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.

NEXT LEADER

Here are the four candidates to be the next superintendent of the Achievement School District

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat
Students outside a school that's part of the state-run Achievement School District.

Four candidates are in the running to become the next leader of Tennessee’s state-run turnaround district, including one who is based in Memphis.

The state Department of Education released to Chalkbeat on Wednesday the list of candidates to lead the Achievement School District. Three candidates are from outside of the state, and all four are men with experience in charters, turnaround work, or state departments of education.

One of these candidates would take the helm following the September resignation of Malika Anderson, the district’s second superintendent since it launched in 2012 with the goal to transform Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools by taking over district schools and replacing them with charter organizations. Anderson was hand-picked by Chris Barbic, the district’s founding superintendent, following his departure in 2015.

The new superintendent would oversee 30 schools — the majority of which are run by charter organizations in Memphis — at a time when the Achievement School District has much less authority than when it started under Barbic.

Now the district is considered a tool of last resort under the state’s new education plan unveiled last year. Under-enrollment continues to plague many of its schools and was a big factor in the decisions of four charter operators to close their schools or exit the district.

Here are the candidates, and what we know about their education backgrounds so far:

Keith Sanders, former chief officer of school turnaround at the Delaware Department of Education. Sanders currently runs a consulting group bearing his name in Memphis.

Sanders led turnaround efforts for Delaware’s state department from 2012-2014. He helped to run the state’s Partnership Zone, which launched in 2011 as an effort to boost Delaware’s lowest-performing schools. (Tennessee is embarking on its own Partnership Zone in Hamilton County.)

Sanders was a principal at Riverview Middle School in Memphis before co-founding the Miller-Mccoy Academy in New Orleans, an all-boys charter school that shuttered in 2014.

Brett Barley, deputy superintendent for student achievement with the Nevada Department of Education.

Barley is currently leading the Nevada Achievement School District, which was modeled in part after Tennessee’s turnaround district. He was previously the vice president for StudentsFirst (now named 50CAN), a political lobbying organization formed in 2010 by Michelle Rhee, the former school chancellor of Washington D.C. public schools. His career in education started with Teach For America as a fourth-grade teacher in San Jose, California.

Stephen Osborn, chief for innovation and accelerating school performance at the Rhode Island Department of Education.

Osborn has worked with the Rhode Island department since 2014 and currently oversees the department’s charter school authorization and school improvement efforts. Osborn spearheaded the creation of the Rhode Island Advanced Coursework Network, a course choice platform. He was previously an assistant superintendent with the Louisiana Department of Education and a chief operating officer with New Beginnings Charter School Network in New Orleans.

Adam Miller, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education.

Miller has overseen charter school expansion and operations at the Florida department since 2008. He also now oversees tax-credit scholarships for low-income students, scholarship programs for students with disabilities, education savings accounts, and private schools. He was previously with the Florida Developmental Disabilities Council and was the executive director of Hope Center Charter School in Jensen Beach, Florida, which focused on children with autism.

The four candidates were identified over the last three months through the help of a search firm, K-12 Search Group.

The candidates have already interviewed with “key members of the ASD, charter, and funding community in Memphis,” said Sara Gast, a state spokeswoman. That group will provide feedback to Commissioner Candice McQueen, who will then narrow the list to two final candidates, Gast said. The last phase of the process will include public meet-and-greet opportunities before McQueen names the next superintendent.

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.