Public will weigh in as district recommends closing one charter school, renewing three

Update Nov. 30: The hearing is scheduled for 4 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 4 at the school board auditorium, 160 S. Hollywood St.

Shelby County Schools is recommending a vote to close City University Boys Preparatory. But Memphis school board members want to give school leaders and the public a chance to weigh in before they decide whether or not to shutter the 10-year-old charter school.

This is the school board’s first review of charter school renewals, which happens every 10 years. District officials are also recommending the extension of contracts for City University Liberal Arts High School, Freedom Prep and STAR Academy — all charters in Memphis.

This isn’t the first time City University’s school for boys has been in danger of closing. Back in 2015, the district threatened to shut it down for low academic performance, but ultimately gave the middle school another chance. If the board votes with the district’s recommendation, its students will need to find a new school at the end of the school year. City University currently serves 88 students in grades 6 to 8.

A hearing is tentatively scheduled for Dec. 11, but Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson, along with some board members, want to fast-track the process so parents have more time to find another school if the board affirms the recommendation. According to state law, the board needs to vote by Feb. 1, but Hopson is suggesting a final decision before winter break, which begins Dec. 20.

Brad Leon, chief of strategy and performance management, during a meeting with charter leaders.

“We’re starting as early as possible so parents can know what situation they will find themselves in,” said Brad Leon, the district’s chief of strategy and performance management.

The hearing is in step with a two-year effort to mend relationships between charter and district leaders. The recommendations from discussions between the two entities are still being finalized in district policy. Board member Miska Clay Bibbs said it was clear during those meetings charter school leaders wanted an “opportunity to be heard,” and to dispute decisions they oppose.

Leon said the district graded the four schools up for renewal or revocation on their academic performance, facilities, and financial health over the past decade. His team started collecting data and information from the schools in 2017 and conducted site visits to gather on-the-ground observations.

City University Prep fell short on student achievement and growth, Leon said, noting renewing the charter would not be “a wise investment or in the best interest of students.”

“In many ways, past performance can predict future performance,” he said. “If it was likely this school could have turned a corner, we would have seen it by now.”

By contrast, Freedom Prep, City University Liberal Arts High School, and STAR Academy have shown adequate academic progress, Leon said. For STAR Academy, that means district leaders believe the K-5 school merits adding sixth grade to its offerings.

On the last round of state tests, 12.3 percent of students at the City University middle school scored at grade level in English and 9.2 percent scored at grade level in math. Over the course of its history, City University achieved its highest scores during the 2014-15 school year, with 31.8 percent and 25.8 percent scoring at grade level in English and math, respectively. Districtwide, 23.9 percent of students were at grade level in English and 28.6 percent were at grade level in math last year.

Reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this story.