Charter appeals

State Board of Education rejects Omni’s appeal for Memphis expansion, considers Nashville appeals from Rocketship, KIPP

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Shaka Mitchell, director of Rocketship's Tennessee Schools, appeals to the State Board of Education on Wednesday to allow the national network to expand further in Nashville.

The State Board of Education has rejected an appeal from Omni Schools to open a new high school in Memphis, continuing its record of upholding local school board decisions on charter school applications to expand.

But its decisions on appeals by national networks KIPP and Rocketship are being watched more closely. The board heard appeals Tuesday and Wednesday in Nashville from the two established networks, in addition to two others seeking state reversal of local board decisions.

Sara Heyburn, executive director of the board, says the longer track records of KIPP and Rocketship aren’t enough on their own to change the board’s course.

“If the charter school, regardless of (whether) it’s established or new to the scene, is able to meet or exceed these standards, then we can recommend it,” she told Chalkbeat on Wednesday. “We feel it is a nuanced decision, but it is also pretty clear what our standards are.”

The board’s standards are outlined for academics, finances and operation.

Omni Schools was established in 2010 and operates two schools in Memphis authorized by Shelby County Schools.

At a hearing in September, Omni leaders argued that the local district unfairly rejected their application to expand based on ambiguous and inconsistent guidelines, while district leaders held that Omni Prep’s existing schools had performed too low to justify expansion.

The board voted Sept. 24 to uphold the decision by Shelby County Schools.

“We are disappointed with the state’s decision,” Omni founder Cary Booker said Wednesday. “We understand the concerns that they have raised, will review our application, and review our plan going forward.”

The State Board of Education’s tough stances on appeals to date suggest that the board is taking its new role as a charter authorizer seriously and maintaining high standards for charter schools in Tennessee.

Before 2014, the board could reverse an appeal and require the local board to authorize the school — and fine them if they didn’t. However, in 2014, the state legislature passed a law allowing the State Board of Education to authorize charter schools itself in school districts with at least one school performing in the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state.

Since the board became an authorizer, it’s heard mostly appeals from relatively new operators. But KIPP and Rocketship represent a departure. KIPP was established in 1994 with schools in New York City and Houston. California-based Rocketship launched in 2006.

Metro Nashville Public Schools rejected Rocketship’s application because, despite high growth scores at its first Nashville school, its overall academic performance this year was poor, according to board members. Rocketship, known for incorporating computers into daily instruction, has two schools in Nashville, the second of which opened this fall.

The Nashville board rejected KIPP’s application to open two more schools because KIPP leaders asked to open the schools anytime within the next five years, which officials said was too far in the future to reasonably decide. District attorney Corey Harkey said at Wednesday’s hearing that Metro officials and board members also are wary of KIPP’s strict disciplinary practices and the potential financial burden of charter schools to the district.

The State Board of Education will hear another appeal on Oct. 6 — from Connections Preparatory Academy in Jackson.

The board will announce its decisions about the rest of the schools on Oct. 23.

Kayleigh Skinner contributed to this report.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.