Wanting the ball

Updated: Why one Memphis charter operator thinks it can save an ASD school from closing

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Frayser Community Schools CEO Bobby White makes his pitch to run Humes Preparatory Academy Middle School before community members and leaders of the state's Achievement School District.

Bobby White believes his charter organization has what it takes to save one of the state’s sinking turnaround schools in Memphis.

White says his Frayser Community Schools managed to grow enrollment of MLK College Preparatory High by 24 percent since taking charge of the Memphis school in 2014. He believes he can do the same for Humes Preparatory Academy Middle, another state-run school whose enrollment shrank by 13 percent last year alone.

The Memphis-based charter organization founded by White is the only operator that’s stepped forward and applied to succeed Gestalt Community Schools as overseer of Humes.

The state’s Achievement School District held a community meeting Wednesday night at the school to examine the application and ask questions of White and his team. About 40 people attended, and most questions centered around whether Frayser could bear the expense of running a second school, especially with Humes’ low enrollment.

If the ASD approves Frayser’s bid, the organization will have to grow the school’s enrollment while also turning it around academically — a challenge that Gestalt leaders said they had not been able to meet in five years of operating Humes.

Humes has just over 300 students in a space meant for 900 and is located in North Memphis, where the school-age population has decreased in recent years and forced Shelby County Schools to shutter Northside High School last year.

But White, a former Memphis City Schools principal, believes he can use the same recruitment strategies at Humes that helped his organization grow MLK to 640 students. Those include recruitment booths in grocery stores and community centers, targeted phone calls, and home visits.

“Representatives from the school will conduct promotional activities by speaking at those elementary schools that will feed into Humes,” according to Frayser’s application. “As a follow-up, FCS administrators, staff and volunteers will make neighborhood visits to areas likely to have high school aged children and knock on doors, distribute flyers and have informal conversations about the school.”

Currently, MLK is the only school operated by Frayser Community Schools, but White has said he wants to grow the organization. MLK’s state test scores have not improved, especially in math, but the school received an overall composite achievement score of 4 out of 5, and raised its ACT average by 1.6 points to 16.

Although Frayser is the only operator to apply, ASD officials say it’s not guaranteed a match. Leaders hope to have a decision by Feb. 1 after gauging public opinion and looking at Frayser’s application and data.

There’s also a chance that Humes could close. ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson announced earlier this week that Gestalt’s other state-run school, Klondike Preparatory Academy Middle, will close at the end of this school year. Anderson said that, just as with Klondike, the ASD would work with Shelby County Schools to reassign students to nearby schools if it decides to shutter Humes.

Here are some of the biggest takeaways from Frayser’s application for Humes, and the public hearing:

Building a neighborhood school.

White expects Humes would see an initial decrease, from 310 to 265 students, during the transition. But within five years, enrollment is projected to grow back to 300.

Humes would be marketed as a neighborhood school, which historically has been a pillar of the city’s public education system. Under state law, ASD schools also are allowed to recruit up to 25 percent of students from outside of their neighborhoods. But Frayser’s recruitment focus would be on students in the traditional zone, similar to its approach at MLK.

“What we did, in year one (for Humes), was we decided we were not going to count anything other than students that are currently zoned in the community,” White told Chalkbeat. “As we build a brand, two things will happen. When you start to build pride in community schools, the children who are currently in the neighborhood who are attending other schools will notice. We’re counting on that. We’re also counting on keeping kids who are current 5th graders in the neighborhood.”

Cut expenses, seek philanthropic support.

Gestalt leaders said their impending pullout is necessary because Humes’ student enrollment and related funding can’t pay for the supports needed to turn the school around. Frayser says it can run a leaner machine, albeit one that relies heavily on foundation dollars.

Frayser expects to receive $100,000 in philanthropic support from local organizations and foundations such as Pyramid Peak, Hyde Family and Poplar, according to its financial summary.

White said his team has run the numbers based on an enrollment ranging from 260 to 300 students, and that his charter operation could stay in the black.

ASD officials asked the Frayser team about their plan if philanthropic dollars fall through.

“We do depend on philanthropy and have done so in past,” said Jeffrey Gayhart, who is in charge of finances for Frayser. “We do feel very confident that the $100,000 in the budget is understated. If philanthropy doesn’t come through, Mr. White and I would comb through the budget and prioritize items that could be cut, especially those that don’t affect student outcomes.”

