Four of five charter schools denied by Memphis board appeal to the state

Four charter schools whose applications were rejected by Shelby County Schools are taking their cases to the state.

The appeals are the most since 2015, when the State Board of Education first sided with a charter school in its appeal against a local school board. Two years ago, the same happened in Memphis.

The charter schools appealing to the state board are:

  • Avodah International is a new local charter organization that wanted to open Blueprint Adovah High School in South City that would partner with local companies to prepare students for various careers.
  • Memphis-based Capstone Education Group sought to open a middle school, its first school under Shelby County Schools. It operates three others in Memphis under the state-run Achievement School District, which has taken over about two dozen city schools and handed them over to charters.
  • Aspire Public Schools, which started in 1998 in California, wanted to create a middle school in Raleigh to explicitly “distinguish” the charter’s existing middle school program from its elementary. The application harkens back to a tiff between Shelby County Schools and the state Department of Education over the charter’s legal ability to add grades to its school under the Achievement School District.
  • Memphis Bioworks Foundation, the first to open a charter school in Memphis, wanted to add an elementary program to its middle and high school, Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering (MASE).

The remaining charter organization the local school board denied, California-based Green Dot Public Schools, did not appeal to the state by the deadline Friday. Green Dot was the charter network that had successfully appealed to the state previously, making Bluff City High School the first in Tennessee to open under the State Board of Education.

Jocquell Rodgers, Green Dot’s spokeswoman, said the charter network decided “to continue to refine our elementary model according to the feedback given and then re-submit our application to Shelby County Schools next year.”

If any of the appeals are successful, Shelby County Schools would have 30 days to decide whether or not they will accept the decision and retain local control. If the district or charter school refuses, the State Board of Education will oversee the charter school.

Shelby County Schools leaders said the recently rejected charter networks that currently operate under the Achievement School District “have yet to demonstrate consistent strong performance over a sufficient time period with the Memphis schools currently in their network.”

When the district used that argument to deny Green Dot’s application for its high school, the state board said the organization’s track record in California and Memphis “more than surpassed academic expectations.”

But since then, Vanderbilt University researchers said schools in the state-run district are no better off than low-performing schools that got no help from the state.

Aspire Public Schools

Aspire runs three elementary schools and one middle school in Memphis. Three of its schools are under the Achievement School District, while one elementary is authorized by Shelby County Schools.

Aspire Public Schools has named Nickalous Manning to its top job. Previously, Manning was a Memphis City Schools principal.

In its state-run schools, less than 12 percent of students scored on grade level in math and science. But middle school students in Aspire are improving faster than their peers across the state, which earned them mostly high marks on the state’s measure of student growth on tests.

Nickalous Manning, Aspire’s new Memphis superintendent, said approving their application would not be adding a new school, but merely making its middle school program official since Tennessee’s attorney general said the state-run school could not tack grades onto its existing elementary school.

“While we have only served the Memphis community for the last five years, growing from initially two schools to now four schools, our most recent Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) scores demonstrates strong performance,” Manning said in his appeal letter.

Capstone Education Group

Capstone operates Cornerstone Prep Lester Elementary School and Lester Prep Middle School in Binghampton, as well as Cornerstone Denver Elementary School in Frayser. Lester Prep Middle performed well enough on state tests in the 2016-17 school year to exit the state’s list of the bottom 5 percent of schools, but is still being closely monitored by the state to make sure they continue to improve.

The two elementary schools — which are still among the worst performing in the state — were two of the highest performers in the Achievement School District this year in math, but both struggled in English.

The charter network’s leaders argued Shelby County Schools “created an inaccurate picture” of the organization’s track record because the district omitted results from the most recent state test.

Memphis Bioworks Foundation

Rodrick Gaston, the executive director of Memphis Academy of Science & Engineering, said there is a need for more elementary schools that will keep students on track. His school has had high marks from the state on student improvement, but he wants to educate those students earlier so they don’t fall behind in the first place.

“By founding MASE Elementary School, we will reach younger students with a robust STEM curriculum, and cultivate a love of learning and high levels of achievement ​before​ they fall behind, thereby ​preventing​ an achievement gap,” he said. “Denying this opportunity means students will continue to enter MASE in sixth grade performing years below grade level, facing an achievement gap they might narrow but not close.”

District leaders lauded the charter school’s recent growth, but said there needed to be more consistent results before they would approve opening another school.

Avodah International

For the new charter organization, Avodah International, Shelby County Schools recommended the school board deny it because there were “still significant unaddressed concerns throughout the application,” after revisions. For example, the school’s budget for its planning year depended on “unsecured funds with no contingency plan.”

The school planned to use a “Big Picture Learning” model for teaching students primarily through projects and internships is also used at a Nashville charter school that has seen some success, according to a letter to the state from Alexis Gwin-Miller, Avodah’s lead founder.

Shelby County Schools commended the academic model but said the application lacked clarity in how students would be graded and how the school would seek to keep families engaged as they adjust to the new model.

The recent wave of nine application approvals, including six in buildings now occupied by the Jubilee Catholic Schools Network, would bring the total number of charter schools under the Memphis district to 63, far and away the most in the state.

The State Board of Education is working to schedule when it will hear the charter organization’s arguments in Memphis and plans to make a determination at its Oct. 19 meeting.

You can read the full appeal letters from each of the Memphis charter organizations below.

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Reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this story.