in limbo

With charter operator’s exit, Achievement School District mulls future for Memphis schools left behind

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Bobby White is the ASD's chief of external affairs.

Leaders of Tennessee’s Achievement School District are giving parents and teachers notice that two Memphis charter schools are in limbo with the exit next spring of Gestalt Community Schools as their operator.

The possibilities range from replacing Gestalt with one or more operators, to shifting management directly to the state-run district, to closing one or both schools and transferring students to other schools.

Whatever path is chosen, ASD leaders have set a Dec. 9 deadline to make a decision “to give parents and teachers alike enough time to make informed decision,” said Bobby White, chief of external affairs.

ASD leaders laid out the options during two meetings Monday with parents and teachers at Humes Preparatory Academy Middle and Klondike Preparatory Academy Elementary.

Earlier this month, leaders of Memphis-based Gestalt announced plans to pull out of the two schools at the end of the school year. They cited chronic low enrollment as the chief reason. The network is the first to exit operations of an existing ASD school since 2012 when the turnaround district began to take control of low-performing schools, usually assigning them to charter operators.

“We’ve seen a 15 percent enrollment drop each year since we started at the schools,” CEO Yetta Lewis told Chalkbeat on Monday. “We tried new tactics, but the population of North Memphis keeps declining. We couldn’t provide the quality of education we wanted.”

This year, Klondike has about 200 students and operates at 33 percent of building capacity, while Humes has 320 students, which is about 69 percent of its capacity. The changing demographics of North Memphis also contributed to Shelby County Schools’ decision to close Northside High School earlier this year. Several other schools in the community are under-enrolled as well.

Shelby County Schools board member Teresa Jones, who was present at the Humes meeting Monday night, told Chalkbeat that the decline has been gradual. “It didn’t just happen last year. … It’s always been the case, even before Gestalt moved in,” she said.

Gestalt’s departure — after five years of operating Humes and four years at Klondike — as well as the population decline in North Memphis, will make it challenging for other charter operators to jump into the fray. Superintendent Malika Anderson told parents at Humes that the ASD is “racing” to vet operator candidates and that options eventually will be presented to a committee comprised of Humes and Klondike stakeholders.

Another option is for the ASD, which currently operates five schools under the management of its Achievement Schools, to step in and run one or both of the schools itself. The two schools also could be combined into a single K-8 school.

"Despite the reduction in school-age students in this neighborhood, the ASD made a commitment that every child here deserves an excellent neighborhood school."Malika Anderson, ASD superintendent

One idea not on the table is returning the schools to Shelby County Schools next year. The state wrested their control from the local district because the schools were on the state’s priority list of the bottom 5 percent of Tennessee schools. Anderson told parents that the schools would be returned to Shelby County Schools only after they’ve been off the state’s priority list for two consecutive years.

“Despite the reduction in school-age students in this neighborhood, the ASD made a commitment that every child here deserves an excellent neighborhood school,” Anderson said.

Parents spoke up during the meetings and urged ASD leaders to keep their schools open, as well as their students’ teachers in place.

“My daughter could have gone to any school, but they chose here,” said Humes parent Hilarie Barch. “This school has the most highly educated, most qualified staff I have ever seen. And my kids have attended private and optional schools. You’ve got to keep the staff.”

White told parents that charter operators have full control over decisions regarding staffing and school culture.

“This is just a rehearsal,” he said. “When operators are identified or express interest, we’ll ensure that you have the opportunity to share the same things we’ve heard tonight.”

real estate

Two of three Memphis school buildings left empty by state-run charters will get new life, including Raleigh-Egypt

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
The former Raleigh Egypt Middle School is back to housing middle schoolers under Shelby County Schools, not the state-run Achievement School District and its operator, Memphis Scholars.

Shelby County Schools has reclaimed a Memphis school building that formerly housed a state-run charter school that just moved across town.

This week, the former campus of Raleigh-Egypt Middle School began housing middle schoolers under the local district in Memphis.

District leaders posted a video Wednesday on Facebook showing students returning to the building that last year housed a charter school managed by Memphis Scholars.

“They did not stay in the building, so now Shelby County Schools has that building again, and middle schoolers have their own space,” said Shari Jones Meeks, principal of Raleigh-Egypt High School, which added middle school grades last year.

“We’ve been here every day this week trying to get our classrooms ready,” added Anna Godwin, a middle school science teacher. “It’s awesome, a lot of space. The kids are going to feel right at home.”

The change brings the school full circle after a year-long tug-of-war over students and facilities with the state-run Achievement School District, which took control of Raleigh-Egypt Middle last summer because of chronic low performance.

After the takeover, the local district expanded grades next door at Raleigh-Egypt High School in an effort to retain students. It worked. This spring, the charter organization got the state’s permission to move its under-enrolled school 16 miles away, where Memphis Scholars already operates an elementary school under Tennessee’s turnaround district.

Even though middle schoolers are returning to their old building, Raleigh-Egypt High School will remain one school with grades 6-12 and one administration, according to Michelle Stuart, facility planning manager for the district.

It’s one of three buildings left empty in recent months by the ASD and its charter operators — a first for the state-run district. All properties have returned to the control of Shelby County Schools, and only one stood empty as the new school year began.

