Charter move

Here are the losers as a Memphis charter school packs up and moves across town

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Derek King served as director of culture at Memphis Scholars Raleigh Egypt Middle School, which is relocating across town. He's among the faculty who won't make the move.

Edwina Hankins thought long and hard about where to send her son for his eighth-grade year.

A longtime resident of north Memphis, she was looking for a new start for Quinten, who struggled with grades while attending a traditional local school under Shelby County Schools. She also was concerned about reports of violence there.

So when the state took control of Quinten’s middle school last summer and chose Memphis Scholars to reopen it as a charter school, Hankins decided to take a chance and invest in the change.

“His Memphis Scholars grades started pretty rocky, but the teachers worked with him pretty great, and he did best he’s ever done,” she said of her family’s experience at Memphis Scholars Raleigh-Egypt Middle School.

Now Hankins is grappling with the reality that the charter school won’t be there for her elementary-age daughter when she reaches sixth grade, or for students who had planned to return this fall.

Memphis Scholars announced in late May that it’s leaving the Raleigh neighborhood it signed up to serve — and moving 16 miles across town to operate alongside the charter management organization’s Florida-Kansas Elementary School. It’s offering to bus Raleigh students every day to and from the new campus.

Officials at Memphis Scholars say they are just trying to be good stewards of scarce neighborhood resources that are spread too thin in Raleigh among several school turnaround programs. But the decision has frustrated students, parents, faculty and neighborhood leaders who had committed to the charter school when it opened last fall under Memphis Scholars.

“I referred people to that school …,” Hankins said in an exasperated tone. “I assumed they would be in our neighborhood for the long haul.”

The school’s faculty are equally disappointed. They learned about the move during the last week of classes, and were told they would have to reapply for a fewer number of spots. Only three educators have taken Memphis Scholars up on that offer, according to charter organization leaders.

“Moving to Florida-Kansas was a business decision,” said Derek King, who opted not to reapply for his job as director of culture and football coach. “It had nothing to do with the kids. Teachers and parents feel like this wasn’t given a real chance. We were only here a year.”

The cross-town relocation is the latest in a series of strategic moves that began after the state-run Achievement School District took control of the low-performing middle school last summer and picked Memphis Scholars to step in. Seeking to retain both students and funding, Shelby County Schools then added middle school grades next door at Raleigh-Egypt High School, which shares a campus with the Memphis Scholars school.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A red line on a hallway floor is designed to separate middle school students from those in upper grades at the newly reconfigured Raleigh-Egypt High School.

That set up a peculiar arrangement in which both schools — one operated by the state, and one by the local district — were seeking to enroll the same middle school students from the Raleigh community. By the end of its first school year, Memphis Scholars had 189 students enrolled, only half of the number it was aiming for, making it difficult to fund the kind of expensive supports needed for school turnaround work.

Memphis Scholars Director Nick Patterson said the nail in the coffin came this spring when Shelby County Schools announced plans to move Raleigh-Egypt Middle-High School into the district’s Innovation Zone, another turnaround program. That plan created “two schools, on the same campus, serving the same grades, both implementing expensive school-turnaround initiatives,” he said.

The charter operator entered a month of talks with the ASD and the State Department of Education, which approved the cross-town move — effectively closing Raleigh-Egypt Middle and providing a middle school option for elementary-age students at Florida-Kansas to stay with Memphis Scholars.

Whether or not that sticks is up in the air. Leaders for Shelby County Schools say Memphis Scholars can’t just pick up and move to another building where they already had tried unsuccessfully to add grades. The district is exploring legal options to keep that from happening.

“It’s one thing for the ASD to say we don’t like the school building. … We’re going to move a block away and still service that community,” said Rodney Moore, legal counsel for Shelby County Schools. “But nobody in their right mind can believe they have any interest in serving the Raleigh-Egypt community. They’ve essentially indicated that they want to take away the academic resources from that school building, move it across town, which is essentially robbing that community of valuable resources.”

Patterson says the move complies with state law and makes sense given the decision by Shelby County Schools to move Raleigh-Egypt Middle-High School to the iZone.

“Memphis Scholars strongly believes that this duplication of interventions is not in the best interest of students and families as it divides scarce resources between two schools,” he said in announcing the move.

As for a potential legal challenge, Patterson is optimistic it won’t come to that. “Our hope is this situation is resolved quickly so students and families can start school as they’ve been planning to do,” he said.

Even though the relocated school will no longer be in Raleigh, Memphis Scholars plans to keep the school’s Raleigh-Egypt name — to avoid confusion, according to Patterson.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
The school building being left behind will stand empty this fall.

But confusion lingers for students and parents who feel left behind in Raleigh, many of whom didn’t find out their school was moving until well into the summer.

“This is the first time I’m hearing of the school moving …,” said Amber Knox, a mother of two rising seventh-graders, last month. “But I can tell you they won’t be attending next year. That’s way too far. They’re going to inconvenience a lot of parents.”

Patterson said Memphis Scholars is working with parent groups like Memphis Lift and Fathers & Education to make sure all parents are informed about the move and the transportation option.

Still, several outgoing teachers think it’s more likely that parents will choose another school, just as most faculty members are.

“It was a sudden shock for the teachers, but also for the whole neighborhood,” said Angela Moore, who taught sixth grade for Memphis Scholars. “I have students still calling (and) asking me where they should go to school. There’s a lot of confusion, because a lot of parents still don’t know the school is closing and moving. I’m trying to figure out how parents are going to know about a bus when they didn’t even tell parents they were closing.”


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.