lessons learned

Vacant homes, enrollment cap: Gestalt’s CEO on why one of the ASD’s first charter operators is also the first out

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Yetta Lewis, co-founder and CEO of Gestalt Community Schools, answers questions from parents and teachers during an October assembly at Humes Preparatory Academy Middle School.

Gestalt Community Schools CEO Yetta Lewis says it was a hard decision for the Memphis-based charter network to step away from two state-run schools in its hometown.

Gestalt was an early investor in Tennessee’s unprecedented school turnaround initiative. The network was among the first to sign up for the tough task through the Achievement School District, which launched in Memphis in 2012. But last month, Gestalt also became the initiative’s first operator to announce plans to exit the state-run district.

Left behind will be the students, teachers and neighborhoods of Humes Preparatory Academy Middle and Klondike Preparatory Academy Elementary schools, who are waiting to learn their fate after Gestalt’s departure at the end of this school year.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, Lewis puts the blame for the pullout squarely on chronic under-enrollment borne from declining population in North Memphis and exacerbated by the ASD’s state-imposed cap on out-of-zone enrollment. She says even a 2015 state law that allowed ASD schools to enroll up to 25 percent of their students from outside of their neighborhoods was not enough to keep Gestalt in the game.

In a recent Q&A, Lewis talks about Gestalt’s pullout, its challenges as a state-authorized charter operator, and what its leaders have learned during its years with the Achievement School District.

Here are some of the highlights, which have been condensed for brevity:

What led to the decision to leave the ASD?

It’s about enrollment. We are starting our fourth year at Klondike and our fifth year at Humes. We’ve seen a 15 percent decrease in enrollment each year. We keep trying something new or different but came to realize that over the last four years, people have moved pretty steadily out of North Memphis. There are rows of vacant homes. The school-age population has dropped by 35 percent. Klondike is on the same road as Northside High School (which was closed over the summer by Shelby County Schools), so we knew we weren’t the only schools in that area facing this challenge. We don’t have the capacity to take the loss of two schools on enrollment.

When did you loop in the ASD on your decision? What came next?

Our first official conversation was in October. We were hoping for a big push in enrollment this year. But after Labor Day, we could see that the numbers weren’t going to turn around. When we know something definite, we want to tell our stakeholders as soon as we possibly can. We don’t have a solution on what’s next for these schools, but we want those stakeholders to be involved in the decision-making process. (ASD officials then held meetings with Humes and Klondike parents and faculty in partnership with Gestalt. They’ve set a Dec. 9 deadline to decide their fate in order “to give parents and teachers alike enough time to make informed decision,” said Bobby White, chief of external affairs.)

After this school year, you’ll still have four schools authorized under Shelby County Schools. What are the biggest differences in operating in the ASD vs. SCS?

Turnaround work changed everything for us, but it’s not easy. Not getting a list of eligible students from Shelby County Schools made it difficult (for our ASD schools). We had 180 students on a list for middle school last year, but this year we didn’t receive any list. That was a struggle for us. The list was some level of contact for us. It was a very big challenge to get what we needed. If there’s anything I could change about the ASD, it’d be the ability to have a working list of eligible kids.

Another big difference is the enrollment cap for ASD schools. The population of North Memphis is declining, leaving fewer and fewer students in our zone. But we had families from outside of North Memphis who wanted the Gestalt experience. It’s a big difference for us that the enrollment restraints aren’t there when we open schools under Shelby County Schools.

Would you open another charter school with the ASD in the future?

If conditions were different with enrollment, we would consider operating with the ASD again. We don’t open a school for the sake of growth. When we opened ASD schools, we saw a need for what we do. But enrollment numbers over the years have made it really hard to do what we do. We provide one-to-one technology, a computer for every scholar. We provide every student with a uniform. It’s expensive, and we didn’t have the numbers in North Memphis for our program to be sustainable there. Our program provides educational support that every child deserves.

What are some of the biggest lessons Gestalt has learned in its school turnaround work with the ASD?

Our teacher-leadership program. That wouldn’t have happened without turnaround work. The ASD experience really showed us the value of cultivating teacher leaders in our schools, and we have a program in place now.

Also, our community partnerships, such as Behavior Services MidSouth, Communities in Schools, and Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital. Our work with the ASD taught us how it’s not enough to provide strong academics, but you need strong social and emotional infrastructure as well. Community partners in our schools help us to do the work to serve the whole child. And that’s ultimately the biggest lesson, that we want our kids to feel known, loved, supported and educated.

Achievement School District

Here’s why another state-run charter school is closing in Memphis

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
GRAD Academy students work on a writing assignment during an African-American history class. The South Memphis charter school will shutter this summer.

