Shelby County Schools next fall will slam the brakes on its practice of sharing buildings with Achievement School District charter schools, pulling hundreds of students out of up to 10 schools that otherwise would be co-located with charters, Chalkbeat has learned.

District administrators say the move to end colocation is academically motivated. But it could also benefit the school district by slowing the steady exodus of students from SCS schools to the state-controlled ASD charters. It would also uproot several well-established school communities throughout Memphis and leave some school buildings with just a handful of charter school students in them.

Some ASD charter school operators take over low-performing schools a grade at a time. This practice, known as “phasing in,”allows charters to adjust their teaching model to local conditions as needed, and to share innovative strategies with traditional public school educators, according to charter leaders. Charter students at phase-in schools averaged 22 point gains in reading and 16 point gains in math, ASD officials said.

But colocation has led to morale, recruitment and retention problems among principals and teachers who work for traditional public schools, and who know their jobs will be phased out, said Brad Leon, the district’s chief innovation officer. This has hurt test scores in those schools, Leon said.

“We want our staff focused on student achievement,” Leon said. “We want them focused on the task at hand.”

Ending the colocation practice next year means a significant portion of students and teachers at Shannon, Westwood and Spring Hill elementary schools and Cory and Lester middle schools will be moved to other campuses.

If the ASD follows through with taking over Airways, A. Maceo Walker middle schools and Hawkins Mill, Brookmeade and Denver Elementary schools–all schools in which charter operators are considering phasing in at a grade at a time – students and teachers in the upper grades at those schools now will also be moved.

SCS administrators will present a proposal to board members at the next board meeting,  Nov. 18,detailing plans for those students.

ASD officials said they will not back away from its plans to phase-in charter schools, even if there will be no other students in the building.

“From the beginning, our goal has been to recruit, authorize, match, and hold accountable the best public charter operators locally and nationally,” said Elliot Smalley, the ASD’s chief of staff.  “They have different models, all of which are designed to get them to running whole schools—schools that serve all students—with success.”

The practice of colocation has  led to raucous debates across the country, where charter advocates have fought with traditional public school supporters over who pays the utility bills, how much space a school gets, and issues of overcrowding.

In Memphis, ASD charters and public schools sign a colocation agreement at the beginning of the year in which they decide which wings of the building belong to which school and who pays the school’s utility bills .

At Westwood Elementary, a building where Freedom Prep charter school took over kindergarten and first grades this fall, there have been a few colocation glitches. One occurred when SCS custodians turned off the air conditioner over the weekend while Freedom Prep teachers were working,  said Roblin Webb, the executive director and founder of Freedom Prep.

Overall,  though, the relationship has been cordial so far.

When Memphis Mayor A C Wharton came to the school this week to read to students at Westwood Elementary, their teachers invited Freedom Prep students to join the gathering.

“I told the principal at the beginning of the year, we’re both here for the same reason,” Webb said.  “We want to offer these kids the best education possible.”

Even with Shelby County administrators’ decision this week to end colocation, Webb said Freedom Prep doesn’t anticipate losing too many students.

YES Prep, a charter school based in Houston that hopes to take over the sixth grade classes at A. Maceo Walker, Airways and American Way middle schools next year, sees colocation as an opportunity for public and charter schools to work together, said Bill Durbin, who is leading Yes Prep’s expansion to Memphis.

In Texas, the charter has gained national attention for its collaboration with public schools. Yes Prep students and traditional public school students play for the same sports teams ,and teachers share best practices and sit through professional development training together.

“There are things public schools can learn from charter schools and there are things we can learn from them,” Durbin said.

Correction: This story originally left out Airways Middle School as a school which YES Prep hopes to take over.

 For more information on the takeover process, visit our interactive page here.

Tajuana Cheshier contributed to this story.  

Contact Daarel Burnette II at dburnette@chalkbeat.org or 901-260-3705.

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