coming soon

Two Memphis charter schools get the green light to open — and 8 are turned away for now

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
From left: Board Chairwoman Teresa Jones, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and board member Scott McCormick

Only two charter operators made the first cut to open new schools in Memphis, according to a Shelby County Schools board resolution set for vote. The board will send eight schools away with feedback they must consider before getting another chance to apply.

The rejected-for-now applications include one from Crosstown High School, whose founders are trying multiple strategies to open a new school in Midtown, and several from operators who already run charter schools in the city.

Board members will announce at their Tuesday night meeting that Memphis Business Academy, Inc. can open two schools in 2017: an elementary and middle school in the growing neighborhood of Hickory Hill. The operator already has elementary and high schools, meaning that students will be able to attend schools that it runs for the entire education.

The board’s role is to act on recommendations from the school district about which charter schools should be allowed to open. The board frequently turns away applicants whose school plans have holes or do not clearly explain why they will be better for students than existing school options. (New charter schools can also fuel the enrollment decline that is causing the district to close its own schools, adding another reason for the board to proceed cautiously).

It’s pretty typical for an application to need revisions after a first review, said Brad Leon, chief of strategy and innovation for the district, who helps oversee charter schools. The board has not made its feedback to schools public.

The eight charter applicants that it denied this week have 30 days to amend their applications based on the board’s feedback. Then the board will have another 30 days to decide whether to approve them.

Charter applicants said they knew being asked to revise their applications was a real possibility.

“We anticipated that we would need to make some changes, ” said Meg Crosby, a Crosstown High board member. “We’re excited to move forward with the process.”

In addition to Crosstown, the following charter applicants must try again if they want their schools to open:

  • Green Dot Public Schools — The Hickory Hill-area high school would be a feeder for Kirby Middle and Wooddale Middle, two of the four schools that Green Dot operates under the state-run Achievement School Distrct.
  • Pathways in Education — The alternative school operator already runs two schools under the ASD that opened in 2014.
  • Scholar Academies — Memphis Scholars Charter School would be a new elementary and middle school in South Memphis. The operator is taking over two Memphis schools this fall through the ASD.
  • Legacy Leadership Academy — The grades 6-12 school was proposed by Tamika Carwell, a former Memphis principal and teacher.
  • Life Preparatory Academy of Excellence — The grades 5-8 school in Hickory Hill would offer twice as much class time in math and reading than many schools, as well as offer classes in “life skills” such as TK.
  • The LeFlore Foundation’s Gentleman and Ladies Academy School would be a math and science-focused elementary school in Cordova.
  • Kaleidoscope Schools — With a focus on on the arts, the Kaleidoscope School of Memphis would serve grades 6-8 and be located near the South Main Arts District.
  • Glory Tabernacle Christian Church — The Academy All Girls Charter elementary school would be based in northeast or midtown Memphis and emphasize reading.
  • Artesian Schools Inc. — Southwest Early College High School would operate in Frayser or Raleigh and seek to develop students who are the first in their families to attend college.
  • Gateway University High School — The proposed downtown high school would focus on computer science.

Chalkbeat reporters Micaela Watts and Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.

Future of Schools

Mike Feinberg, KIPP co-founder, fired after misconduct investigation

PHOTO: Photo by Neville Elder/Corbis via Getty Images

Mike Feinberg, the co-founder of the KIPP charter network, has been fired after an investigation into sexual misconduct, its leaders announced Thursday.

KIPP found “credible evidence” connected to allegations that Feinberg abused a student in the late 1990s, according to a letter sent to students and staff. Feinberg denies the allegations.

“We recognize this news will come as a shock to many in the KIPP Team and Family as we struggle to reconcile Mr. Feinberg’s 24 years of significant contributions with the findings of this investigation,” the letter says.

It’s a stunning move at one of the country’s best-known charter school organizations — and one where Feinberg has been in a leadership role for more than two decades. Feinberg started KIPP along with Dave Levin in Houston in 1994, and Levin brought the model to New York City the next year. The network became known for its “no excuses” model of strict discipline and attention to academic performance.

KIPP says it first heard the allegation last spring. The network eventually hired the law firm WilmerHale to conduct an external investigation, which found evidence that Feinberg had sexually harassed two adults, both alums of the school who were then employed by KIPP in Houston, the network said.

“In light of the nature of the allegations and the passage of time, critical facts about these events may never be conclusively determined. What is clear, however, is that, at a minimum, Mr. Feinberg put himself into situations where his conduct could be seriously misconstrued,” KIPP wrote in the letter, signed by CEO Richard Barth and KIPP’s Houston leader, Sehba Ali.

Feinberg’s lawyer, Chris Tritico, told the Houston Chronicle that Feinberg had not been fully informed about the allegations against him.

“The treatment he received today from the board that he put in place is wrong, and it’s not what someone who has made the contributions he’s made deserves,” Tritico said.

Read KIPP’s full letter here.

Knock knock

House call: One struggling Aurora high school has moved parent-teacher conferences to family homes

A social studies teacher gives a class to freshman at Aurora Central High School in April 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

When Aurora Central High School held traditional parent-teacher conference nights, fewer than 75 parents showed up.

This year, by taking the conferences to students’ homes, principal Gerardo De La Garza says the school has already logged more than 400 meetings with parents.

“This is something a lot of our families wanted,” De La Garza said. “We decided we wanted to add home visits as a way to build relationships with our community. The attendance at the traditional conferences was not where we wanted it to be.”

The home visits aren’t meant to reach every single student, though — the school has more than 2,000 enrolled this year. Instead, teams of teachers serving the same grade of students work together to identify students who need additional help or are having some issues. On Fridays, when the school lets out early, teachers are to go out and meet with those families. In some cases, they also schedule visits during other times.

Some parents and students say they weren’t made aware about the change and questioned if it was a good idea, while others welcomed the different approach.

“I felt when we go home that’s kind of our space, so I wasn’t comfortable with it,” said Akolda Redgebol, a senior at Aurora Central. Her family hasn’t had a home visit. “My parents, they thought it was a little odd, too.”

A father of another Aurora Central senior spoke to the school board about the change at a meeting earlier this month.

“There’s been a lot of changes over all these years, but one thing we could always count on was the opportunity to sit down with our child’s teachers during parent teacher conferences,” he said. “I hope this new program works, I really do, but why stop holding parent teacher conference nights at the high school? I haven’t had a single meeting. I haven’t met any of his teachers this year. Also why weren’t the parents told? I got two text messages, an email, and a phone call to let me know about a coffee meeting, but not a single notice about cancelling parent teacher conferences.”

Research examining the value of parent-teacher conferences is limited, but researchers do say that increased parent engagement can help lift student achievement. This year, the struggling Commerce City-based school district of Adams 14 also eliminated traditional parent-teacher conference nights from their calendar as a way to make more use of time. But after significant pushback from parents and teachers, the district announced it will return to the traditional approach next year.

Aurora Central High School is one of five in Aurora Public Schools’ “innovation zone,” one of Superintendent Rico Munn’s signature strategies for turning around struggling schools.

The school reached a limit of low performance ratings from the state and last year was put on a state-ordered improvement plan. That plan allowed the school to press on with its innovation plan, which was approved in 2016 and grants it some autonomy for decisions on its budget, school calendar, and school model.

As part of the school’s engagement with parents, the school in the last few years has hired a family liaison, though there’s been some turnover with that position. The school also hosts monthly parent coffee nights, as has become common across many Aurora schools.

As part of the innovation plan, school and community leaders also included plans to increase home visits.

Home visits have also become popular across many school districts as another way to better connect with families. Often, teachers are taught to use the visit as a time to build relationships, not to discuss academic performance or student behavior issues.

That’s not the case at Aurora Central. Principal De La Garza said it is just about taking the parent-teacher conference to the parent’s home. And teachers have been trained on how to have those conversations, he said.

The innovation plan didn’t mention removing conference nights, however.

De La Garza said that’s because parent-teacher conferences are still an option. If parents want to request a conference, or drop by on Fridays to talk to teachers, they still can.

Those Fridays when students end classes early are also the days teachers are expected to make house calls to contact families.

Teachers are expected to reach a certain number of families each Friday, though school and district staff could not provide that exact number.

Bruce Wilcox, the president of the Aurora teachers union, said that it’s important to better engage families, but that balance is needed so not all of the responsibility is put on teachers who are already busy.

Wilcox said he would also worry about teachers having less access to resources, such as translators, during home meetings.

Maria Chavez, a mother of a freshman at Aurora Central, just had a home visit last week. She learned about the school’s strategy when she was called about setting up the visit.

Another, older daughter, was the interpreter during the home meeting with three teachers.

“For me, it was a nice experience,” Chavez said. “As parents, and even the kids, we feel more trust with the teachers.”

Chavez said she goes to parent-teacher conferences with her elementary-aged daughter, but doesn’t always have time for conferences with her high-school-aged daughter, so the home visit was convenient. Chavez also said she was able to ask questions, and said the teachers were able to answer her concerns.

“Maybe I wouldn’t say this should be how every conference happens,” she said, “but it is a good idea.”