The high cost of busing students from across Memphis to maintain the enrollment of GRAD Academy was a major factor in a national charter network’s decision to close the state-run high school.

Project GRAD USA announced plans last week to shutter its only Memphis school after four years as part of Tennessee’s Achievement School District. Besides high transportation costs, the burden of maintaining an older school building and a dip in enrollment created an unsustainable situation, charter organization officials said this week.

“Higher-than-projected transportation and facilities costs were major contributors to the operational challenges that GRAD Academy encountered,” CEO Daryl Ogden told Chalkbeat.

GRAD Academy will become the third state-run charter school to close in Memphis since the ASD began operating schools in the city in 2012. KIPP Memphis and Gestalt Community Schools closed one school each last year, citing low enrollment and rising operational costs.

This is the first school year that GRAD Academy didn’t meet its enrollment targets, according to Ogden. The high school started the school year with 468 students, a drop of about 13 percent from the 2016-17 year.

Ogden said enrollment constraints significantly hurt the operator’s ability to recruit students to the South Memphis school.

Unlike most ASD schools, GRAD Academy started from scratch. It was not an existing low-performing school taken from the local district and assigned to a charter operator with the charge of turning it around. As a “new start,” the high school could only recruit students zoned to other state-run schools or the lowest-performing “priority schools” in Shelby County Schools.

Most of the ASD’s 31 remaining schools were takeovers and are allowed to recruit up to 25 percent of their student bodies from non-priority schools. (Now, a 2017 state law prohibits the ASD from creating new schools.)

GRAD Academy was not required to provide cross-city transportation but, because the school did not have a neighborhood zone, chose to as a way to build enrollment.

“Students were coming from all over Memphis, since there is not a zoned area around the school, and that began to be a challenge with attracting students,” said Kathleen Airhart, the ASD’s interim superintendent. “Their transportation costs were much higher than their counterparts in the ASD.”

Airhart said the State Department of Education has been working closely with GRAD Academy since becoming aware of its financial issues last October. She noted concern over whether the school had the funds to stay open through May, and the state worked with administrators to reduce expenses and streamline funding.

PHOTO: Chalkbeat Tennessee
GRAD Academy rented and maintained the building that formerly housed  South Side High School, originally built for 2,000 students and shuttered in 2015 by Shelby County Schools.

Both state officials and Ogden declined to specify how much the school spent annually on transportation and building maintenance but said that the cost of facilities was also an issue. GRAD Academy rented and maintained the building that formerly housed South Side High School, originally built for 2,000 students and shuttered in 2015 by Shelby County Schools.

Airhart is working with two other ASD charter operators — Green Dot Public Schools and Frayser Community Schools — to offer GRAD Academy students a high school option next year. ASD officials will host a meeting at the school Tuesday evening to answer questions from parents and students about the closure and their options.

The impending closure of GRAD Academy is another blow to the ASD. It’s the state-run district’s highest-performing high school and has its largest percentage of high school students scoring on grade level, according to state data from 2017.

Airhart commended the school for its career and technical focus on engineering and coding — two pathways that could lead to dual certification for students.

“The goal would be to transition the two programs and equipment to Frayser Community Schools or Green Dot,” Airhart said, adding that the details haven’t been finalized.

Many GRAD students felt their voices were lost in the decision to shutter their school, according to Kyla Lewis, a 2017 alumna who is still involved in the school’s poetry team. She called the news “heartbreaking but not surprising” and added that teacher and principal turnover was high during her years there.

“South Memphis has seen so much school closure and this hits hard for kids actually from the neighborhood,” said Lewis, now a freshman at the University of Memphis. “I don’t agree with the decision, but the main issue I saw was the thinning out of teachers. Once the best teachers left, by my senior year, the school culture was starting to fall apart.”

Ogden commended his team for the school’s academic strides, but acknowledged that “faculty and staff turnover associated with urban school reform” was a major challenge.

“There has been a continual need to reinvest in our staff and introduce our culture process and learning and development philosophy to new colleagues, which can slow academic momentum,” he said. “There is a persistent national, state, and local shortage of highly qualified, experienced math teachers which we, along with all of our fellow Memphis school operators, especially at the secondary levels, have had to work hard to overcome.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to show that a Nov. 18 parents meeting has been rescheduled to next week due to wintry weather.

five years in

Tennessee’s two big school turnaround experiments are yielding big lessons, researchers say

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick
A student walks through the hall of Frayser Achievement Elementary School, one of five Memphis schools directly run by Tennessee's Achievement School District.

A national pioneer in school turnaround work, Tennessee this month received a report card of sorts from researchers who have closely followed its two primary initiatives for five years.

The assessment was both grim and promising — and punctuated with lessons that already are informing the state’s efforts to improve struggling schools.

The grim: The state-run Achievement School District fell woefully short of its initial goal of vaulting the state’s 5 percent of lowest-achieving schools to the top 25 percent within five years. This model, based on the Recovery School District in Louisiana, allowed Tennessee to take control of struggling local schools and to partner with charter management organizations to turn them around. But not only has the ASD failed to move the needle on student achievement, it has struggled to retain teachers and to build a climate of collaboration among its schools, which now number 32.

The promising: Innovation zones, which are run by several local districts with the help of extra state funding, have shown promise in improving student performance, based on a widely cited 2015 study by Vanderbilt University. The model gives schools autonomy over financial, programmatic and staffing decisions, similar to charter schools. While iZones exist in Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga, the most notable work has been through Shelby County Schools, now with 23 Memphis schools in its turnaround program. Not only have student outcomes improved in the iZone, its schools have enjoyed lower teacher turnover rates and greater retention of high-quality teachers.

One big lesson, according to this month’s report: Removing schools from their structures of local government isn’t necessary to improve student outcomes.

That explains Tennessee’s decision, under the new federal education law, to include partnership zones as part of its expanded turnaround toolkit. The model offers charter-like autonomy but is governed jointly by local and state officials. The first zone will launch next fall in Chattanooga, where the school board reluctantly approved the arrangement recently for five chronically underperforming schools that otherwise would have been taken over by the ASD.

The partnership model avoids the toll of school takeover, which the report’s researchers say contributed to community mistrust of the ASD, especially in its home base of Memphis.

“That faith in the ask of these schools going to the state operator came with the promise to raise student achievement,” said researcher James Guthrie. “To not see this achievement in the first round of results raises a crisis of legitimacy (for the ASD).”

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen

Guthrie is among researchers who have followed school turnaround efforts as part of the Tennessee Education Research Alliance, or TERA. The group’s work continues to guide the State Department of Education on what has worked, what has not, and why. Education Commissioner Candice McQueen requested their five-year summary as part of the state’s own self-analysis, as well as to inform school improvement work nationwide.

In interviews with Chalkbeat, TERA researchers emphasized that the final word hasn’t been written on any of the turnaround models in play in Tennessee. They continue to track students in struggling schools. And they emphasized that turnaround is a long game, one that the ASD’s founders underestimated.

“The cautionary tale of any reform is to be realistic about what you can achieve,” said Ron Zimmer of the University of Kentucky. “…If (the ASD) had been more realistic, people would have had more realistic expectations (about) what would have been deemed a success.”

The operators of ASD schools have had a steep learning curve amid daunting challenges that include high student mobility, extreme poverty, a lack of shared resources, barriers to school choice, and on-the-ground opposition.

Five years in, there’s still hope that the ASD can improve its schools with more time, said Joshua Glazer of George Washington University.

“We have seen that several providers have learned some hard lessons and are now applying those lessons to their models,” Glazer said. “Many have overhauled curriculum and taken a very different approach to supporting teachers. Across the board, providers have realized that much more robust systems of guidance and support are needed. These changes have the potential to lead to better student outcomes, but only time will tell if scores will go up.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A former superintendent for Jackson-Madison County Schools, Verna Ruffin became the ASD’s chief of academics in August.

The state recently recruited a new academic leader, and it’s looking for a new superintendent who can create a more collaborative environment within the ASD’s portfolio of operators and schools. The district also underwent a major restructuring over the summer, cutting staff to curb costs and streamline roles as federal money ran out from Tennessee’s Race to the Top award.

Funding will be among the biggest long-term challenges for both the state-run district and the local iZones, said Zimmer.

While the Memphis’ iZone has shown initial success, it’s an expensive model that includes educator bonuses and adds an hour to the school day.  

The ASD also needs adequate funding, but Zimmer said that became harder when its schools did not produce early gains. “It takes up to five or six years before see we significant benefit from a program like the ASD,” he said. “The problem is that people don’t have the political patience to wait for it.”

McQueen emphasizes frequently that all of the state’s turnaround models work together. She and Gov. Bill Haslam remain steadfast in their support of the ASD — a point she drove home again on Wednesday when asked about the embattled district.

“It is the state’s most rigorous intervention as noted in Tennessee’s recently approved ESSA plan,” McQueen said, “and is clearly a critical part of the state’s accountability model.”

For more discussion about the five-year brief, you can read blog posts in Education Week from TERA and the State Department of Education.