Aspire wants to leave Memphis but keep its four schools open. What will that look like?

Four months after a California charter operator decided to hand off its Memphis schools to a newly created, locally based charter school organization, a transition plan sheds light on what the spin-off could look like.

Aspire Public Schools’ national board voted in January to relinquish control of its four Memphis schools – and its 1,600 students – by the beginning of the 2020-21 school year due to a $2 million operating deficit and slow academic growth.

Though the proposal is for the four schools that currently make up Aspire Memphis to become part of the new nonprofit charter organization, they wouldn’t shed the Aspire name. The new organization would be called Aspire Public Schools TN LLC, according to the transition documents obtained through a public information request by Chalkbeat.

The Aspire network was one of the first outside charter groups recruited to Memphis to join the state-run Achievement School District in 2012. It now runs three schools in the turnaround district and one under Shelby County Schools. Aspire was founded in California in 1998 and oversees 36 schools there.

It’s now up to the Achievement School District and Shelby County Schools to approve Aspire’s transition plan in the coming months, which would allow the schools to stay open under Aspire Public Schools TN into the 2020-21 school year. Without approval, the schools could close or Aspire could choose to continue operating them.

Without a public meeting yet to discuss the potential transition, this is the public’s first look at what Aspire is planning. (You can read the transition plan in full at the bottom of this story).

In documents submitted to the state-run district in March, Aspire says it will continue to support the Memphis schools potentially up until July 2020. Aspire is assembling a team for next school year, which would slowly take over roles previously held by the California-based home office, such as finance, and functions such as enrollment, payroll, and databases.

The Achievement School District is still reviewing Aspire’s plan but will work with the charter organization to ensure a smooth transition, Superintendent Sharon Griffin said. She has the authority to approve the plan, and the new spin-off would take over the existing three charter agreements between Aspire and the state-run district.

Aspire’s Hanley Elementary is located in Orange Mound, a historic black community in Memphis. (Micaela Watts)

The Achievement School District has dealt with a spin-off like this before with Memphis Scholars, which runs three schools in the state district and previously was part of the national charter network, Scholar Academies.

But this is the first time Shelby County Schools has dealt with a question like this and its leaders are still reviewing the situation, said Natalia Powers, spokeswoman for the district.

“Shelby County Schools was notified of the approach the ASD is taking to review the proposed transition, but ultimately, the SCS team must make its own determinations,” said Jay Klein, spokesman for the state Department of Education.

The spin-off would allow the new Memphis team to keep the 5% of its revenues that had previously paid for California-based office support. Part of the goal is to figure out a way to address a $2 million operating deficit for Aspire Memphis. Aspire leaders have said they believed the spin-off was the best way for the Memphis schools to become more financially stable.

Jim Boyd, executive director of the Pyramid Peak Foundation in Memphis and national Aspire board member, said at the January board meeting that he believes the change might open more doors politically and philanthropically. Those opportunities might not have been as accessible because Aspire’s leaders were in California.

“The thinking of some is that this is an outside group and not a group from Memphis that’s really concerned about our kids,” Boyd said. “While I know that’s not true, it’s hard to change perception on the part of some leaders locally. ”

Aspire Memphis Superintendent Nickalous Manning would remain the leader of the four schools and would work with the new local board to manage them.

“We are working diligently to ensure that all decisions in the process reflect what is best for our students, families, and teammate,” said Manning, a Memphis native, in a statement.

Previously, Nickalous Manning was a Memphis City Schools principal. (Aspire Public Schools )

Over this spring and summer, Manning will help recruit new local board members to oversee the new charter organization. Charter schools are independently operated public schools that are managed by their own boards.

Aspire parent Tikela Smith said she had not heard of the potential changes. She said that she has been frustrated with her communication with Aspire leaders, and is hopeful local governance could help. Smith’s son has been a student at Aspire Coleman Middle School for two years.

“There comes a point where you’ve had many conversations with the principal and you need to go higher,” Smith said. “I don’t see the accountability. I don’t know who to go to. Everything is handled within the school.”

Smith said she went to the Shelby County Schools board with questions about the school because she didn’t know Aspire had its own national board. She added it was difficult to know who could answer her questions.

James Dennis, who joined Memphis Scholars right as the schools were breaking away from national Scholar Academies, said he has been in touch with Manning on what worked and what didn’t.

Dennis said much of the process was technical, such as making sure information previously shared with other Scholar Academies networks was backed up on a new, private server.

“The change gave us an opportunity to look at our vendor contracts again,” said Dennis, now the executive director. “We realized that there were some services we didn’t need.”

Dennis added that keeping the same name, Memphis Scholars, helped with communication with parents and students.

Aspire’s decision to turn over its Memphis schools to local leadership is indicative of the larger challenges facing charter schools in the Achievement School District, including under-enrollment, slow academic progress, and complex local politics.

The achievement district was launched in 2012 to vault Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools academically to top performers by giving control of the schools to charter organizations like Aspire.

Though national Aspire leaders have said academic progress has been slower than expected, there have been some gains. Coleman Middle School and Hanley Elementary School are two of only nine schools in the Achievement School District that are no longer in the bottom 5% of schools, according to the state Department of Education.

Students in a 6th-grade math at the middle school run by Aspire Public Schools. (Caroline Bauman/Chalkbeat)

Aspire has spent a lot of effort “customizing our instructional approach, which has been based on our California programing, to fit the particular needs of our Memphis schools,” according to the documents. “Working each year to make the necessary adjustment increased the likelihood that our academic program might not be the exact fit for Memphis’ needs.”

The charter network’s original plan in Tennessee was to grow to 10 or more schools in Memphis, and that hasn’t been possible due to a moratorium on expansion in the achievement district and rejected charter applications by Shelby County Schools.

“When we shifted our growth targets, local and national philanthropy began to play an even more critical role in resourcing our four Memphis schools,” Aspire officials said in the documents. “By shifting to a local model, that philanthropic support will continue to allow us to deliver on our promises to students and families.”

You can read the full transition plan submitted to the Achievement School District here: