With state approval, Journey Community Schools takes charge of students as Aspire leaves Memphis

Parents, community leaders, and students gathered for the Journey Community Schools launch party. (Caroline Bauman)

At an event that felt like a school pride rally, Aspire Public Schools announced Friday that the state department of education approved turning over its four schools to a new Memphis charter operator.

Journey Community Schools will take charge of educating all 1,600 Aspire students by July 1. Aspire is a California-based charter network.

The event included a DJ, student cheerleaders, and a dance party. The crowd of students and community leaders responded to school Superintendent Nickalous Manning by cheering and waving pom-poms when he asked them: “Are you ready to find out who we are? We are Journey Community Schools!”

This means the four schools will stay open under the new charter operator, wrapping up a year-long journey for Aspire. The state said it approved Aspire’s transition proposal after an extensive application and interview process that focused on the network’s financial and academic plans for its Memphis schools.

Students and teachers will see little change over the next few months. Journey is retaining Manning — a Memphis native — as its leader. And all 18 Memphis-based staff now working for  Aspire will join the new organization, according to a transition application obtained through a public information request from Chalkbeat.

But Manning said a new local board of directors has been named, there will be new measures of student success, and the network will be branded differently. His team met with teachers, parents, and students several times over the last year to get their input.

“What we consistently heard was that there is more than just being about college,” Manning said. “We want it to be more than that – there are multiple pathways to success.”

Genessia Boyd, a parent of four Aspire Memphis students, got to weigh in on the change in vision and called the new focus a welcome development.

The move means walking away from Aspire’s tagline, “College for Certain” and adding opportunities for students to think about vocational and technical opportunities in addition to a traditional college track. Nationally, other charter schools have pulled back on college-centric messaging. Texas-based KIPP leaders discussed last summer how the charter network, one of the largest in the country, is easing back on its college focus.

The new charter network is moving away from the motto: “College for Certain.” (Caroline Bauman)

Journey hopes to gain more local support as a Memphis-based operation. The newly created network also hopes parents will participate more often in board meetings, which was difficult for them to do when they were held in California.

Boyd said she was excited to have more input and that she’s enjoyed being involved in the transition process. She added that a local board might help get more parents involved, as well.

“A lot of parents from what I have heard are hesitant on reaching out to the school system,” she said, adding she hopes to start a parent-teacher organization for the charter network. “But I want them to know they don’t have to sit on the sidelines.”

Journey Community Schools will take over Aspire East Academy, Aspire Coleman Middle School, Aspire Hanley Elementary School, and Aspire Hanley Middle School. The schools will lose the name “Aspire” next year. East Academy is the only Aspire school under Shelby County Schools jurisdiction, the other three are under the state-run Achievement School District.

The Aspire network was one of the first outside charter groups recruited to join the state-run district, launched in 2012 to vault Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools academically to top performers by giving control of the schools to charter organizations. But the district has faced lagging academic growth and high leader turnover.

This transition announcement comes at a time when the state is proposing that all 30 schools within the Achievement Schools District transition to either local control or a new state charter commission. This means Journey’s three achievement district schools will eventually have to apply for new charters to continue.

Related: All 30 schools in Tennessee’s turnaround district would exit by 2022 in a massive restructuring proposal

“This is not a surprise,” Manning said of the state’s plan, adding that it doesn’t change Journey’s vision of running the schools. He added that he expects Journey to continue operating the schools after 2022, the state’s proposed deadline of moving schools out of the achievement district.

Aspire’s national board voted unanimously last January to pull out of its Memphis schools, following a meeting where board members highlighted a $2 million operating deficit and slow academic growth as reasons for the change.

Shelby County Schools board member Joyce Dorse-Coleman – who doesn’t represent Aspire’s Orange Mound schools but does represent the neighborhood – said she hopes the new vision translates into higher academic growth.

“I’m a supporter of any ways to increase a child’s academic learning, and I came to offer my support today,” Dorse-Coleman added.

None of Aspire’s three achievement schools had more than 15% of its students on grade level in the last round of state test scores. Aspire East Academy High School, under Shelby County Schools, had 22.9% of students on grade level in math and 11.4% in English.

Aspire will continue to work with Journey into the start of the school year, according to the application, and could even delay separation if the new entity isn’t yet financially sustainable.

Genessia Boyd, a parent of four Aspire Memphis students, spoke at the kick-off for Journey Community Schools. (Caroline Bauman)

The Journey network has secured $3 million from an anonymous donor to support the transition over the next three years, according to the application, adding that the new organization plans to decrease its annual funding deficit by $2.4 million over the next two years.

“These cost savings are largely due to the elimination of national office fees, resulting in more funding remaining in the Memphis region to support students, families and the community,” according to the documents.

Here are the board members overseeing the new charter organization, which includes a current Aspire national board member:

  • Karen Hartridge, assistant U.S. attorney;
  • Beth Hunkapiller, current chair of the national Aspire board and an educator;
  • Kevin Leslie, director of grants & operations at the City Fund & Public School Allies;
  • Amanda Montgomery, instructional coach at Memphis Teacher Residency and former Aspire teacher;
  • Cyrus Purnell, financial planner at Financial Finesse;
  • Zakiya Woods, staff pediatrician at Christ Community Health Services.

Aspire isn’t the first national charter organization to spin off its turnaround Memphis schools. Memphis Scholars, which runs three schools in the state district, previously was part of national charter network Scholar Academies. Project GRAD USA pulled out of Tennessee’s turnaround district and closed its school.

Nationally, Aspire will continue to oversee 36 schools in California.

You can read the group’s transition plan to become Journey Community Schools in full below: