YES Prep

YES Prep charter school organization pulls out of Memphis at 11th hour

PHOTO: T. Cheshier
Students mill outside of Airways Middle School in Memphis after dismissal. The school has been scheduled to be co-operated next school year by Yes Prep Public Schools and Shelby County Schools, but Yes Prep charter leaders pulled out of the deal on Tuesday.

YES Prep Public Schools, a nationally known charter management organization based in Houston, Texas, is pulling out of Memphis, where it had been scheduled to begin taking over a struggling middle school this August, the state’s Achievement School District (ASD) announced Wednesday.

ASD officials received word Tuesday from YES Prep leaders about their decision to withdraw from launching a single-grade, phase-in school at Airways Middle School in south Memphis, beginning with a class of sixth-graders this fall. About 100 students were enrolled to participate.

“We are as surprised as everyone else by this sudden decision and disappointed YES Prep is backing out of its commitment to Memphis,” the ASD said in a news release. “The sixth-grade families of Airways Middle deserve better, and we’re committed to working with Shelby County Schools to ensure they have access to a high-quality option next year.”

Contacted by Chalkbeat, YES Prep leaders said Wednesday that the organization’s departure is due to inadequate community support in Memphis, an increasing political shift against the ASD, and structural challenges in the ASD model. But the nail in the coffin was when Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson announced earlier this year that the district no longer would participate in co-locations – a model that YES Prep is built on – in which a charter school takes over a school grade by grade while the existing school district operates the remaining grades. Hopson said the model was unsustainable.

“The city doesn’t like the idea of phasing into schools,” explained Bill Durbin, the superintendent of YES Prep’s Memphis initiative.

YES Prep is the fourth charter management organization to pull out of the takeover process in Memphis in the last year. KIPP, Freedom Prep and Green Dot withdrew from the school “matching process” after being authorized to become Memphis charter operators by the ASD.

“Not everyone is cut out for this work,” said the ASD, the state’s program for turning around the bottom 5 percent of Tennessee schools. “We applaud YES Prep’s success with underserved communities in new, open-enrollment charter schools. But their decision today makes clear that YES Prep is not prepared to take on the urgent, more difficult work of turning around neighborhood schools in Memphis. And we wish that they would have come to this conclusion much sooner because this sudden decision puts Airways families in a difficult position for next year.”

Hopson expressed surprise and frustration over YES Prep’s departure. “I’m disappointed to go through a full process and to get the community stirred up and then, literally, at the 11-and-a-half hour, they change course,” he said.

The transition of Airways Middle to a charter organization angered many Memphians, prompting protests from parents, students and teachers who made “No Prep Zone” their rallying cry.

YES Prep is known for its work of getting hundreds of poor students into college. The organization has more than 9,000 students in Houston and another 6,000 youngsters on the waiting list.

“They’re one of the best charter management organizations in the country. … That’s why we wanted them to be here,” ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic told Chalkbeat. “But they’ve done this in open-enrollment environments. This turnaround work is different. Not every charter organization is cut out to do this work.”

Barbic, among the founders of YES Prep before coming to Tennessee in 2011 to oversee the ASD, said he was “frankly angry” about the timing of YES Prep’s decision. “This story is about YES Prep having two years to plan a single-grade school, and making a decision two months before to pull out,” he said.

The ASD and Shelby County Schools now must decide what to do next with Airways Middle.

“We have 14 other operators doing great work, and we’ll get this done without [YES Prep]. And we’ll move forward,” Barbic said. “We’ve built a solid foundation in the last three years. This is a step back, but we’ll move forward.

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

Follow us on Twitter: @Daarel, @chalkbeattn.

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parent power

From Amazon to air conditioners, parent leaders quizzed de Blasio and Carranza at forum

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza host a forum for parents in Queens, the first of five stops across the city.

Deborah Alexander, a parent whose school district covers Long Island City, asked Mayor Bill de Blasio Wednesday night why the local Community Education Council wasn’t asked to be on a committee providing input on Amazon’s controversial move to the Queens neighborhood.

De Blasio agreed. “You’re right,” the mayor said,  “the CEC should be on the committee, so we’re going to put the CEC on that committee.”

Not every question received such a cut-and-dry answer at the mayor and Chancellor Richard Carranza’s first “parent empowerment” listening tour event in Queens that drew about 200 local parents who were elected or appointed to certain boards and received invites. The pair faced a host of tough questions from parent leaders about problems including school overcrowding, the lack of air conditioners, lead in water, and busing.

By the end of the meeting, de Blasio told the audience that they should always get quick responses to their questions from the department and “that you can feel the impact of your involvement…that’s up to us to help that happen.”

He also called the listening tour “overdue,” and said that Carranza has told him the city needs to do more to reach out. Parents have often criticized city officials for not being plugged into the community.

Some questions needed more time to be answered. Bethany Thomas, co-president of the PTA at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, asked why the education department had not yet signed off on aspects of the school’s plan to have more than one principal. De Blasio asked Carranza to come up with an answer by next month.

Another parent said students at P.S. 62 were drinking from school water fountains that tested positive for lead last year, even though, according to the parent, the issue had not been addressed. De Blasio asked city officials to visit the school Thursday.

