Charter school growth drives enrollment increase in Memphis schools

Student enrollment in Tennessee’s largest district is up slightly again and charter schools are driving the growth.

Shelby County Schools saw an overall increase of 1.5% to about 113,200 students. That’s about 8,400 students more than the district projected in its budget.

Student enrollment at the district’s 57 charter schools is up nearly 14%, to about 18,250 students. That means the share of Shelby County Schools students attending a charter school rose to 16%, up two percentage points from last year.

But enrollment at district-run schools is somewhat down, continuing a 3% decline over four years.

The district has had a long contentious relationship with its charter schools but has shown signs of more collaboration while also seeking to slow what some board members have described as unfettered growth.

The charter school growth also feeds the district’s fears that more state funding will funnel to those schools, which are run by nonprofits, and leave fewer dollars for expensive costs that remain in traditional public schools, such as building maintenance and benefits for retired teacher.

The trend could signal that parents are looking for school options outside of traditional schools and that charter schools are enrolling more students from district-run, state-run, and private schools. For example, charter schools that were once run by the former Catholic private school network Jubilee opened their doors last fall to a combined 1,200 students on six campuses.

But depending on which charter schools parents choose, they may not find a school with better test scores. The district’s most recent annual report showed charter elementary and middle schools on average performed worse than district-managed ones, while charter high schools posted significantly higher scores than the district. It also showed that more students leave district-run schools midyear compared with charter schools.

To grow enrollment, the district has taken some strategies from charter schools, an effort Superintendent Joris Ray oversaw when he was an assistant superintendent. District leaders go to grocery stores, libraries, summer camps, the Memphis Zoo and community centers to register students — and it’s common now for schools to host block parties to generate interest.

After repeated attempts to reach top officials at Shelby County Schools, they did not provide comment for this story.

Note: In recent years, Shelby County Schools shared enrollment counts from the 20th day of school, which district leaders use to adjust school staffing levels. This year, the district shared enrollment numbers from the 40th day of school, which is used as a basis for state funding. To ensure Chalkbeat compared similar numbers across years, we asked for the 40-day count for previous years, which show slightly different trends than we reported last year.

Meanwhile, enrollment in the state’s Achievement School District, which mostly operates in Memphis, dipped for the third year in a row to about 9,800 students. The district for low-performing schools has lost more than 2,800 students since 2016 when the district stopped taking over additional schools.

Four schools have closed since the state-run district first launched in 2012 — all citing low enrollment. The district now includes 30 schools, most of which are run by charter organizations. But that is likely going to change.

Under a massive proposal released earlier this month, Tennessee plans to remove all 30 state-run schools from the district no later than the fall of 2022. The state plans to keep its turnaround district and take over additional struggling schools, but the district would not grow to more than 25 schools.

Student enrollment has long been a challenge for the achievement district, where 74% of its students live in poverty. State officials said in their proposal that they believe the district grew too fast to handle the needs of its schools.

Chalkbeat reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this story.