Memphis district recommends closing Southwest Early College High School, but decision pends on board vote

On the heels of a three-week investigation, Shelby County Schools is recommending to its board that they vote to close a charter school affiliated with a local community college.

“The recommendation to revoke the charter of Southwest is based on an investigation into complaints from students and parents by our Office of Charter Schools and General Counsel,” the district said in a statement. “No decisions have been made at this time.”

The school board will vote on the district’s recommendation at its October board meeting, as the district has to provide 30 days notice on such a vote. If the board votes to revoke the charter, Southwest would close at the end of this school year unless it successfully appeals to the state Board of Education.

Sharon Jones, board chair for the charter school, said, “We are challenging this recommendation and have retained an attorney to handle. As we have mentioned previously, we are in full compliance with Shelby County Schools and have submitted all documents that were requested.”

A district spokeswoman said the school failed to ensure that only licensed teachers were in teaching positions and failed to provide proper services to its special education students.

The school came under scrutiny three weeks ago after three Memphis high schoolers and two parents stood before the Shelby County Schools board and reported incomplete schedules, staffing shortages, missing high school credits, and inadequate aid for students with disabilities.

The high school opened two years ago with Southwest Community College. It was billed as a place where students could graduate with enough college credits to earn an associate degree.

The school is currently trying to hire three teaching positions, and it has lost half of its 11th-grade class since the allegations were made public in August.

Related: As district readies to release investigation, embattled Memphis charter school tells a different story

Southwest High’s CEO and principal Ashley Smith told Chalkbeat earlier this week that the school has been complying with the district investigation and has not had to answer additional inquiries since the school submitted its responses to district questions in early September.

Carolyn Brown, a parent of a current Southwest high schooler, said she was shocked by the district’s recommendation.

“I’m not sure how or why they are making this decision,” Brown said. “It should stay open. It’s a small school environment. My son has been an advocate for this school since the beginning. I’m just so surprised.”
Tamala Honorable, who removed her son from the school this year, said the district’s recommendation was the right one. She said she chose to send her son to Whitehaven High School this year because of culture changes at Southwest.

Carolyn Brown, a parent of a current Southwest high schooler, meets with reporters at the school. (Caroline Bauman)

Smith is now the school’s acting principal, its third school leader in three years.

“I thought this was a great program, that he would be able to complete and finish with an associate degree,” Honorable said. “But now, at the school he is at now, we’re finding out that some of the credits we thought he had just don’t exist. He will likely have to retake history and biology. I’m very angry about that.”

Shelby County Schools rarely recommends closing charter schools, but lately has ramped up oversight in evaluating applications for new charter schools and monitoring current schools with low test scores and poor operations. Since the first charter school opened in Tennessee in 2003, the state board has overturned 25 out of 83 school board decisions to approve, revoke, or renew a charter.

Last school year, both the Shelby County Schools board and the state board voted to shutter the charter school Gateway University after a Chalkbeat report into allegations by former staff members. Several of those allegations, including that the school falsified a geometry class and relied on uncertified teachers, were substantiated in the district investigation.