Charter Schools

Four of five charter schools denied by Memphis board appeal to the state

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Supporters of Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering (MASE) wanted Shelby County Schools to approve opening an elementary school under the charter organization.

Four charter schools whose applications were rejected by Shelby County Schools are taking their cases to the state.

The appeals are the most since 2015, when the State Board of Education first sided with a charter school in its appeal against a local school board. Two years ago, the same happened in Memphis.

The charter schools appealing to the state board are:

  • Avodah International is a new local charter organization that wanted to open Blueprint Adovah High School in South City that would partner with local companies to prepare students for various careers.
  • Memphis-based Capstone Education Group sought to open a middle school, its first school under Shelby County Schools. It operates three others in Memphis under the state-run Achievement School District, which has taken over about two dozen city schools and handed them over to charters.
  • Aspire Public Schools, which started in 1998 in California, wanted to create a middle school in Raleigh to explicitly “distinguish” the charter’s existing middle school program from its elementary. The application harkens back to a tiff between Shelby County Schools and the state Department of Education over the charter’s legal ability to add grades to its school under the Achievement School District.
  • Memphis Bioworks Foundation, the first to open a charter school in Memphis, wanted to add an elementary program to its middle and high school, Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering (MASE).

The remaining charter organization the local school board denied, California-based Green Dot Public Schools, did not appeal to the state by the deadline Friday. Green Dot was the charter network that had successfully appealed to the state previously, making Bluff City High School the first in Tennessee to open under the State Board of Education.

Jocquell Rodgers, Green Dot’s spokeswoman, said the charter network decided “to continue to refine our elementary model according to the feedback given and then re-submit our application to Shelby County Schools next year.”

If any of the appeals are successful, Shelby County Schools would have 30 days to decide whether or not they will accept the decision and retain local control. If the district or charter school refuses, the State Board of Education will oversee the charter school.

Shelby County Schools leaders said the recently rejected charter networks that currently operate under the Achievement School District “have yet to demonstrate consistent strong performance over a sufficient time period with the Memphis schools currently in their network.”

When the district used that argument to deny Green Dot’s application for its high school, the state board said the organization’s track record in California and Memphis “more than surpassed academic expectations.”

But since then, Vanderbilt University researchers said schools in the state-run district are no better off than low-performing schools that got no help from the state.

Aspire Public Schools

Aspire runs three elementary schools and one middle school in Memphis. Three of its schools are under the Achievement School District, while one elementary is authorized by Shelby County Schools.

PHOTO: Aspire Public Schools
Aspire Public Schools has named Nickalous Manning to its top job. Previously, Manning was a Memphis City Schools principal.

In its state-run schools, less than 12 percent of students scored on grade level in math and science. But middle school students in Aspire are improving faster than their peers across the state, which earned them mostly high marks on the state’s measure of student growth on tests.

Nickalous Manning, Aspire’s new Memphis superintendent, said approving their application would not be adding a new school, but merely making its middle school program official since Tennessee’s attorney general said the state-run school could not tack grades onto its existing elementary school.

“While we have only served the Memphis community for the last five years, growing from initially two schools to now four schools, our most recent Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) scores demonstrates strong performance,” Manning said in his appeal letter.

Capstone Education Group

Capstone operates Cornerstone Prep Lester Elementary School and Lester Prep Middle School in Binghampton, as well as Cornerstone Denver Elementary School in Frayser. Lester Prep Middle performed well enough on state tests in the 2016-17 school year to exit the state’s list of the bottom 5 percent of schools, but is still being closely monitored by the state to make sure they continue to improve.

The two elementary schools — which are still among the worst performing in the state — were two of the highest performers in the Achievement School District this year in math, but both struggled in English.

The charter network’s leaders argued Shelby County Schools “created an inaccurate picture” of the organization’s track record because the district omitted results from the most recent state test.

Memphis Bioworks Foundation

Rodrick Gaston, the executive director of Memphis Academy of Science & Engineering, said there is a need for more elementary schools that will keep students on track. His school has had high marks from the state on student improvement, but he wants to educate those students earlier so they don’t fall behind in the first place.

