis, home to two schools that abruptly lost their charter operator.

But in Memphis and across the nation, there’s nothing to stop charter operators from leaving, even when they promise to be there for a long time.

Contracts signed by both Gestalt Community Schools and KIPP contain no penalties for exiting the Achievement School District before agreements run out, according to documents obtained by Chalkbeat.

And by design, that’s not unusual in the charter sector. For better or worse, operators are given that autonomy, according to Dirk Tillotson, a lawyer and founder of a charter incubation organization in California.

“There hasn’t been much attention paid to closures in the law,” Tillotson said of charter laws nationwide. “The laws are more forward-looking than backward-looking when things might blow up.”

That lack of clarity has suddenly started to matter a lot in Memphis, where charter schools are struggling to attract enough students to stay viable. Both KIPP and Gestalt blame their impending pullouts on under-enrollment — a challenge faced by more than half of the 31 Memphis schools operated by the ASD.

But having enough students wasn’t the focus when the ASD began taking over low-performing schools in 2012 and recruiting charter operators to turn them around. The assumption was that charter schools would have too many students and not enough seats, especially if those schools were under new management.

And their contracts reflected that line of thinking. The paperwork detailed how enrollment lotteries should be conducted if space remained after locally zoned students had registered. There was no guidance on what should happen if a school didn’t meet its enrollment goals — only that it would face a review if operating at less than 95 percent of projected enrollment under its budget.

As for the prospect of closure, the agreements don’t specify acceptable reasons for a charter operator to terminate its contract. Should that happen, the contracts say merely that the ASD has the authority to step in and conduct the school’s business and affairs.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Yetta Lewis, co-founder and CEO of Gestalt Community Schools, answers questions from parents and teachers during an October assembly at Humes Preparatory Academy Middle School.

The gaps in ASD’s charter agreements show how the state-run district was helpless to prevent Gestalt and KIPP from announcing last fall that they would back out of their contracts at the end of this school year. They also highlight the gaps in understanding by all parties of how the decreasing student population in Memphis would affect the ASD’s work. It’s expensive to turn around schools or open a new one in an area losing school-age students as impoverished families vacate; running them requires enough students and funding to provide necessary supports.

Katie Jones, a Memphis charter school principal and a former charter evaluator for the ASD, said none of this should have come as a surprise, though. She said the ASD should have been clear about expectations.

“There should be stipulations that say reasons why you can not pull out of a school… and under enrollment is one of them,” Jones wrote on Facebook.

But including early-exit penalties can have unintended consequences, said William Haft, a vice president with the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which has worked with both the ASD and Shelby County Schools to improve charter oversight.

“If they’re walking away, if they’re withdrawing from this commitment, then they’ve probably got a good reason to doing it,” Haft said. “Do you then want to try and force them (to stay open)? … I would want to be careful about setting up that situation.”

Bobby S. White, the ASD’s chief of external affairs, said adding penalties for closures could deter charter operators from taking on an already risky and challenging task to turn around schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent. It also would discourage operators from making a good-faith effort to stay open, as Gestalt did at first by running a deficit, he said.

“It would be insensitive for us to ignore what they’ve been dealing with to the detriment of their finances,” White said, adding the ASD plans to scrutinize enrollment projections more closely. “We have to be sensitive to the realities that shaped operators not being able to sustain the work.”

Still, there’s more at stake with turnaround districts like the ASD, said Morris, a Klondike alumna who is now executive director of the Klondike Smokey City Community Development Corp.

Most charter schools are new starts, but the bulk of the ASD’s charters are in existing schools that have struggled for years. In wresting control of them from their local district, the ASD and its operators promised to bring innovation and breathe new life into those schools and neighborhoods.

“They made promises that they didn’t keep,” Morris said, “and they disrupted our educational pattern.”