One charter school wins Memphis school board approval

Westside Middle students will start the next school year under the new leadership of Rodney Peterson and Frayser Community Schools.
Memphis-Shelby County Schools administrators recommended the board deny charter applications for three new charter schools and one existing charter — Westside Middle School, operated by the Frayser Community Schools charter network. The board ultimately approved Westside’s application. (Caroline Bauman)

The Memphis-Shelby County Schools board on Tuesday approved just one of four charter school applications for the 2023-24 school year.

The board’s 7-0 vote means Westside Middle School, an existing charter school operated by Frayser Community Schools in the North Memphis neighborhood, will move out of the state’s Achievement School District and instead join the roughly five dozen charter schools MSCS currently oversees. 

Westside is a part of Frayser Community Schools, a Memphis charter network launched in 2014 by Bobby White, a native of Frayser and longtime educator. Westside’s focus is on antiracism, meant to “address and disrupt an unjust educational system and racist practices in hopes of creating equitable opportunities and outcomes for Black students and students of color,” according to the charter network’s website.

The three rejected charter schools will not open, unless the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission overrules the Memphis board on appeal. On separate votes, all seven board members present agreed to reject the applications for the proposed schools:

  • Binghampton Community School, a K-5 school aiming to serve 360 students in its namesake neighborhood on the eastern edge of Midtown, with a focus on providing children with early access to International Baccalaureate programming.
  • Memphis Grizzlies Preparatory STEAM School for Girls, a school intending to serve 525 girls in downtown as an expansion of the existing Memphis Grizzlies Preparatory Charter School for boys.
  • Tennessee Volunteer Military Academy, a school serving 800 students across grades 6-12 in Cordova and East Memphis.

Board members Kevin Woods and Sheleah Harris were absent from Tuesday’s meeting.

Apart from Westside Middle School, the MSCS board’s decision on Tuesday followed recommendations from administrators, who outlined many concerns with the remaining three charter schools’ applications. 

School officials dinged the applications for lacking solid plans to accommodate particular groups such as students with disabilities or English language learners, and some for lacking an adequate facility or a clear academic focus, among other concerns. 

Board members did not publicly discuss the charter schools’ applications on Tuesday.

Board members opted not to follow the district’s recommendation to deny Westside Middle School, based on administrators’ concerns about its academic model and academic goals, student recruitment strategy, and its label as one of the state’s lowest-performing schools. 

“The application does not have strong supporting data for the school to continue operation,” administrators wrote in their recommendation, referencing the school’s most recent scores on state standardized tests. 

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In 2021, Westside Middle received an overall composite Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System score of 1 out of 5 — down from its 2019 score of 3. TVAAS measures student growth year over year.

Ahead of the vote, board Chair Michelle McKissack said many in the Frayser community contacted board members in support of Westside Middle and the impact the school has had beyond the classrooms.

“Westside Middle School, many would agree, is more than just a school in that community,” she said.

Westside Middle School was taken over by the ASD, Tennessee’s turnaround district, in 2012. After years of dwindling enrollment and little academic progress, the school switched hands in 2018, joining Frayser Community Schools. Westside Middle has remained under the oversight of the state since then. 

After the board’s vote on Tuesday, Tennessee’s largest school district will assume oversight when the school’s charter agreement expires after the 2023-24 school year.

Samantha West is a reporter for Chalkbeat Tennessee, where she covers K-12 education in Memphis. Connect with Samantha at swest@chalkbeat.org.

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