‘Mistakes, but no malicious intent’: Gateway charter school leader hopes to avoid closure

The leader of Gateway University Charter School spoke publicly on Monday, saying the school had made its share of mistakes in its first year, but that it deserved to stay open.

“I hope you can see that mistakes were made, but that there was no malicious intent,” Sosepriala Dede, who heads the 150-student high school, told the Shelby County Schools board and a small crowd of Gateway families and personnel.

The school board could vote as soon as Tuesday to close Gateway at the end of the academic year. That vote comes on the heels of a district investigation that found Gateway’s leaders intentionally deceived Shelby County Schools and that they mismanaged the school.

Dede said that the northeast Memphis school, now in its second year, needed a “stronger board of directors, better operations, and a more robust budget,” and the school has “already begun to step in that direction.”

Monday’s meeting was the first time an official from the embattled school publicly weighed in on the district’s recent recommendation to shut down the charter school.

The district’s investigation into Gateway followed a Chalkbeat report, in which former staff members alleged the school falsified a geometry class and frequently used uncertified teachers.

Read our in-depth investigation into Gateway University here, which was first published in June.

Dede offered comment on each allegation in his presentation to board members Joyce Dorse-Coleman, Stephanie Love, Miska Clay Bibbs, and Michelle Robinson McKissack. Board members Scott McCormick, Shante Avant, Billy Orgel, and Kevin Woods were not present.

The board questioned both Dede and district staff on the investigation’s findings, and several asked for more details on exactly which district rules or state laws the school may have broken.

On the allegation that the school falsified a geometry class, Dede said the seven students enrolled were part of a “blended learning program,” which allowed the school to enroll the students in an online class.

The district investigation found that the educator listed as the teacher of record for geometry was also the algebra teacher last school year, and that teacher was listed as teaching a geometry course and an algebra course at the same time of day.

“The kids sat in an 80-minute math class every day,” Dede said, adding that he is a former math teacher and would help the students as needed.

Dede said that the seven geometry students — who all got the same grade for every assignment — were a part of a “collaborative learning model,” worked on assignments together, and took their online course in the algebra teacher’s room.

“Whatever grade our children are receiving, we want to make sure it’s their grade,” Board member Love told Dede. “I do question all of the children making the same grade.”

About a dozen Gateway University students and families were in attendance on Monday. (Caroline Bauman)

On the allegation that the charter school relied on uncertified teachers, Dede acknowledged that Gateway struggled with teacher retention and relied on substitute teachers.

Dede said funding constraints and alleged misuse of school data by a former employee were roadblocks to Gateway’s success last school year. He also said that the charter did not have the necessary number of board members, but that the school has rebuilt its board this year.

School board member McKissack asked Dede to provide by email a description of the members of the charter school’s current board, saying, “There was such a lack of governance with your previous board. I would like more information about your current board.”

At the meeting, Dede made explosive claims that the school’s former director of operations, who was a whistleblower, stole employee files, is being investigated for extortion, and that a grand jury indictment is coming. (Dede’s claims were not a part of the district’s investigation findings.)

Outside of the investigation, Gateway is also in trouble for its academic standing. It was the only school to score below the district’s threshold for charter schools to remain in good standing, according to the district’s recent scorecard data.

Dede said that the school didn’t have an adequate information technology infrastructure when it came time for online testing and used unreliable hotspots for internet connections. He added that the scores were not indicative of the school’s teachers and students on the whole.

Families with students at Gateway were alerted on Jan. 16 to the district’s investigation and its plans to close the school. About a dozen Gateway parents, family members, and students attended Monday’s hearing.

Sheris Richmond, the aunt of two Gateway students, said she didn’t think the district recommendation to close the school was “fair or right.”

“Mr. Dede is the only school that goes into neighborhoods in Memphis with buses and gives that option outside of neighborhood schools,” Richmond said. “If they close, there’s 150 kids that have to go back to their neighborhoods that aren’t safe or good for them.”

If the board votes on Tuesday to close the school, Gateway has 10 calendar days to appeal to the state Board of Education. The state board will then hold a hearing in Memphis, and either will side with the local Memphis district or overturn its decision, which would keep the school open.

You can find the full presentation on the district investigation below: