Charter hopefuls

Thirteen applicants vie to open charter schools with Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Michelle McKissack, a board member of Crosstown High School Inc., speaks in May with supporters of the proposed new high school for midtown Memphis.

While Shelby County Schools revoked the charters of four schools this year, the district also has been taking applications for new charter schools, viewed as a potential tool to drive up the quality of public education in Memphis.

Thirteen applications are under review as the school board prepares to approve or deny them in August. They include a homegrown, philanthropically supported group seeking to establish the proposed Crosstown High School in midtown, as well as three out-of-state charter networks currently operating Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Achievement School District.

Quality will be central to the screening process, according to Brad Leon, the district’s strategy and innovation chief.

The district’s request for applications declared that Shelby County Schools is “only interested in authorizing charter schools that we believe can reach the top quartile of performance in the state.”

That’s a high bar for a district that has a high concentration of schools in Tennessee’s bottom quartile. But in 2014-15, Shelby County Schools saw academic gains in every subject except reading, and administrators are looking for engines that can help continue that trajectory.

Charter schools are publicly funded but independently operated schools that are tuition-free. In Tennessee, they are mostly authorized by local school districts.

In Memphis, the prospect of opening new charter schools creates public perception challenges amid budget constraints and the recent closure of four district-authorized charter schools for low performance. But Leon said the focus needs to stay on quality.

“We’ve got to do both. We have to authorize high-quality options. We have to close low-quality options,” he said.

Leon will make his recommendations to the school board during a June 21 work session. Operators can amend their applications based on the feedback before decisions are made in August.

Inherent in the screening process will be the search for operators who can can help the district reach its goals under Destination 2025. The strategic plan aims by 2025 to have 80 percent of seniors college or career-ready, 90 percent of students graduating on time, and 100 percent of college or career-ready seniors enrolled in a post-secondary opportunity.

The request for applications emphasized that the “most urgent area of need relates to reading language arts at all tested grade levels.” Increasing the district’s ACT scores also was cited as an area of need in preparing students for post-secondary opportunities.

"We have to authorize high-quality options. We have to close low-quality options. "Brad Leon, strategy and innovation chief

Leon said a common theme among applications is an emphasis on STEM education — or science, technology, engineering and math. While the district did not solicit that particular focus, national trends have shifted toward those areas to prepare students for projected job growth in those fields.

The applicants include five vying to open schools in Hickory Hill, an area in southeast Memphis that has seen population growth in recent years.

Three national operators authorized in Memphis by the state-run ASD are seeking local authorization under Shelby County Schools: Green Dot, Pathways in Education and Scholar Academies.

Shelby County Schools and the ASD already have several operators in common, including KIPP, Gestalt, Freedom Prep and Promise Academy.

The applicants are:

  • Crosstown High School Inc. — The college prep high school proposed for midtown Memphis would feature partnerships with noted health care organizations slated to operate in the newly renovated Crosstown Concourse development.
  • Green Dot Public Schools — The Hickory Hill-area high school would be a feeder for Kirby Middle and Wooddale Middle, two of the four schools that Green Dot operates under the ASD.
  • Pathways in Education — The alternative school operator has two charters under the ASD that opened in 2014.
  • Scholar Academies — Memphis Scholars Charter School would be an elementary and middle school in South Memphis seeking a full enrollment of 675 students.
  • Legacy Leadership Academy — The grades 6-12 school would focus on science technology, engineering, arts and math, as well as developing leadership skills, under the helm of Tamika Carwell, a former principal and teacher with Memphis City Schools.
  • Memphis Business Academy Inc. — The elementary school proposed for Hickory Hill would be the fifth by the operator, known for weaving business and economics across curriculum.
  • Memphis Business Academy Inc. — The middle school in Hickory Hill would complete the feeder pattern of the operator, which already has elementary and high schools authorized by Shelby County Schools.
  • Life Preparatory Academy of Excellence — The grades 5-8 school in Hickory Hill would have an emphasis on math and literacy, doubling class time in both subjects and offering classes in life skills.
  • The LeFlore Foundation — The Gentleman and Ladies Academy School would operate in Cordova, serving grades K-5 with an emphasis on STEM subjects.
  • Kaleidoscope Schools — With a focus on on the arts, the Kaleidoscope School of Memphis would serve grades 6-8 and be located in close proximity to the South Main Arts District.
  • Glory Tabernacle Christian Church — “The” Academy All Girls Charter elementary school would be based in northeast or midtown Memphis with an emphasis on literacy.
  • Artesian Schools Inc. — Southwest Early College High School would operate in Frayser or Raleigh and seek to develop first-generation college-goers.
  • Gateway University High School — The proposed downtown high school would focus on computer science.

