State abruptly ends adult education contract with Shelby County Schools

More than 800 adult learners in Memphis are expected to be impacted beginning this week as a result of the state’s decision to cancel its $800,000 adult education contract with Shelby County Schools.

The district was notified of the canceled contract in a Feb. 4 letter from Jason Beard, administrator of adult education programs for the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

Beard’s letter did not identify a reason for the shutdown, but department spokesman Chris Cannon cited the district’s low graduation rate for its program to help adults obtain their high school equivalency diploma. Between July and December of last year, the program graduated only 24 students, he said.

The severed contract also will impact students in the district’s adult classes for English language learners, Cannon said, although he was uncertain about the size of that program.

For at least the last five years, the programs have operated out of Messick Adult Center. Located in Orange Mound, a low-income neighborhood of Memphis, Messick is the only adult education program run by Shelby County Schools.

Shelby County is home to a significant number of residents who are not high school graduates. More than 93,000 people older than 18 do not have a high school diploma, according to U.S. Census data.

As of January, 882 students were participating in the district’s high school equivalency courses, according to Cannon.

The state’s letter said the contract would be terminated effective March 7, but state and district officials later agreed to end classes this Thursday. Last week, state workers began removing interactive whiteboards and other technology from classrooms at Messick.

The current contract was set to end June 30 but, after “an ongoing, year-long dialogue with Shelby County Schools regarding their performance,” the state terminated the contract, Cannon said.

“Each day this decision was prolonged was a day that could have been utilized to improve the program for the citizens of Shelby County,” Cannon said in an email. “After numerous exhaustive efforts to bring about improvement, termination of the contract was the only option left available.”

A statement released Tuesday from Shelby County Schools acknowledged that the state has canceled the district’s contract and noted that the cancellation notice did not cite a cause. “The District is unaware of any further concerns on behalf of the state regarding Messick,” the statement said.

Cannon said the state will find a replacement provider within 30 days. In the meantime, HopeWorks, a nonprofit organization and the state’s only other adult education provider in Memphis, will transition students into its program.

HopeWorks Executive Director Ron Wade said his organization has six facilities and is confident it can absorb the new students. “The most important thing for us is to make sure there are no transition issues that come through,” said Wade, adding that HopeWorks should be able to make “geographical adjustments” for students who face transportation challenges.

Rogelio Santos, a student enrolled in the GED program at Messick, said Tuesday that he and his classmates have not been informed of an impending shutdown. He said he noticed last week that computers had been removed from the classroom but, other than that, “everything seemed normal.”

“If the classes are ending, they haven’t told us,” Santos said. “I’m planning on going to class tomorrow. Maybe I’ll find out something then.”


Editor’s note: This story updates an earlier version to include the state’s clarification that English language learner students at Messick will be impacted as well.