in limbo

With charter operator’s exit, Achievement School District mulls future for Memphis schools left behind

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Bobby White, chief of external affairs for the Achievement School District, presents options for the future of two North Memphis charter schools currently operated by Gestalt Community Schools.

Leaders of Tennessee’s Achievement School District are giving parents and teachers notice that two Memphis charter schools are in limbo with the exit next spring of Gestalt Community Schools as their operator.

The possibilities range from replacing Gestalt with one or more operators, to shifting management directly to the state-run district, to closing one or both schools and transferring students to other schools.

Whatever path is chosen, ASD leaders have set a Dec. 9 deadline to make a decision “to give parents and teachers alike enough time to make informed decision,” said Bobby White, chief of external affairs.

ASD leaders laid out the options during two meetings Monday with parents and teachers at Humes Preparatory Academy Middle and Klondike Preparatory Academy Elementary.

Earlier this month, leaders of Memphis-based Gestalt announced plans to pull out of the two schools at the end of the school year. They cited chronic low enrollment as the chief reason. The network is the first to exit operations of an existing ASD school since 2012 when the turnaround district began to take control of low-performing schools, usually assigning them to charter operators.

“We’ve seen a 15 percent enrollment drop each year since we started at the schools,” CEO Yetta Lewis told Chalkbeat on Monday. “We tried new tactics, but the population of North Memphis keeps declining. We couldn’t provide the quality of education we wanted.”

This year, Klondike has about 200 students and operates at 33 percent of building capacity, while Humes has 320 students, which is about 69 percent of its capacity. The changing demographics of North Memphis also contributed to Shelby County Schools’ decision to close Northside High School earlier this year. Several other schools in the community are under-enrolled as well.

Shelby County Schools board member Teresa Jones, who was present at the Humes meeting Monday night, told Chalkbeat that the decline has been gradual. “It didn’t just happen last year. … It’s always been the case, even before Gestalt moved in,” she said.

Gestalt’s departure — after five years of operating Humes and four years at Klondike — as well as the population decline in North Memphis, will make it challenging for other charter operators to jump into the fray. Superintendent Malika Anderson told parents at Humes that the ASD is “racing” to vet operator candidates and that options eventually will be presented to a committee comprised of Humes and Klondike stakeholders.

Another option is for the ASD, which currently operates five schools under the management of its Achievement Schools, to step in and run one or both of the schools itself. The two schools also could be combined into a single K-8 school.

"Despite the reduction in school-age students in this neighborhood, the ASD made a commitment that every child here deserves an excellent neighborhood school."Malika Anderson, ASD superintendent

One idea not on the table is returning the schools to Shelby County Schools next year. The state wrested their control from the local district because the schools were on the state’s priority list of the bottom 5 percent of Tennessee schools. Anderson told parents that the schools would be returned to Shelby County Schools only after they’ve been off the state’s priority list for two consecutive years.

“Despite the reduction in school-age students in this neighborhood, the ASD made a commitment that every child here deserves an excellent neighborhood school,” Anderson said.

Parents spoke up during the meetings and urged ASD leaders to keep their schools open, as well as their students’ teachers in place.

“My daughter could have gone to any school, but they chose here,” said Humes parent Hilarie Barch. “This school has the most highly educated, most qualified staff I have ever seen. And my kids have attended private and optional schools. You’ve got to keep the staff.”

White told parents that charter operators have full control over decisions regarding staffing and school culture.

“This is just a rehearsal,” he said. “When operators are identified or express interest, we’ll ensure that you have the opportunity to share the same things we’ve heard tonight.”

lessons learned

Vacant homes, enrollment cap: Gestalt’s CEO on why one of the ASD’s first charter operators is also the first out

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.

Gestalt Community Schools CEO Yetta Lewis says it was a hard decision for the Memphis-based charter network to step away from two state-run schools in its hometown.

Gestalt was an early investor in Tennessee’s unprecedented school turnaround initiative. The network was among the first to sign up for the tough task through the Achievement School District, which launched in Memphis in 2012. But last month, Gestalt also became the initiative’s first operator to announce plans to exit the state-run district.

Left behind will be the students, teachers and neighborhoods of Humes Preparatory Academy Middle and Klondike Preparatory Academy Elementary schools, who are waiting to learn their fate after Gestalt’s departure at the end of this school year.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, Lewis puts the blame for the pullout squarely on chronic under-enrollment borne from declining population in North Memphis and exacerbated by the ASD’s state-imposed cap on out-of-zone enrollment. She says even a 2015 state law that allowed ASD schools to enroll up to 25 percent of their students from outside of their neighborhoods was not enough to keep Gestalt in the game.

In a recent Q&A, Lewis talks about Gestalt’s pullout, its challenges as a state-authorized charter operator, and what its leaders have learned during its years with the Achievement School District.

