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.”

iZone expansion

Raleigh-Egypt would join Memphis Innovation Zone under Hopson budget

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar
Raleigh-Egypt High School Principal Bo Griffin talks with students in the school’s hallways in 2016.

Shelby County’s high-profile school turnaround program, which is also one of its more expensive initiatives, would grow this fall by two more schools under Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s proposed budget.

Raleigh-Egypt Middle-High School emerged this week as a second school planned for the Innovation Zone. The superintendent already had tagged Sheffield Elementary to enter the transformation model.

If Hopson’s budget passes, the iZone would grow to 23 schools — all of which seek to significantly increase student scores through intense interventions such as extending the school day by one hour.

The annual cost to have both schools in the iZone is $1.4 million, which is higher than the usual $600,000-per-school price tag. That’s because of Raleigh-Egypt’s expanded grades and Sheffield’s higher-than-average population of English learners, said Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin.

“We’re in a unique position this year because of the additional funds,” Griffin said of the district’s balanced budget. “And we want to make sure we’re supporting schools, not just when they get totally critical like what has been the history of iZone schools ready for takeover, but to put some supports in place to support them before they are extremely critical.”

The proposed expansion would be the iZone’s first in the Raleigh and Parkway Village communities of Memphis.

Griffin said American Way Middle and Sheffield High are likely iZone candidates for the following year to complete Sheffield Elementary’s feeder pattern.

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.

Raleigh-Egypt has been under a microscope since 2012 when the high school made the state’s “priority school” list of its 5 percent lowest-performing schools. In 2015, the school almost was taken over by the state-run Achievement School District but was spared at the 11th hour when academic growth exceeded expectations.

This school year, Shelby County leaders reconfigured the high school to include middle school grades after the ASD took control of nearby Raleigh-Egypt Middle School and assigned it to a charter operator. That maneuver allowed the local district to retain more than half of the middle school students and funding that it would have lost to the state-run district.

Raleigh-Egypt Middle-High School has about 900 students.

Sharon Griffin said no decision has been made about whether to retain Principal Bo Griffin, who has led Raleigh-Egypt High’s academic growth since 2014, in its transition to the iZone.

Raleigh-Egypt Middle School was briefly considered as a candidate for the iZone last year as leaders of the local and state-run districts tried to avoid having two middle schools on the same campus. But the idea was abandoned.

school improvement

Tennessee reveals quicker exit plan for schools in the Achievement School District

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Achievement School District Superintendent Malika Anderson presents an update on the school turnaround district to the State Board of Education.

Achievement School District Superintendent Malika Anderson gets the same question over and over: How can a school get out of Tennessee’s turnaround district, which the state created in 2010 to fix low-performing schools?

Now, for the first time, she has some concrete answers.

A school will return to its local district if it improves and stays off of two consecutive “priority lists” of the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools.

But a school also will be released if it continues to struggle under the ASD and makes the priority list two more times.

The maximum a school can stay in the state-run district is 10 years.

“Our commitment is high and true to the schools that we serve,” Anderson told the State Board of Education Thursday in Nashville. “The role of the ASD is to intervene swiftly in the lowest-performing schools in the state, improve them and return them to local oversight.”

The details are significant because they allow schools to return to their local districts sooner and more easily than previously outlined by the state.

The changes are part of Tennessee’s new school improvement plan in response to a new federal education law called the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. The revised approach also gives districts more time before their schools can be taken over by the state — and more input into how and when that happens.

“We are really moving from what we call a ‘start-up phase’ of the Achievement School District to a more sustainable phase,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, adding that the ASD remains the state’s “most rigorous intervention.”

When district leaders in Memphis asked for clarity on an exit plan last year, it appeared that schools could remain in the ASD in perpetuity, returning only if they sustained improvement for at least nine years. Memphis is home to all but two of the state-run district’s 33 schools, many of which have lagged behind schools in Shelby County’s own turnaround program.

Anderson told the State Board that the state-run district has been an important player in Tennessee’s school improvement strategy, and has pushed local districts to do more for their lowest-performing schools than ever before.

“The catalytic effect of the ASD is real,” she said.