Former school Current use Location
Memphis Scholars Raleigh Egypt Middle Likely will house Shelby County Schools middle schoolers Raleigh Egypt
Gestalt Community Schools Klondike Elementary Partly occupied by Perea Preschool North Memphis
KIPP Memphis Collegiate Schools University Middle Vacant and for sale Whitehaven

Klondike Elementary was closed by the ASD when its operator, Gestalt Community Schools, decided to exit its two North Memphis schools because of low enrollment. The ASD approved Frayser Community Schools to step in as the new operator at Humes Middle, but couldn’t secure one for Klondike.

While Shelby County Schools has no plan to resurrect Klondike at this time, it will continue to lease space to Perea Preschool, a private Christian school that will serve more than 160 children in a building designed for more than 600. Perea also has applied to open an elementary charter school at Klondike under Shelby County Schools, though that application was initially denied.

On the opposite side of Memphis, the building formerly occupied as a middle school by charter operator KIPP will be listed for sale, according to Stuart.

The former Memphis City school building was leased to KIPP beginning in 2014 by Shelby County Schools. Last December, KIPP leaders decided to close it too, citing low enrollment and the school’s remote location.

Achievement School District

Tennessee’s turnaround district gets new leadership team for a new chapter

PHOTO: TN.gov
Malika Anderson became superintendent of the state-run Achievement School District in 2016 under the leadership of Gov. Bill Haslam.

Tennessee is bringing in some new blood to lead its turnaround district after cutting its workforce almost in half and repositioning the model as an intervention of last resort for the state’s chronically struggling schools.

While Malika Anderson remains as superintendent of the Achievement School District, she’ll have two lieutenants who are new to the ASD’s mostly charter-based turnaround district, as well as two others who have been part of the work in the years since its 2011 launch.

The hires stand in contrast to the original ASD leadership team, which was heavy with education reformers who came from outside of Tennessee or Memphis. And that’s intentional, Anderson said Friday as she announced the new lineup with Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

“It is critical in this phase of the ASD that we are learning from the past … and have leaders who are deeply experienced in Tennessee,” Anderson said.

New to her inner circle as of Aug. 1 are:

Verna Ruffin
Chief academic officer

PHOTO: Submitted
Verna Ruffin

Duties: She’ll assume oversight of the district’s five direct-run schools in Memphis called Achievement Schools, a role previously filled by former executive director Tim Ware, who did not reapply. She’ll also promote collaboration across Achievement Schools and the ASD’s charter schools.

Last job: Superintendent of Jackson-Madison County School District since 2013

Her story: More than 30 years of experience in education as a teacher, principal, director of secondary curriculum, assistant superintendent and superintendent in Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and Tennessee. At Jackson-Madison County, Ruffin oversaw a diverse student body and implemented a K-3 literacy initiative to promote more rigorous standards.

Farae Wolfe
Executive director of operations

Duties: Human resources, technology and operations

Current job: Program director for the Community Youth Career Development Center in Cleveland, Miss.

Her story: Wolfe has been city manager and human resources director for Cleveland, Miss., where she led a health and wellness initiative that decreased employee absenteeism due to minor illness by 20 percent. Her work experience in education includes overseeing parent and community relations for a Mississippi school district, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Leaders continuing to work with the state turnaround team are:

Lisa Settle
Chief performance officer

PHOTO: Achievement Schools
Lisa Settle

Duties: She’ll oversee federal and state compliance for charter operators and direct-run schools.

Last job: Chief of schools for the direct-run Achievement Schools since June 2015

Her story: Settle was co-founder and principal of Cornerstone Prep-Lester Campus, the first charter school approved by the ASD in Memphis. She also has experience in writing and reviewing curriculum in her work with the state’s recent Standards Review Committee.

Bobby White
Executive director of external affairs

PHOTO: ASD
Bobby White

Duties: He’ll continue his work to bolster the ASD’s community relations, which was fractured by the state’s takeover of neighborhood schools in Memphis when he came aboard in April 2016.

Last job: ASD chief of external affairs

His story: A Memphis native, White previously served as chief of staff and senior adviser for Memphis and Shelby County Mayor A.C. Wharton, as well as a district director for former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr.

A new team for a new era

The restructuring of the ASD and its leadership team comes after state officials decided to merge the ASD with support staff for its Achievement Schools. All 59 employees were invited in May to reapply for 30 jobs, some of which are still being filled.

The downsizing was necessary as the state ran out of money from the federal Race to the Top grant that jump-started the turnaround district in 2011 and has sustained most of its work while growing to 33 schools at its peak.

While the changes signal a new era for the state-run district, both McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam have said they’re committed to keeping the ASD as Tennessee’s most intensive intervention when local and collaborative turnaround efforts fail, even as the initiative has had a mostly lackluster performance.

“Overall, this new structure will allow the ASD to move forward more efficiently,” McQueen said Friday, “and better positions the ASD to support the school improvement work we have outlined in our ESSA plan …”

In the next phase, school takeovers will not be as abrupt as the first ones that happened in Memphis in 2012, prompting angry protests from teachers and parents and outcry from local officials. Local districts will have three years to use their own turnaround methods before schools can be considered for takeover.

It’s uncertain where the ASD will expand next, but state officials have told Hamilton County leaders that it’s one of several options on the table for five low-performing schools in Chattanooga.