Here are some of the highlights, which have been condensed for brevity:

What led to the decision to leave the ASD?

It’s about enrollment. We are starting our fourth year at Klondike and our fifth year at Humes. We’ve seen a 15 percent decrease in enrollment each year. We keep trying something new or different but came to realize that over the last four years, people have moved pretty steadily out of North Memphis. There are rows of vacant homes. The school-age population has dropped by 35 percent. Klondike is on the same road as Northside High School (which was closed over the summer by Shelby County Schools), so we knew we weren’t the only schools in that area facing this challenge. We don’t have the capacity to take the loss of two schools on enrollment.

When did you loop in the ASD on your decision? What came next?

Our first official conversation was in October. We were hoping for a big push in enrollment this year. But after Labor Day, we could see that the numbers weren’t going to turn around. When we know something definite, we want to tell our stakeholders as soon as we possibly can. We don’t have a solution on what’s next for these schools, but we want those stakeholders to be involved in the decision-making process. (ASD officials then held meetings with Humes and Klondike parents and faculty in partnership with Gestalt. They’ve set a Dec. 9 deadline to decide their fate in order “to give parents and teachers alike enough time to make informed decision,” said Bobby White, chief of external affairs.)

After this school year, you’ll still have four schools authorized under Shelby County Schools. What are the biggest differences in operating in the ASD vs. SCS?

Turnaround work changed everything for us, but it’s not easy. Not getting a list of eligible students from Shelby County Schools made it difficult (for our ASD schools). We had 180 students on a list for middle school last year, but this year we didn’t receive any list. That was a struggle for us. The list was some level of contact for us. It was a very big challenge to get what we needed. If there’s anything I could change about the ASD, it’d be the ability to have a working list of eligible kids.

Another big difference is the enrollment cap for ASD schools. The population of North Memphis is declining, leaving fewer and fewer students in our zone. But we had families from outside of North Memphis who wanted the Gestalt experience. It’s a big difference for us that the enrollment restraints aren’t there when we open schools under Shelby County Schools.

Would you open another charter school with the ASD in the future?

If conditions were different with enrollment, we would consider operating with the ASD again. We don’t open a school for the sake of growth. When we opened ASD schools, we saw a need for what we do. But enrollment numbers over the years have made it really hard to do what we do. We provide one-to-one technology, a computer for every scholar. We provide every student with a uniform. It’s expensive, and we didn’t have the numbers in North Memphis for our program to be sustainable there. Our program provides educational support that every child deserves.

What are some of the biggest lessons Gestalt has learned in its school turnaround work with the ASD?

Our teacher-leadership program. That wouldn’t have happened without turnaround work. The ASD experience really showed us the value of cultivating teacher leaders in our schools, and we have a program in place now.

Also, our community partnerships, such as Behavior Services MidSouth, Communities in Schools, and Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital. Our work with the ASD taught us how it’s not enough to provide strong academics, but you need strong social and emotional infrastructure as well. Community partners in our schools help us to do the work to serve the whole child. And that’s ultimately the biggest lesson, that we want our kids to feel known, loved, supported and educated.

ASD copycats

Tennessee’s school turnaround leader weighs in on Georgia’s rebuff of similar model

PHOTO: TN.gov
Malika Anderson is superintendent of the Achievement School District in Tennessee.

Georgia voters soundly rejected a proposal to create their own version of Tennessee’s school-turnaround district this week. But the leader of Tennessee’s effort said Wednesday that the vote shouldn’t be the final word there on creating alternatives for failing public schools.

“While Georgia citizens voted not to implement the Opportunity School District, it is my hope that the voters, schools, and the legislature remain committed to great school options for all students,” said Malika Anderson, superintendent of Tennessee’s Achievement School District, or ASD.

The amendment, on Georgia’s ballot Tuesday, would have allowed the state to assume control of struggling local schools and the taxpayer money funding them. Backed by Gov. Nathan Deal, the Opportunity School District would have been partly modeled after the state-run ASD, launched in 2012 to intervene in Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools with the goal of quickly turning them around. The ASD relies mostly on charter-school operators for its work, and results so far have been mixed in Memphis and Nashville.

But the proposal in Georgia was defeated Tuesday by a 60-40 margin, after opponents raised more than $4 million for television ads telling voters that schools and funding should remain under local control.

Anderson participated in several forums leading up to Election Day to help Georgia voters understand the ASD’s role in Tennessee. She has called the district a “catalyst” for academic improvement in Tennessee.

“Just like in Tennessee, Georgia students deserve access to high-quality schools in every neighborhood,” she said.

Nevada, North Carolina and Pennsylvania are among other states that recently have created, or are considering creating, similar school turnaround districts.

Here is a sampling of Chalkbeat stories about the ASD in Tennessee: