Memphis board approves the opening of nine charter schools in 2019

The school board for Shelby County Schools on Tuesday approved the opening of nine charter schools in 2019, including six in buildings now occupied by a network of Catholic schools.

That would bring the number of charter schools in Tennessee’s largest district to 63 — far and away the most in the state.

Of the 10 applicants this year, the school board voted 5-3 to approve four organizations: Aster College Prep, Freedom Preparatory Academy, Memphis Merit Academy, and New Day Schools. Board members Miska Clay Bibbs, Stephanie Love, and Mike Kernell voted no; Chris Caldwell was absent.

All but Freedom Preparatory Academy are new nonprofits. Together, the four organizations would eventually serve a projected 3,300 students across Memphis.

New Day Schools formed in February to convert six schools in the Jubilee Catholic Schools Network, which serves students from low-incomes families and is slated to close at the end of the school year. New Day Schools’ simultaneous openings would be the largest by a charter organization in Memphis.

Aster College Prep and Memphis Merit Academy are led by educators who went through a fellowship program for new school leaders, Building Excellent Schools.

Supporters of Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering (MASE) wanted Shelby County Schools to approve opening an elementary school under the charter organization. (Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat)

Among the rejected were three charter organizations that operate additional schools overseen by the Achievement School District, the state district for low-performing schools. Also, the school board rejected an application from the organization that opened the city’s first charter school, Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering (MASE).

Under state law, the denied operators have 10 days to file an appeal to the state Board of Education. Green Dot Public Schools, one of the rejected applicants, won a similar complaint two years ago, resulting in the first charter school in Memphis authorized by the state board. But the organization has not decided if it will appeal, said Megan Quaile, the executive director.

Larry Neal, the board chair for Green Dot, said before the board vote that despite the network’s strained relationship with Shelby County Schools in the past, he hoped the proposed school could be an opportunity to start over.

“We are asking Shelby County Schools if you would consider this a chance for us to start that relationship over again,” he told board members.

But Brad Leon, the Memphis district’s chief of strategy and performance management, said organizations running existing schools that did not meet district expectations for performance were rejected.

Supporters of several of the charter school applicants filled the room during the board’s special meeting Tuesday evening. One student at the Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering said she wished there had been an elementary school in the organization’s network when she was younger.

“When I first came to MASE I was academically unstable,” said Ronya Pullun, who attends the high school. Now she’s taking honors classes.

Board members who voted against the charter schools said there are too many in some neighborhoods. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson agreed and urged the board to create policy to consider neighborhood saturation when reviewing charter applications.

“No surprise, we have too many schools in Memphis,” Hopson said. “If you got 12 schools in a three-mile radius… and all of them are under-enrolled, we’re not serving kids well.”