“By founding MASE Elementary School, we will reach younger students with a robust STEM curriculum, and cultivate a love of learning and high levels of achievement ​before​ they fall behind, thereby ​preventing​ an achievement gap,” he said. “Denying this opportunity means students will continue to enter MASE in sixth grade performing years below grade level, facing an achievement gap they might narrow but not close.”

District leaders lauded the charter school’s recent growth, but said there needed to be more consistent results before they would approve opening another school.

Avodah International

For the new charter organization, Avodah International, Shelby County Schools recommended the school board deny it because there were “still significant unaddressed concerns throughout the application,” after revisions. For example, the school’s budget for its planning year depended on “unsecured funds with no contingency plan.”

The school planned to use a “Big Picture Learning” model for teaching students primarily through projects and internships is also used at a Nashville charter school that has seen some success, according to a letter to the state from Alexis Gwin-Miller, Avodah’s lead founder.

Shelby County Schools commended the academic model but said the application lacked clarity in how students would be graded and how the school would seek to keep families engaged as they adjust to the new model.

The recent wave of nine application approvals, including six in buildings now occupied by the Jubilee Catholic Schools Network, would bring the total number of charter schools under the Memphis district to 63, far and away the most in the state.

The State Board of Education is working to schedule when it will hear the charter organization’s arguments in Memphis and plans to make a determination at its Oct. 19 meeting.

You can read the full appeal letters from each of the Memphis charter organizations below.



Reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this story.

ripple effect

As Denver braces for strike, charter operators seek to reassure parents, tackle pay issue

PHOTO: Seth McConnell/The Denver Post
Justin Walker helps STRIVE Prep – Montbello students work through a problem during a seventh-grade biology class on January 30, 2017.

The day after news that Denver teachers union members had voted to strike, Denver’s largest charter school operators reassured families their schools will keep operating as usual and sought to highlight their own efforts to better compensate teachers.  

Both DSST Public Schools and STRIVE Prep — which collectively educate about 9,500 students at 25 schools —  wrote emails to families and supporters Wednesday as questions swirl about the ramifications of a potential Denver strike at district-run schools.

The earliest a strike could start would be Monday, but Denver officials have asked for state intervention, a move that could delay any labor action.

Teachers at Denver’s 60 charter schools are not union members and won’t be going on strike.

But around the nation, unions have started to organize charter teachers, and the issue of teacher pay and how schools are funded has drawn more public attention.

While classes at charter schools wouldn’t be directly affected by a Denver strike, any labor action will still touch those students and their families. Many Denver charters share space with district-operated schools in district-owned buildings, and district and charter officials say they have been communicating about making sure things run normally.

We remain very supportive of all Denver teachers and all Denver schools,” DSST CEO Bill Kurtz wrote in a letter also posted online. “Yet we share in the concerns of many throughout our community about the impact a strike will have on our students and families.”

While charter schools have been a factor in district-union negotiations elsewhere — including in Los Angeles, where a strike just ended — the focus is narrower here, on the district’s ProComp pay-for-performance system for district teachers.

Denver Public Schools has long embraced charter schools as part of its nationally known “portfolio” model that calls for giving schools autonomy, allowing families to choose among them, and then closing or replacing schools if they don’t make the grade academically.

The district also allows charters space in existing schools that have it to spare, part of a “collaboration compact.” Five of STRIVE Prep’s 11 schools are co-located with district schools. STRIVE CEO Chris Gibbons said DPS has conveyed that transportation, food services, safety and security, and facility management will be operating normally at all district buildings.

Kurtz said the district is “taking proactive steps to work with everybody and ensure students and families can get to their schools each day. So we feel good about that.”

A DPS spokeswoman confirmed the district has been communicating with charter schools housed in district buildings, but did not immediately provide more details.  

Both DSST and STRIVE in their letters Wednesday mentioned the importance of paying their teachers well. DSST was more specific: Kurtz wrote that school officials last week committed to a 12 percent raise in teacher pay across the 15-school network. He described it as part of an effort over the last several years to boost compensation for all employees.    

While STRIVE’s letter did not go into such detail, Gibbons said STRIVE is also planning average raises of 10 percent to 12 percent next year, a “significant” increase.

The charter network uses a performance pay system, with teachers eligible for raises based on a combination of teacher evaluations, test results, and other tools in specific content areas.

Charter school teachers are often paid less than district teachers. A 2016 report by the Colorado Department of Education found that the average Colorado charter school teacher earned $39,052 the previous year, whereas the average salary at a district-run school was $54,455. Kurtz and Gibbons could not immediately provide information about averages salaries at their schools. 

Leaders from both Denver charter school networks say their efforts on teacher compensation are in response to broader state funding challenges and not connected to the DPS negotiations or the potential for a Denver strike.  

Colorado voters in November rejected Amendment 73, a statewide tax increase that would have raised an additional $1.6 billion a year for schools. Even without that new money, the charter leaders said they know they need to do more for teachers.

“The degree to which public funding is paying for education in Colorado is reaching crisis state,” Gibbons said. “All of us watched Amendment 73 with a great deal of interest as a potential statewide and systematic solution to funding that would  systematically impact teacher compensation. When that failed, we believed it was time to do everything we possibly could.”

Colorado doesn’t have unionized charter schools, though they do exist in other states. The nation’s first charter strike took place in Chicago in December, and another charter operator in that city is threatening one.  

Last fall, the Denver teachers union used state public records law to obtain the names, email addresses, and salaries of every charter school teacher in the school district — a signal that the union plans to try to get charter school teachers to join. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association declined to say how it planned to use the information.

Charter unions

Teachers at 4 Chicago International Charter Schools threaten Feb. 5 strike

Charter teachers announce a strike date outside of outside CICS Wrightwood Elementary School in the Ashburn neighborhood.

Unless they reach a compromise with their network bosses, teachers at four Chicago International Charter Schools will strike on Feb. 5. The teachers announced the strike date Thursday morning in response to a months-long stalemate over bargaining.

The union is demanding increased pay and benefits for both teachers and paraprofessionals, smaller class sizes, more resources for classrooms and more counseling and social work staff. Last fall, 96 percent of Chicago International’s 138 unionized educators voted to authorize a strike.

“We need to reduce staff turnover and increase stability of our schools because it creates an environment in which students can thrive and learn,” said Jen Conant, a math teacher at CICS Northtown and a union chair for negotiating members. “Compensation and benefits are key elements to reducing staff turnover.”

Chicago International is the umbrella organization for 14 schools run by a handful of management companies. Educators and some paraprofessionals at four of those schools are unionized — one run by Chicago Quest and another three by Civitas Education Partners. The four schools are ChicagoQuest, Northtown Academy, Ralph Ellison and Wrightwood.

In a statement to Chalkbeat, a spokesperson with Chicago International Charter Schools said the organization valued and respected the work of the schools’ teachers and staff but would do their best to prevent a strike.

“We know that we all come to work for the same reason – our students – and no matter the position, we are driven by the same goal of helping our students to succeed,” the statement said. But, “CICS is disappointed that the CTU has chosen to announce this strike and we will do everything we can to minimize the harm to our students and their families.”  

Chicago International also announced contingency plans at their four buildings in case of a strike: all campuses would be staffed by principals and non-union staff and remain open during usual school hours. Breakfast and lunch, along with online learning and recreational activities, would be available to students who came to school.

The announcement follows other high-profile teacher union actions. The nation’s first charter school teacher strike took place in Chicago in December, when some 500 union members at Acero charter schools walked off for a week. And Los Angeles teachers who are out on their first strike in 30 years this week were joined on the picket lines by charter educators on Tuesday.

The vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union connected the demands of teachers from Chicago International Charter Schools to the wave of teachers strikes that took place across the country in 2018.  

“Oklahoma. North Carolina. Arizona. West Virginia. Kentucky. Chicago. Los Angeles. It is very clear that in 2019 teachers are going to have to stay on the picket line to ensure smaller class sizes, to ensure that resources are really coming into our classrooms,” Stacy Davis Gates said at a press conference outside CICS Wrightwood Elementary School in the Ashburn neighborhood.

The Charter union Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ChiACTS), which originally represented charter teachers, joined the Chicago Teachers Union last summer.

This week, the Chicago Teachers Union also delivered a 75-point set of contract demands to the city addressing a wide range of issues, including a push for a 5 percent pay raise, as well as a request for district action on overcrowded classrooms and the loss of veteran black female teachers.