Shelby County Schools

Shelby County Schools approves two charter applications, foreshadows district-wide performance system

Gestalt Community Schools will soon be running two new charter schools in Memphis—one in Hickory Hill, and one in the renovated Crosstown building—while 11 other groups that had hoped to open new schools are back to the drawing board after the Shelby County school board’s business meeting on Tuesday.

Shelby County Schools chief innovation officer Bradley Leon presented the status of all charter school applications the district had received and introduced a plan to take a new approach toward evaluating charter and non-charter schools. 

In his presentation to the board, Leon demonstrated a performance framework used to evaluate schools in the district’s Innovation Zone, a group of turnaround schools that aim to bring schools ranked in the bottom 5 percent in the state up to the top 25 percent. “We need something like this for charter schools, and for every school in the district,” he said. Using the current Innovation Zone template, he said, it’s clear that “some [charter] schools are making progress, others are not.” 

He said having that framework would also help evaluate applications from organizations that already run schools.

As the number of charter schools in Shelby County, and the number of students attending those schools, has grown dramatically in recent years, Shelby County Schools officials—and state and national advocacy groups—are starting to discuss ways to ensure the quality of the publicly-funded, independently-operated schools and even close low-performing schools.

This year, the district received 13 applications for charter schools, and three more letters of intent to apply that were never completed, Leon said. Each application was ranked based on its financial, academic, and operations plans and capacity and additional information.

Applicants whose charters were not approved got feedback on their plans, Leon said. Applicants have until June 26, 2014 to resubmit their applications to Shelby County Schools. The board will then hear the district’s next recommendation in July.

It’s not unusual for applicants rejected in the initial round by Shelby County Schools to later apply successfully after responding to feedback and questions, said district spokeswoman Stefani Everson.

This is not the last step for organizations hoping to open charter schools in Memphis: A new law means that even those applications that are rejected after resubmitting their applications can appeal the decision to the state’s board of education. And the state-run Achievement School District also authorizes charter schools in the city.

Shelby County Schools received charter applications from local groups such as Memphis Goodwill Industries and national operators such as Aspire Public Schools, which runs schools in California and is part of the Achievement School District.

Leon referred to Memphis-based Gestalt’s application as a “replication”—Gestalt already runs several charter schools in the district. That means Shelby County can evaluate the performance of existing Gestalt schools in Memphis when considering whether to open new schools. Leon said Gestalt is the highest-performing charter school in the state of Tennessee.

Crosstown Academy plans to open a 9th grade in 2015-16 and eventually enroll 700 high schoolers. Power Center Academy Elementary would operate a kindergarten and first grade in 2015-16 and eventually enroll 750 elementary schoolers. 

The board unanimously approved the district’s recommendations to approve Gestalt’s applications and deny the rest.


Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”