ASD CLOSURE

Highest-performing state-run high school to close due to ‘sustainability challenges’

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.

For the third time, a state-run school will shutter in Memphis.

Officials with GRAD Academy announced Monday that they will close their South Memphis high school at the end of this school year. It is the only Memphis school run by Project GRAD USA, a charter organization based in Houston, as a part of Tennessee’s Achievement School District.

“This decision was made by Project GRAD USA’s board based on the sustainability challenges Memphis GRAD Academy has faced,” said Daryl Ogden, the charter organization’s CEO, in a statement. “The decision was not based on any performance issues.”

The announcement comes on the heels of major changes to the state’s turnaround district and signals the end of its highest-performing high school. GRAD Academy has the greatest percentage of ASD high students scoring on grade level, according to state data from 2017.  

But the high school has lagged in enrollment. About 535 students were enrolled during the 2016-17 school year compared to 468 at the start of the 2017-18 year, a drop of about 13 percent.  

Ogden said students and parents were informed about the upcoming closure on Monday morning. He added that students will receive support through meetings and information sessions as they prepare to find a new school.

Kathleen Airhart, the ASD’s interim superintendent, said the state-run district will support those efforts and help teachers there find new positions.

“We have appreciated GRAD Academy’s work to serve additional high school students and are now focused on ensuring those same students can transition seamlessly this summer into their next school or postsecondary institution,” said Airhart. “We want to create as much stability as possible so students’ progress continues over the course of this semester and into the future.”

Memphis GRAD Academy opened in 2013 as a “new start” school under the state-run district, meaning that it started from scratch and was not an existing low-performing school taken from the local district with the charge of turning it around.

KIPP Memphis University Middle School, also a new start in south Memphis under the Achievement School District, shuttered last May. Klondike Preparatory Academy Elementary shut down last spring after its operator, Gestalt Community Schools, pulled out of the ASD completely. Now, state legislation passed in 2017 prohibits the Achievement School District from creating new start schools. 

Both KIPP and Gestalt cited lagging enrollment as a challenge to long-term sustainability. Ogden did not immediately respond to questions on whether enrollment was the key issue behind the decision to close GRAD Academy.

The Achievement School District was established by the state in 2012 with the goal of vaulting the state’s 5 percent of lowest-achieving schools to the top 25 percent within five years, but test scores and research have shown it’s fallen short of that initial goal. After the closure of GRAD Academy, the state-run district will run 31 schools in Memphis and Nashville.

Reporter Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.

while you were sleeping

Bronx transfer school is shuttered after late-night vote, a first for Chancellor Carranza

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Supporters of Crotona Academy protested against the city's plans to close it at a Panel for Educational Policy meeting.

Chancellor Richard Carranza’s introduction to New York City continued Wednesday with an eight hour meeting in which teachers and students desperately pled for their school not to be closed, only to have the city school board vote to shutter it.

Even after hearing a musical performance from students hoping to keep Crotona Academy open, the Panel for Educational Policy voted around 1 a.m. Thursday to shutter the Bronx high school that serves students who have struggled at traditional high schools.


Some of the school’s supporters appealed directly to Carranza, arguing that he should reconsider proposals created under his predecessor, Carmen Fariña.

“You see how many people are here right now — people want this school open,” said Dallas Joseph, a 17-year-old student at the school. He noted that the school offers lots of individualized attention and set him up with a job at an after-school program. “They gave us a different type of opportunity.”

It’s an argument that supporters of the city’s “transfer” high schools, which serve students who have fallen behind in credits at traditional schools and are likely to be at risk of dropping out, have long made when the city has called attention to their low performance. Advocates for the schools have long pointed out that looking at graduation rates and test scores is not the best way to assess their value, and in the past, city officials have withdrawn closure proposals for transfer schools that they said were doing better than performance data suggested.

Indeed, Crotona’s supporters said traditional statistics mask the school’s successes. Former students said the school helped them get to graduation despite falling behind at other high schools. And staffers pointed out the school serves an unusually vulnerable population.

“Our population is among the most at-risk in the city,” said Nicholas Rivera, a staff member at the school.

Their argument did not fly overnight. City officials said Crotona is too low-performing to stay open and that other transfer schools in the Bronx have enough space to absorb its students. The school’s 45 percent graduation rate puts it among the bottom third of all transfer schools, according to education department documents, and just 1 percent of the students who graduated last school year were considered “college-ready.”

“We take the decision to close a school extremely seriously, and we only propose closure when it’s in the best interest of students and families,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email. “The students at Crotona Academy can be better served by one of the stronger transfer schools in the Bronx.”

Carranza did not comment as the panel debated the proposal or another contentious one to merge two other Bronx transfer schools: Bedford Stuyvesant Preparatory High School and Brooklyn Academy High School. Nor did he comment on the decisions after they were made around 1 a.m.

The final vote on both proposals was 7-5, with mayoral appointees voting in favor, and all five borough representatives voting no. (While Mayor Bill de Blasio said he would let his appointees vote as they wished, he recently replaced a mayoral appointee who voted against a city proposal.)

The panel also voted to merge six other schools — a process that some school communities often experience as de facto closures.

  • Holcombe L. Rucker and Longwood Preparatory Academy, both part of the city’s “Renewal” turnaround program for low-performing schools.
  • Middle School of Marketing and Legal Studies and East Flatbush Community Research School, in Brooklyn
  • Aspirations Diploma Plus High School and W.E.B. Dubois Academic High School, also transfer schools, in Brooklyn

sorting the students

Facing closure, some Memphis parents hope to form K-8 school, but others aren’t sold

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A community group proposed combining Manor Lake Elementary and Geeter Middle School, but elementary parents aren't convinced.

About 35 frustrated parents and teachers from Manor Lake Elementary School made it clear to district officials in a recent meeting that they don’t want their school merged with a nearby middle school.

The reaction from Manor Lake parents dashed hopes that a proposal from other parents to combine the school with Geeter Middle School would gain support.

The parents who made the proposal are part of a larger leadership group representing the Whitehaven Empowerment Zone, which both schools will enter next year. Also in that group are students, teachers, and community leaders who represent a cluster of low-performing neighborhood schools.

Shelby County Schools officials had hoped that a proposal generated by parents would help win support from other parents in the neighborhood because parents rarely support closing a school.

Some of the parents at Manor Lake told district officials they fear the influence of older students if their school is combined with Geeter.

The district hopes that if the schools in that zone work together, test scores will improve. Parent and community leaders said the consolidation would stave off closure by the district, which would scatter students to other elementary schools outside the neighborhood.

District leaders saw the move as a way to avoid state takeover by combining resources into one building, allowing them to direct more money to improving academic performance. Both Manor Lake Elementary and Geeter Middle feed into Fairley High School, a charter school under the state-run Achievement School District.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Vincent Hunter, principal of Whitehaven High School and leader of the Empowerment Zone, addresses Manor Lake Elementary parents.

“If we sit back and do nothing and are not aggressive in our treatment, then now we become victims or potential victims of the ASD,” said Vincent Hunter, the principal of Whitehaven High School and leader of the Empowerment Zone.

Manor Lake teacher Lisa Chalmers said even though the proposal would allow students to stick together, she was worried about the blight of another empty building in an area that has experienced many school closures in recent years.

“I know they [the state] want our schools. But we want our schools too,” she said.

District leaders described the school’s declining test scores, poor building condition, and low enrollment as other reasons for combining the schools, which are both at risk of closure. Teachers in the audience attributed the lack of academic growth to adding students from at least two schools that had been closed in recent years.

Either way, the schools will face disruption going into next school year. As part of entering the Whitehaven Empowerment Zone next year, all teachers at both schools will have to re-apply to their positions — a common practice among turnaround programs.

The meeting last week was the second convened by district leaders after Superintendent Dorsey Hopson presented the proposal to the school board last month. Parents said the proposal came as a surprise and that they didn’t know about the first meeting held soon after Hopson’s announcement.

Proponents of combining elementary and middle grades say if students change schools fewer times between kindergarten and 12th grade, they perform better on tests. But studies on the topic are mixed. A 2011 University of Minnesota review of relevant studies said more research is needed to be definitive.

Sherrie Jackson, who despite not living in Manor Lake’s boundary chose the school for her two children, called the idea “ludicrous” because she didn’t want her rising kindergartner to be in the same building as eighth graders.

“What if one of these small children get hurt with those big kids over there?” she asked. “The more kids you have in the school, the less one-on-one time they get.”

Hunter said elementary and middle school students would be on separate floors of the building, a similar set up to the district’s 13 other K-8 schools.

“The only thing that’s going to make you feel totally better is when you see it and live it,” he told Jackson during the meeting. Still, Jackson and others said they would take their students elsewhere if the district goes through with the proposal.

“I’m just going to have to look around, probably transfer her, see where I can find a school for her to go to that’s K through fifth grade,” said Kimeri Golden, whose daughter is a third-grader at Manor Lake, after the meeting.

The school board is scheduled to give its final vote on the proposal at its regular meeting in April.