Teachers and staff

Humes principal John Crutchfield would be retained, which would help ease the transition and community-building process. Teachers would have to reapply for 24 positions expected during the first year, but any teacher recommended by Crutchfield would get priority.

Those not coming on board would be provided the information for next steps as well but would be expected to stay for the duration of the current school year,” according to Frayser’s application. “Although we do not anticipate teachers not returning, we do have a pool of qualified substitutes to ensure proper coverage in case there is a number of folks who resign and capable replacements cannot be secured before the year ends.”

Teacher pay at Humes would take a hit — a projected decrease that prompted Anderson to ask how Frayser planned to retain highly effective teachers when “the proposed salaries look very different than what’s currently at this school.”

“When people apply, that’s when we’ll have a better understanding of what we’ll be able to do,” White answered.

The meeting allowed people to ask questions of both ASD and Frayser leaders. Several spoke in support of Frayser Community Schools, including Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love, who has children who attend MLK.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with details from Wednesday night’s community meeting.

Overlapping

One campus, two districts: Memphis Raleigh-Egypt navigates enrollment standoff

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A red line on a hallway floor is designed to separate middle school students from those in upper grades at the newly reconfigured Raleigh-Egypt High School.

As the morning bell approaches, students file into Raleigh-Egypt High School, which last fall began accepting middle schoolers too. About 45 minutes later, the same drill happens just yards away at neighboring Memphis Scholars Raleigh-Egypt, a middle school operated by a charter network.

The Memphis campus is unique, serving two schools — and two districts. Raleigh-Egypt High is operated by Shelby County Schools. The middle school is run by Memphis Scholars through the state-run Achievement School District.

Both are low-performing schools. But the goal lately hasn’t been just about improving academics. Neighborhoods that feed the schools have turned into a battlefield for student enrollment in the city’s Raleigh community.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
The new sign for Memphis Scholars Raleigh-Egypt is hung near the faded letters of the school’s former middle school name under Shelby County Schools.

Memphis Scholars, which previously was part of national charter network Scholar Academies, reopened the former Raleigh-Egypt Middle School in August with the goal of turning it around following a state takeover from Shelby County Schools. But in an unprecedented move to retain students and funding, the local school board voted last spring to reconfigure the neighboring high school to include middle school grades.

The decisions set the stage for a battle to recruit middle schoolers to both schools. At Raleigh-Egypt High, Principal James “Bo” Griffin and his team took to the streets by talking about the transition to civic groups, neighborhood pastors and elected officials. At the middle school, Memphis Scholars and the Memphis Lift school choice advocacy group hosted parent meetings and invited families to talk with administrators about the changes.

So far, the middle school is losing the enrollment battle. Memphis Scholars had expected to have 500 students at opening, but has only 200. Raleigh-Egypt High, meanwhile, registered 280 middle schoolers, increasing the school’s total enrollment to 900 in a building meant for some 1,250 students.

As a result, the charter operator’s turnaround challenge also has become an enrollment challenge — one being experienced by many of the ASD’s 13 operators. More than half of the state district’s buildings operate at 50 percent capacity or less.

Meanwhile, Shelby County Schools’ aggressive strategy appears to be working. The local district managed this year to keep some students from moving to the ASD, which has expanded annually since 2012 at the expense of the local district.

Parents are also getting more public school choices for their children.

But nobody seems to be particularly happy about the setup.

“The people who are losing are these kids,” said Griffin at Raleigh-Egypt High. “We all have good ideas but we all need to be on the same page.”

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Jerry Sanders, director for Memphis Scholars Raleigh-Egypt, talk about the charter school’s academic offerings.

Jerry Sanders, who came aboard last year as middle school’s principal, is trying to keep his team focused. “I’m more concerned with the academics they’re receiving rather than who’s giving it to them,” said Sanders, a former Memphis City Schools teacher and instructional leader with KIPP Memphis Collegiate High School.

The unique arrangement has tested both districts.

When enrollment is down, it’s harder to fund the level of supports needed to turn around a school. Under-enrollment has been cited as the reason for impending pullouts of three ASD schools this year by two charter operators, Gestalt Community Schools and KIPP.

But Memphis Scholars Executive Director Nick Patterson said Tuesday that his organization has no plans leave the Raleigh middle school, even with the drop in enrollment.