Other comments were even more complicated, often causing de Blasio and Carranza to rush parents along and condense comments to one specific issue. One Asian parent, who serves on a middle school’s PTA, gave an impassioned speech about feeling like “the enemy” after de Blasio announced a proposal in June to scrap the specialized high schools admissions test in order to diversify the schools. Currently 62 percent of specialized high school students are Asian.

“This was not about saying anyone is the bad guy,” de Blasio said, who has defended the plan as a way to bring more black and Hispanic students to those high schools.

Several parents asked why their schools still don’t have air conditioners. After de Blasio and Carranza said there is a plan to put air conditioners in every school by 2021, a mother with children at John Adams High School tearfully explained that her children will be out of school by then.

Carranza said he understood her problem, and the department would follow up, but that electrical wiring at each building makes it tough to solve the problem sooner than planned.

Alexander — the parent who asked about Amazon — questioned Carranza and de Blasio about how parent feedback would be used. She talked about the resolutions her Community Education Council passes that never get responses or feedback from the education department.

“We come, all of us, unpaid, away from our families, away from our jobs, away from bed times and dinners,” Alexander said. “We want to know what we’re doing is impactful, not a checked box.”

De Blasio said the city owes her “a process,” and department officials should respond in “real-time” — which could mean a couple of weeks. Carranza and de Blasio pledged to get a report of the meeting back to the parent leaders, noting how city leaders are following up with concerns.

elected school board

In Chicago, not everyone agrees with the grassroots call for an elected school board

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum on the city's next mayor and public schools included, from left, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, Daniel Anello, Jitu Brown, and Beth Swanson

Despite a growing call for an elected school board, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to Chicago’s troubled public school system.

Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum Wednesday evening split on whether an elected school board would offer more public accountability, especially given concerns that factions such as the teachers union would out-organize, and outspend, other candidates.

Daniel Anello, the CEO of school choice group Kids First, said he worried that an election determined by the size of campaign spending wouldn’t necessarily produce a board responsive to student and family needs.

“You need a school board that is representative of the communities we are talking about, but I worry if you take away accountability from the mayor, the mayor can absolve themselves of schools,” said Anello, noting his worries about big money entering a school board election. “My concern is that it is going to turn into a proxy war of ideology.”  

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
The crowd at the Chalkbeat Chicago Education for All event at Malcolm X College

The conversation was part of a larger discussion, hosted by Chalkbeat Chicago and sponsored by a new AT&T economic development initiative called Believe Chicago, about the next mayoral election and the future of city schools. Of the leading mayoral candidates who were invited, Lori Lightfoot and Paul Vallas attended.

The evening produced little agreement, except that school quality still differs dramatically by the address and race of students, and that the next mayor needs to be willing to have difficult, and even confrontational, conversations.

In addition to Anello, the panelists included Elizabeth Swanson, the vice president of strategy and programs at the Joyce Foundation and the former deputy chief of staff for education for outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel; community organizer Jitu Brown, who led the 2013 hunger strike that saved Dyett High School; and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a county commissioner and newly elected member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Brown, who is the national director for the community education group Journey for Justice, made an impassioned plea for an elected school board, calling it one of the few pathways for communities of color to regain any influence over an education system he argued wasn’t working for them.

“In order for us to hold a system that has never loved us accountable, we must have democracy, we must have decision-making authority around how these institutions function in our community,” Brown said. “Is this a silver bullet? No. But is it a necessary ingredient? Yes.”

Another burning question raised during the night:. Should homegrown schools chief Janice Jackson keep her job?

Brown praised Jackson as a talented teacher and strong principal in the black community before her ascent to the central office — but expressed deep concern that she’s unable to run the district “with her instincts and what she knows how to do.”

“I think her work is highly politicized,” Brown said. “National Teachers Academy was being closed over a land grab, and her position on that was not the right position. Parents had to go to state appellate court in order to get that victory. Situations like that give me pause.”

But Anello and Swanson answered with high praise for the work Jackson has done and strong endorsements for her continuing to run the show at the nation’s third-largest school district.

Anello touted Jackson as a down-to-earth and accessible schools chief.

“If you want to have a conversation with her just pick up the phone,” he said. “That is rare in a school leader. It would be a shame and an absolute mistake to tell her to step down when you have a unicorn.”

Swanson said Jackson’s on-the-ground experience in school communities helps her relate to and inspire educators and school leaders, and her experience managing the $5 billion Chicago Public Schools make her a strong candidate to keep the job, whoever occupies the mayor’s office next year.

“I think Janice is an incredible leader, really unique,” Swanson said.

Panelists also diverged on whether the new mayor should freeze charter school expansion in the city.

Garcia questioned whether the city’s more than 100 charter schools have lived up to their billing as laboratories to experiment with and improve education. Chicago, he said, has “been infected with charter mania,” and instead needs to pivot toward the importance of ensuring current schools are adequately funded.

Anello tried quelling the debate on charters vs. neighborhood schools, arguing that parents are agnostic about school type and more concerned about quality education and good schools for their children.

“I would start by listening to communities and families,” he said.