Memphis charter network Gestalt to pull out of two state-run schools

Leaders of a Memphis-based charter network announced plans on Friday to exit its operations of two local schools under the state-run Achievement School District due to declining enrollment.

Gestalt Community Schools will cease to manage Humes Preparatory Academy Middle and Klondike Preparatory Academy Elementary, both in North Memphis, after the 2016-17 school year.

The network is the first to pull out of operations of an ASD school since 2012 when the turnaround district began to take control of low-performing schools, usually assigning them to charter operators.

The state-run district operates 31 schools in Memphis and two in Nashville, and its leaders are eyeing expansion to Chattanooga in 2018.

Gestalt leaders say they will work with the ASD to transition the two Memphis schools to a different charter network or to another option.

“Our primary goal as a network is to provide high-quality public education to all of our scholars,” CEO Yetta Lewis said in a news release. “Despite diligent efforts to apply our successful model at Humes and Klondike, enrollment numbers have continued to decline, as families migrate to other parts of Memphis.”

Humes was in the first cohort of six schools taken over by the ASD in 2012, and Klondike became part of the second cohort the following year. They are the only two ASD schools operated by Gestalt, which runs four other Memphis charter schools authorized by Shelby County Schools.

Gestalt leaders placed the blame for its pullout squarely on problems related to declining enrollment. Humes is operating at 69 percent of capacity and Klondike at 33 percent.

“Despite initial capital investments and detailed scholar recruitment efforts, the impact of North Memphis’ declining population of families with school-aged children has affected both schools, causing cuts or reductions in programs key to the network’s model, such as STEM programming, tutoring services, teacher assistants and arts programs,” the release said.

The number of children ages 5 to 14 in North Memphis has declined by 31 percent since 2000, according to the Greater Memphis Chamber.

ASD leaders said they “understand and respect” Gestalt’s decision.

“We are going to continue to work with Gestalt Community Schools and communities in North Memphis to determine next steps with full input of communities,” spokeswoman Letita Aaron said late Friday afternoon.

Mendell Grinter, executive director of the Campaign for School Equity, a black advocacy group favoring more school choices for low-income families of color, called Gestalt’s pullout plan a “tough, but necessary decision” based on enrollment.

It’s the second high-profile pullout by Gestalt in as many years. The network had planned to open a school at the massive midtown development known as Crosstown Concourse but backed out of that deal last year. A group of local stakeholders have since obtained a charter from Shelby County Schools to open Crosstown High School in that location, planned for 2018.

The announcement comes weeks after Gestalt helped to dedicate a performing arts center next to its recently relocated Power Center Academy Middle School as part of a community partnership to revitalize the Hickory Hill area of south Memphis. The nonprofit organization uses an approach different from most charter operators and seeks to develop its schools alongside larger community revitalization projects.