“We were proactive in the way we forecast our enrollment,” Patterson said of projections made by Memphis Scholars after Shelby County Schools announced the high school’s reconfigured grades. “Doesn’t mean we’re content with that.”

Shelby County Schools, meanwhile, received a stern lecture from state officials for its chess move last spring.

“We are certainly disappointed in the implied reason behind the possible grade configuration change in the Raleigh-Egypt schools,” said a statement from the Tennessee Department of Education. “(Local districts) may, of course, expand school options for students, but considering a reconfiguration in an attempt to divert students from an ASD school is contrary to the intent of state school turnaround policy.”

For two districts to share a campus is not unprecedented in Memphis. Freedom Preparatory Academy, a charter network with schools authorized by both Shelby County Schools and the ASD, has one of each at its Westwood campus. But in that case, the schools are under the same operator.

At Raleigh-Egypt, things get a bit trickier with two operators. The campus has its auditorium in the middle school. And the two schools also must share sports fields between them.

Both principals agree that the relationship has been cordial, though.

“We’re able to communicate to get what the kids need,” Sanders said.

Pass

The ASD once said it could save these two Memphis schools. Why is its own operator now walking away?

PHOTO: Brandon Dill/The Commercial Appeal
Tim Ware, who leads the state-run Achievement Schools in Memphis, talks with Whitney Achievement Elementary School Principal Debra Broughton during a 2015 meeting.

After a charter operator abruptly announced plans to pull out of running two Memphis schools in Tennessee’s Achievement School District, leaders of the state-run turnaround initiative faced a wrenching decision.

Should they run the schools directly, using their own management group, Achievement Schools? After all, Achievement Schools already is running five similar schools nearby, and the ASD was designed to improve schools in crisis.

Or should they join other ASD charter operators in declining to rescue Klondike Preparatory Elementary and Humes Preparatory Middle schools?

After crunching the numbers, they went with the second option. A different operator has applied to step in at Humes at the end of this school year, but Klondike will become the first school in the ASD to close.

The impending closure raises questions about why the state entity that promised to catapult struggling schools to excellence is instead letting at least one die. The answers lie largely in a persistent complaint among nonprofit charter operators running ASD schools in Memphis: There simply aren’t enough students to go around.

“We did our due diligence in looking at the finances and honestly we could not make it work,” ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson told Klondike parents last week. “We couldn’t provide a breadth of services here with the number of students available.”

Klondike has 135 students, even though it can enroll up to 750. At Humes, just 315 students attend class in a building designed for 900. A combination of strict rules that limit student recruitment and a dwindling school-age population have left the schools struggling to attract students — damaging not only their mission, but also their chief source of funding.

To operate both schools, Achievement Schools Executive Director Tim Ware said balancing the budget would require slashing teacher training, after-school instruction, and programs to help poor students.

“When you strip education down to those bare bones, there’s real questions about the value of that education,” Ware said. “It costs extra money to take a school that’s challenged to create the necessary supports to turn it around.”

Officials in Shelby County Schools, the local district that previously ran the schools, already had drawn the same conclusion. The district has been pouring millions of federal and philanthropic dollars into 21 struggling schools through a turnaround initiative known as the Innovation Zone, allowing them to add extra services for students and training for teachers.

The local district also has about 22,000 more seats than students, and it recently kicked off a process to bring those two numbers in line by closing and consolidating schools.

The dynamic is not unique to Memphis, according to Ethan Gray, whose nonprofit, Education Cities, helps cities plan for the future. He said charter operators like KIPP, which is pulling out of another ASD school this spring, are learning that success in some cities might not easily be replicated in others.

“There are a number of cities that are facing declining enrollment issues where the economics of opening and running schools is really, really hard,” Gray said.

“The reality for a lot of [charter operators] that are being recruited by cities is that the conditions have to be favorable for them to set up shop and run schools that are effective economically and academically,” he added.

In Memphis, where the ASD operates 31 schools, it doesn’t appear that those conditions are in place. That raises another question about the state entity: Shouldn’t it have seen these demographic challenges coming?

Some local officials say yes — and that Tennessee shouldn’t have made the bold school-improvement promises it did without solutions.

“This goes back to the heart of the original problem. Dwindling enrollment, small schools,” said David Reaves, a former school board member who now sits on the Shelby County Board of Commissioners and has long been critical of the ASD. “The state thought the best thing was to bring in a charter operator to grow the school. But the reality is the school population isn’t there.”