Only one applicant meets Memphis board’s new policy for opening charter schools

Just one of 11 charter school applications were approved Tuesday night by the Shelby County Schools board — the lowest number since the privately managed schools began opening in Memphis in 2003.

The school board approved the opening of Memphis School of Excellence Elementary in Cordova next fall, which would be the third school in the Read Foundation’s network, based in Memphis.

The vote came after reviews of the first round of applications led the district to ask all applicants to amend their proposals. Under state law, the denied operators have 10 days to appeal to the state Board of Education. At least two applicants said they plan to appeal.

The decisions were made under a new charter school policy that in part was meant to slow the growth of charter schools and improve quality. The policy allows the district to decide where to open schools based on neighborhood needs. It also requires existing charter organizations to have a score of at least 3.5 out of 5 points on the district’s annual report card to expand.

Shante Avant, school board chairwoman for Shelby County Schools (Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat)

“It is reflective of how we’ve evolved as a community. Now we are saturated in many areas with the number of schools,” said board chair Shante Avant after the special meeting on Tuesday.

She added the district can’t afford to “blindly” approve schools without factoring in neighborhood student population, especially as the district considers massive changes to the number and type of schools in Memphis.

Before the policy was approved in July, the district asked charter applicants to include rationale for opening their schools, based on the district’s neighborhood analysis.

The district said it would have recommended approval of two charter school applications — School of Excellence’s proposed middle school and a new operator, Beacon College Prep — if not for the new policy. Both applicants plan to appeal their denial to the state.

Joe Bolduc, who leads the effort to open Beacon College Prep, said the quality of the application should outweigh saturation in the Raleigh neighborhood.

“Although there is oversaturation in terms of schools, we don’t believe that there’s oversaturation in terms of quality seats for families right now…. That comes straight from the [district’s] regional analysis,” Bolduc said.

Muhammet Turkay, the executive director and founder of Memphis School of Excellence, said the district’s timing, “in the middle of the game” was poor. “They took the ball away and we couldn’t score anymore.”

Brad Leon, who is responsible for charter school management in the district, told board members that Cordova needs an elementary and high school, but not a middle school.

“It’s very hard to open a K-5 and a 9-12 without a middle school,” said Samuel Beyhan, the network’s assistant executive director, after the meeting.

Iseashia Thomas, a parent who came to Tuesday’s meeting to share complaints about an existing charter school that the district is investigating, said no matter which schools are approved, the district should make sure the charter schools serve students well.

“Who is holding who accountable and making sure there’s follow through?” she said after the meeting.

Five of the other eight schools did not meet other requirements that have been in place for years. For example, the district said Gentlemen & Ladies STEM Academy’s application did not adequately explain how the school would serve English language learners, gifted students, and students with special needs.

For Green Dot Public Schools, a network that operates four schools in the state-run Achievement School District, the district said test scores “are not strong enough to justify approving more schools at this time.” The district rejected the network’s application last year for the same reason.

Shelby County Schools oversees 57 charter schools, by far the most in Tennessee.
Existing and aspiring Memphis charter leaders have submitted fewer applications for new schools in recent years. The district reviewed 18 applications last year and 16 the year before that.

Last year, the board approved nine charter schools. Six are in one network housed in former Catholic school buildings. In 2017, the board approved three charter schools, and in 2016, seven.

Below are the charter schools the board denied with links to their applications: