Warning

Here are seven Memphis charter schools in danger of closing

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Students at Memphis Delta Preparatory are seated for class. The charter school is one of seven in Memphis in danger of being closed if they don't improve academically under Shelby County Schools' new review process.

Seven Memphis charter schools could close in 2020 if they don’t improve, based on Shelby County Schools’ first report card comparing its schools.

The district’s newly released school performance scorecard rated seven of its 51 charters below 2 on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the top score. Under a new accountability system for charter schools, those that fall below 2 automatically begin a review process and must improve within two years or face revocation of their charters by the school board.

The schools in jeopardy are:

  • Dubois Elementary Arts & Technology
  • Memphis Delta Preparatory
  • Excel Center
  • Dubois High Arts & Technology
  • Dubois Middle Leadership & Public Policy
  • Granville T. Woods Academy of Innovation
  • KIPP Memphis Collegiate Elementary

In all, the seven publicly funded, privately managed schools serve 2,285 students. Three of the schools are operated by W.E.B. DuBois Consortium of Charter Schools, founded by Willie Herenton, the former superintendent of Memphis City Schools.

The scorecard compares test scores, academic growth, suspension and attendance rates, and whether students are prepared for life after high school, using data from the State Department of Education.

The main goal is to provide information to parents, community members, and policymakers and not to punish low-performing schools, said Brad Leon, chief of strategy and performance management. The exception is charter schools, where consequences are attached for a low score under a new accountability system developed by district and charter leaders.

But the schools on this year’s scorecard could close even sooner than 2020.

The state recently warned all seven schools that they are in danger of appearing on Tennessee’s “priority list” of schools in the bottom 5 percent, based on their performance on last year’s standardized tests. The Department of Education will release the list this fall, and charters on it will automatically be closed. Two other Memphis charters — Dubois High Leadership & Public Policy and City University School Girls Preparatory — are also on the warning list and in danger of being shuttered by the state, but didn’t score low enough to begin Shelby County’s review process.

Here’s an outline of the new review process under Shelby County’s scorecard:

  1. Charter schools that do not meet minimum expectations are notified by the district.
  2. Within a month, school leaders meet with district administrators to present an action plan. (The seven schools on this year’s list must submit their plan by Feb. 12.)
  3. District administrators may check in as the plan is executed but give the charter school full autonomy to make the improvements they deem necessary.
  4. If the charter school does not meet expectations for a second consecutive school year, they will be notified.
  5. The school must develop a second action plan.
  6. If the charter school does not meet expectations for a third consecutive school year, district leadership will recommend to the school board that its charter be revoked.

The process stands in stark contrast to the school board’s 2016 decision to revoke the charters of three Memphis schools. Their recommended closure came with little warning, and charter leaders complained that the process was rushed and haphazard. They also noted that some of the district’s lowest-performing charters were not scrutinized. The State Board of Education later upheld the Memphis board’s ruling, but criticized Shelby County Schools for its process.

In this year’s scorecard, 10 new charter schools did not receive a score because either they don’t have a third-grade class to measure state test scores or have not tested yet.

And two high schools — Dubois High Leadership & Public Policy and Freedom Preparatory Academy — did not have enough data to generate a score on how well they prepare students to enroll in college or directly enter the workforce because they did not have a graduating class in 2016, where the data was pulled. Freedom Preparatory Academy was not in danger of slipping below the threshold, but Dubois High Leadership & Public Policy was close.

Future of Schools

Mike Feinberg, KIPP co-founder, fired after misconduct investigation

PHOTO: Photo by Neville Elder/Corbis via Getty Images

Mike Feinberg, the co-founder of the KIPP charter network, has been fired after an investigation into sexual misconduct, its leaders announced Thursday.

KIPP found “credible evidence” connected to allegations that Feinberg abused a student in the late 1990s, according to a letter sent to students and staff. Feinberg denies the allegations.

“We recognize this news will come as a shock to many in the KIPP Team and Family as we struggle to reconcile Mr. Feinberg’s 24 years of significant contributions with the findings of this investigation,” the letter says.

It’s a stunning move at one of the country’s best-known charter school organizations — and one where Feinberg has been in a leadership role for more than two decades. Feinberg started KIPP along with Dave Levin in Houston in 1994, and Levin brought the model to New York City the next year. The network became known for its “no excuses” model of strict discipline and attention to academic performance.

KIPP says it first heard the allegation last spring. The network eventually hired the law firm WilmerHale to conduct an external investigation, which found evidence that Feinberg had sexually harassed two adults, both alums of the school who were then employed by KIPP in Houston, the network said.

“In light of the nature of the allegations and the passage of time, critical facts about these events may never be conclusively determined. What is clear, however, is that, at a minimum, Mr. Feinberg put himself into situations where his conduct could be seriously misconstrued,” KIPP wrote in the letter, signed by CEO Richard Barth and KIPP’s Houston leader, Sehba Ali.

Feinberg’s lawyer, Chris Tritico, told the Houston Chronicle that Feinberg had not been fully informed about the allegations against him.

“The treatment he received today from the board that he put in place is wrong, and it’s not what someone who has made the contributions he’s made deserves,” Tritico said.

Read KIPP’s full letter here.

Knock knock

House call: One struggling Aurora high school has moved parent-teacher conferences to family homes

A social studies teacher gives a class to freshman at Aurora Central High School in April 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

When Aurora Central High School held traditional parent-teacher conference nights, fewer than 75 parents showed up.

This year, by taking the conferences to students’ homes, principal Gerardo De La Garza says the school has already logged more than 400 meetings with parents.

“This is something a lot of our families wanted,” De La Garza said. “We decided we wanted to add home visits as a way to build relationships with our community. The attendance at the traditional conferences was not where we wanted it to be.”

The home visits aren’t meant to reach every single student, though — the school has more than 2,000 enrolled this year. Instead, teams of teachers serving the same grade of students work together to identify students who need additional help or are having some issues. On Fridays, when the school lets out early, teachers are to go out and meet with those families. In some cases, they also schedule visits during other times.

Some parents and students say they weren’t made aware about the change and questioned if it was a good idea, while others welcomed the different approach.

“I felt when we go home that’s kind of our space, so I wasn’t comfortable with it,” said Akolda Redgebol, a senior at Aurora Central. Her family hasn’t had a home visit. “My parents, they thought it was a little odd, too.”

A father of another Aurora Central senior spoke to the school board about the change at a meeting earlier this month.

“There’s been a lot of changes over all these years, but one thing we could always count on was the opportunity to sit down with our child’s teachers during parent teacher conferences,” he said. “I hope this new program works, I really do, but why stop holding parent teacher conference nights at the high school? I haven’t had a single meeting. I haven’t met any of his teachers this year. Also why weren’t the parents told? I got two text messages, an email, and a phone call to let me know about a coffee meeting, but not a single notice about cancelling parent teacher conferences.”

Research examining the value of parent-teacher conferences is limited, but researchers do say that increased parent engagement can help lift student achievement. This year, the struggling Commerce City-based school district of Adams 14 also eliminated traditional parent-teacher conference nights from their calendar as a way to make more use of time. But after significant pushback from parents and teachers, the district announced it will return to the traditional approach next year.

Aurora Central High School is one of five in Aurora Public Schools’ “innovation zone,” one of Superintendent Rico Munn’s signature strategies for turning around struggling schools.

The school reached a limit of low performance ratings from the state and last year was put on a state-ordered improvement plan. That plan allowed the school to press on with its innovation plan, which was approved in 2016 and grants it some autonomy for decisions on its budget, school calendar, and school model.

As part of the school’s engagement with parents, the school in the last few years has hired a family liaison, though there’s been some turnover with that position. The school also hosts monthly parent coffee nights, as has become common across many Aurora schools.

As part of the innovation plan, school and community leaders also included plans to increase home visits.

Home visits have also become popular across many school districts as another way to better connect with families. Often, teachers are taught to use the visit as a time to build relationships, not to discuss academic performance or student behavior issues.

That’s not the case at Aurora Central. Principal De La Garza said it is just about taking the parent-teacher conference to the parent’s home. And teachers have been trained on how to have those conversations, he said.

The innovation plan didn’t mention removing conference nights, however.

De La Garza said that’s because parent-teacher conferences are still an option. If parents want to request a conference, or drop by on Fridays to talk to teachers, they still can.

Those Fridays when students end classes early are also the days teachers are expected to make house calls to contact families.

Teachers are expected to reach a certain number of families each Friday, though school and district staff could not provide that exact number.

Bruce Wilcox, the president of the Aurora teachers union, said that it’s important to better engage families, but that balance is needed so not all of the responsibility is put on teachers who are already busy.

Wilcox said he would also worry about teachers having less access to resources, such as translators, during home meetings.

Maria Chavez, a mother of a freshman at Aurora Central, just had a home visit last week. She learned about the school’s strategy when she was called about setting up the visit.

Another, older daughter, was the interpreter during the home meeting with three teachers.

“For me, it was a nice experience,” Chavez said. “As parents, and even the kids, we feel more trust with the teachers.”

Chavez said she goes to parent-teacher conferences with her elementary-aged daughter, but doesn’t always have time for conferences with her high-school-aged daughter, so the home visit was convenient. Chavez also said she was able to ask questions, and said the teachers were able to answer her concerns.

“Maybe I wouldn’t say this should be how every conference happens,” she said, “but it is a good idea.”