Three Memphis high schoolers, two parents, and a former volunteer stood before the Shelby County Schools board on Tuesday night and called for an investigation into a district charter school.
Trumg Lee, an 11th-grader at Southwest Early College High School was among those who spoke at the evening board meeting. He said when he started as part of the school’s first ninth-grade class, he was excited for the opportunity to gain college credit.
The high school launched a program two years ago with Southwest Community College, allowing its students to graduate with as many as 60 hours in college credits and an associate degree.
But those who spoke Tuesday night described a school with high rates of principal and teacher turnover and poor communication. They called on the school board to investigate the school, something that happens rarely in a school board meeting.
“I believe the vision was an amazing goal – to earn an associate degree by graduation,” said Trumg, who added that he’s seen two principals leave in his two years there. “But without proper execution, the plan is useless. We should no longer be silent on what school has done to our lives.”
Superintendent Joris Ray said what he heard gave him “grave concern,” but stopped short of saying the district would investigate. He did say he had ordered the school to respond to the concerns by Wednesday.
“We trust appropriate protocols will adequately address all complaints and concerns in a timely manner,” Ray said. To that end, if parents choose to withdraw their students from this charter school, our doors are open at Shelby County Schools.”
Ashley Smith, the school’s founder and its current principal, did not return a request for comment. However, she did address parents and students in a video sent to the school’s population on Aug. 19. A parent shared the video with Chalkbeat, and in it, Smith says that employees had been spreading misinformation about the school.
“I have an open-door policy, you can come anytime to see me,” Smith said. “I ask that those of you listening to this video, give us a chance to show you that what I’ve told you is true and is going to be good and the best for your student. I also want to apologize for not communicating with you sooner about changes or just this year in general.”
The high school enrolled 99 students during its first year, according to state data. Its latest scores on the state exam fell below district averages, and it had received a good rating from Shelby County Schools in the district’s own report card. The school’s goal was to enroll 267 students this year, according to its 2018 impact report.
Iseashia Thomas, a parent who spoke at the Tuesday meeting, said she withdrew her son because she believed the school had staffing shortages and she felt her son wasn’t being properly taught.
“We were told they would graduate with a diploma and an associate degree,” Thomas said. “But some of the students don’t have the credits they need to graduate…they do not have teachers.”
In an email to parents dated Aug. 16, Smith gave an update on school staffing, saying, “Until we find math teachers who meet our standard of excellence in the classroom,” 10th and 11th-grade math will be taught online through Proximity Learning. She added that she was still looking for an English 2 and English 3 teacher.
“In the past four weeks we lost four teachers, one of whom left a week ago, Friday,” Smith said in the email. “As we strive to make our school the best it can be for our students, we will lose people. This is expected, but the timing has been quite unfortunate.”
Carol Russell, the guardian of two Southwest students, said she was taking her students to Kirby High School tomorrow to try to enroll them. She added that Tuesday night was the first time she felt her concerns had been heard.
Because it’s a charter school, Southwest Early College High School has its own governing board. Russell said she had emailed the board members consistently with her concerns but had not heard back.
Brad Leon, chief of strategy and performance management for the district, said his office had reached out to the school board and asked for written responses to parents’ complaints.
“We’ve been talking daily with the school,” Leon said. “It’s heartbreaking to hear the challenges students and parents are facing.”