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.

parent support

Ignoring controversy, Noble Network backers urge renewing Chicago schools’ charter

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat


Virtually ignoring the drama that has enveloped the leadership of Noble Charter Network, a group of parents and some students passionately urged the Chicago school district Wednesday night to renew the group’s charter for 10 years.

They were the only voices at a public hearing before independent hearing officer Margaret Fitzpatrick on applications from 11 charter operators that run dozens of schools. Charters are publicly funded schools but privately operated with leeway to not follow some state education laws.

“We appreciate and respect the care and concern that our child receives at Noble,” said David Turner, explaining his son’s interest in academics blossomed after starting at Noble Street College Prep as a freshman this year.

Tina Williams told about her son entering Noble’s Johnson College Prep as a shy ninth grader four years ago. Now he’s talkative and excited about the future, Williams said.

“He is talking about college,” she said. “This school has been nothing but supportive.

Of 16 Noble high schools in Chicago, 11 received the top 1-plus rating in the latest district rankings. Only two received a rating lower than 1.

The hearing came the day after Noble President Constance Jones confirmed in a statement to the network’s  teachers that founder Michael Milkie was stepping down amid reports of “inappropriate behavior with alumni,” which included hand-holding and “an instance of slow-dancing.”

Despite the circumstances of Milkie’s departure, Turner and his wife, Jenny, told Chalkbeat they had not lost confidence in the Noble network.

“As parents this concerns us greatly, and we support the board and all of their efforts,” Turner said. “No network is perfect, but Noble offers a good quality education.”

Along with an outside law firm hired by the network’s board of directors, the Chicago Public Schools Office of Inspector General is investigating Milkie’s behavior.

“Nothing is more important than the safety of students, whether they are in a district-run school or a charter school, and the district will continue to collaborate to strengthen student safety and support,” the district said a statement. “The district is deeply concerned about these allegations and the OIG investigation will provide us with a clearer understanding of the allegations and actions that were taken to protect students.”

Milkie will retire at the end of the calendar year.

Noble network supporters, spoke mostly about how the school turned around their academics.

Alumna Diana Segovia said that she had little motivation to do well in high school during her first months at Noble’s Pritzker College Prep. But soon, extracurriculars like the debate team and strong relationships with teachers awakened her interest in education.

“Adapting to the school was very hard, but when I was ready to actually focus, my teachers were so excited,” she said.

Charter operators ask the district to renew their charter for any number of years, but the district usually gives renewals of two to seven years.

After district officials make their recommendation on renewing charters, the school board will vote on the applications Dec. 5.  


new schools

Charter-school backers pack little-advertised Chicago hearing about new charters

PHOTO: Intrinsic Schools
Eighth-grade promotion at Intrinsic Schools in Chicago.

Charter-school supporters packed a little-publicized hearing called Wednesday evening to gather input on proposals to open three specialized charter schools in the Chicago Public Schools system.

More than 50 people gathered before Margaret Fitzpatrick, an independent hearing officer hired by the district, to lobby her on proposals for three new schools. Intrinsic Charter School seeks approval for a citywide high school. Project Simeon 2000 proposes a middle school serving at-risk youth in Englewood. And Chicago Education Partnership wants to open a traditional K-8 school in Austin.

If approved, the schools would open for next school year.

As part of the first group of parents who sent their children to Intrinsic when it opened its first school, Lucy Weatherly said she unequivocally supported opening a second school under the network.  “We wanted something different for our son,” Weatherly said. “I owe them for a lifetime.”

“Intrinsic is a place that fully supports the holistic growth of students, who get a chance to really discover themselves,” said Ashley Ocanta Matthews, a teacher at Intrinsic.

While most speakers championed the charters proposals, teachers union representatives spoke forcefully against them.

“You deserve a raise, you deserve better healthcare, you deserve the ability to speak collectively with your boss, you deserve not to be terminated without cause,” said Martin Ritter, an organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union, directing his comments to teachers working at non-union charter schools.  “If you’re interested in joining a union, I’ll meet you in the hallway.”

Tension has been brewing at unionized charter schools. Teachers at the Acera charter network announced earlier Wednesday that they would strike on Dec. 4 if contract talks remain stalled.

The Chicago district already oversees 142 non-traditional campuses, either charter, contract or option schools, according to Hal Woods, director of school development with Chicago Public Schools. Contract schools are operated by private companies on contract and often offer a curriculum that differs from that in traditional schools. Option schools are privately run and serve students who have been expelled or previously incarcerated.

After a team including district employees from a variety of education fields and an out-of-state-analyst review each proposal, administrators will forward a recommendation to the board of education for a vote Dec. 5.

Intrinsic Charter School

Supporters, many from a current of Intrinsic Charter School, urged the district approve a second campus. The school, opened in 2013, has won a 1-plus rating, serving a student body that’s 90 percent Hispanic and 82 percent low-income.

The school touted its “personalized learning” model, in which a class of more than 60 students learn in “pods,” as the network calls classrooms, and move between projects and independent work. It is considering locating a new school at either 79 W. Monroe or 1357 N. Elston.

“I’m lucky we found Intrinsic,” said parent Angela Ibarra, one of many parents wearing Intrinsic T-shirts Wednesday. The school, she said, “fits my boy and is not one he had to find a way to fit into.”

Ibarra, mother of a 13-year-old, said she appreciates the individualized learning.

If approved the Intrinsic 2 high school would eventually serve 1,080 students.

Several teachers and parents spoke in support of Intrinsic, many wearing Intrinsic T-shirts. They focused on the varied paths that students could take after high school, either college or part-time work.

Kemet Leadership Academy Charter

The non-profit group Project Simeon 2000 has proposed  an alternative middle school focusing on black male students. It would feature project-based learning, comprehensive support services, and skills needed by local employers. Its supporters said the Chicago district is failing boys of color.

“I know from personal experience that it takes a black male with discipline to give black boys what they need,” said Francis Newman, mother of five African-American sons and a supporter of the proposed Kemet Academy Charter.  “No other community looks for someone outside the community to raise their children.”

The school would target students who have single parents, are more than one grade level behind academically, or have been involved in the juvenile justice system. It would serve 500 students in Greater Englewood, at a campus possibly at 6201 S. Stewart  or 6520 S. Wood.

Moving Everest 2

The Moving Everest 2 school, backed by people with roots in Christian education, promises both a “joyful and character-building school environment” for 810 students by offering academic and after-school services in the Austin area.

Michael Rogers, the founder and executive director, promised a full-time social worker, dental care, and a third meal of the day to students.

Ortabia Townsend, a mother of seven, said that she knows Austin families who have strong connections to the first Moving Everest school.

“There is a lot of love at that school,” she said.

The school, run by the Chicago Education Partnership, is rated a 2-plus. The partnership seeks to open a second school. Its current campus, projected to serve 810 K-8 students, has enrolled 444 students this year. The new school is proposed for 1830 N Leclaire Ave.

While the proposal does not mention Christian education values, several members of the school’s board of directors have their roots in Christian education. The after-school program that partners with the school, By the Hand, is a “Christ-centered” program.

After district leadership make recommendations on the schools, the school board will vote on the charter proposals Dec. 5.