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.”

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.