For the first time, a Memphis charter network leaves state district for local oversight

Citing costs and differing regulations, a Memphis charter school network will become the first school to leave the state-run Achievement School District while trying to keep its elementary school running under the local district.

Freedom Preparatory Academy, a 10-year-old charter network, will move its Westwood neighborhood elementary school to Shelby County Schools oversight — rolling back the 2014 state takeover of the school.

But in a twist, the state’s Achievement School District declared that it will open a new school in the building being vacated by Freedom Prep geared toward the same students. The Memphis charter operator is banking on Westwood families following it to a building the network owns 2½ miles away, but the neighborhood students would still be zoned to the state-run school.

“The building is an ASD school and the ASD will continue to operate a school there next year per our commitment to the community and students,” said Jennifer Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Education, in an email. “We have a plan in place regardless of what Freedom Prep elects to do.”

The network’s charter only requires a 30-day notice before terminating its 10-year contract with the state to run the school, she said. The state chose Freedom Prep to take over the school five years ago because of low test scores, but so far the charter has failed to lift it out of Tennessee’s bottom 5% of schools.

Related: Why charter operators exiting Tennessee’s turnaround district can walk away

The charter network would be the fourth operator to pull out of the state-run district completely since its inception in 2012, but the first to try to keep its students in the process.

Roblin Webb, CEO of Freedom Preparatory Academy (Laura Faith Kebede)

The Memphis charter network’s exit would leave 10 charter operators and 29 schools in the district that has drawn sharp criticism from researchers and Memphians frustrated with slow progress.

Tennessee’s Chief Schools Officer Katie Poulos told Roblin Webb, the charter network’s founder and CEO, that the organization had not fulfilled its mission.

“Freedom Prep made a commitment to the families and students in Westwood Elementary when it entered the ASD to intervene to move the school out of the lowest-performing 5% of schools,” Poulos said in a June 5 email. “And we are hopeful you will honor the original commitment.” But the state has no power to stop Freedom Prep from leaving.

Webb told Chalkbeat that operating in two districts with different protocols became overly complex. It runs four other campuses under Shelby County Schools. In addition, she said, moving to their own building avoids paying high maintenance costs to others. Also, the state-run district charges charter operators an administrative fee that is about 3½ times what Shelby County Schools charges, Webb said.

In emails between Webb and the state-run district’s former superintendent Sharon Griffin in late May, the two also discussed the state’s higher charges for educating students with disabilities compared with the local district’s fees. That difference costs Freedom Prep more than $300,000 annually, according to figures in emails Chalkbeat obtained in an open records request.

“That’s money I could put back in the classroom,” she said. “All of these moves that we’re doing now, we’ll only have one school that is not in a permanent home, which makes me really excited. … We can make it a state-of-the-art facility for all of our kids.”

Freedom Preparatory Academy bought the former Lakeview Elementary School from Shelby County Schools. The charter network expects families from the Westwood elementary school to follow them here. (Laura Faith Kebede)

Cardell Orrin, the charter network’s board chairman, said the move will allow Freedom Prep to whittle down its waitlist of more than 100 students across the network. Freedom Prep’s high school will move into the former Lanier Middle School and the elementary school formerly under the state will move into the high school’s previous space.

The Westwood school will operate under a charter that Shelby County Schools approved last summer. Last week the school board approved moving that school to a Westwood location — the last hurdle for the switch.

“We have had, over the years, more students who want to come to Freedom Prep than we can accommodate,” he said.

One local and two national charter networks also have exited the Achievement School District: Gestalt Community Schools and Project GRAD USA in Memphis, and Rocketship in Nashville. A fourth charter operator, KIPP Memphis, closed one of its state-run schools in 2017, but still operates three other schools in the district.

Other schools in the state-run district have simply closed, due to low enrollment and financial strain. But in Freedom Prep’s case, enrollment has increased.

When the charter operator took over the elementary school five years ago, it had around 350 students. Last year, the school had about 560 students, an increase of about 60%. Griffin visited the school in the fall to learn how the school keeps up its enrollment.

Webb pointed to its reputation in the community because the charter network already operated several schools under the local district and separate network staff that focused on recruitment. Freedom Prep’s other schools include some of the highest-performing charter schools in the district.

If Freedom Prep had not decided to shed state control, the school would likely be taken from the charter network and handed back to Shelby County Schools, under the state’s plan for its lowest-performing schools. The plan requires that local districts regain control of schools after 10 years or after the school has exited the bottom 5% of schools — whichever comes first.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Joris Ray directed questions to the state but said in a statement he has discussed Freedom Preparatory with state authorities.

“During a visit last Friday, I discussed the request with Commissioner Penny Schwinn and we look forward to partnering to ultimately do what is best to educate all students in Shelby County,” he said in a statement.

Chalkbeat reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.