Chalkbeat reporter Micaela Watts contributed to this report.

Controversy

Boundary lines of proposed South Loop high school drive wedge between communities

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke
About 30 speakers weighed in on a boundary proposal for a new South Loop high school at a public meeting at IIT.

The parent, wearing an “I Love NTA” T-shirt, said it loudly and directly toward the end of the public comment section Thursday night. “It sickens me to be here today and see so many people fighting for scraps,” said Kawana Hebron, in a public meeting on the boundaries for a proposed South Loop high school on the current site of National Teachers Academy. “Every community on this map is fighting for scraps.”

The 1,200-student high school, slated to open for the 2019-2020 school year near the corner of Cermak Road and State Street, has become a wedge issue dividing communities and races on the Near South Side.

Supporters of NTA, which is a 82 percent black elementary school, say pressure from wealthy white and Chinese families is leading the district to shutter its exceptional 1-plus rated program. A lawsuit filed in Circuit Court of Cook County in June by parents and supporters contends the decision violates the Illinois Civil Rights Code. 

But residents of Chinatown and the condo-and-crane laden South Loop have lobbied for an open-enrollment high school for years and that the district is running out of places to put one.

“I worry for my younger brother,” said a 15-year-old who lives between Chinatown and Bridgeport and travels north to go to the highly selective Jones College Prep. She said that too many students compete for too few seats in the nail-biting process to get into a selective enrollment high school. Plus, she worries about the safety, and environment, of the schools near her home. “We want something close, but good.”

PHOTO: Courtesy of Chicago Public Schools
The “general attendance” boundary for the proposed South Loop high school is outlined in blue. The neighborhoods outlined in red would receive “preference,” but they would not be guaranteed seats.

One by one, residents of Chinatown or nearby spoke in favor of the high school at the meeting in Hermann Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology. They described their long drives, their fearfulness of dropping off children in schools with few, if any, Chinese students, and their concerns about truancy and poor academics at some neighboring open-enrollment high schools.

But their comments were sandwiched by dissenting views. A member of South Loop Elementary’s Local School Council argued that Chicago Public Schools has not established a clear process when it comes to shuttering an elementary and spending $10 million to replace it with a high school. “CPS scheduled this meeting at the same time as a capital budget meeting,” she complained.

She was followed by another South Loop parent who expressed concerns about potential overcrowding, the limited $10 million budget for the conversion, and the genesis of the project. “It’s a terrible way to start a new high school – on the ashes of a good elementary school,” the parent said.

The most persistent critique Thursday night was not about the decision to close NTA, but, rather, of the boundary line that would determine who gets guaranteed access and who doesn’t. The GAP, a diverse middle-class neighborhood bordered by 31st on the north, 35th on the South, King Drive to the east and LaSalle Street to the west, sits just outside the proposed boundary. A parade of GAP residents said they’ve been waiting for decades for a good option for their children but have been locked out in this iteration of the map. Children who live in the GAP would have “preference” status but would not be guaranteed access to seats.

“By not including our children into the guaranteed access high school boundaries – they are being excluded from high-quality options,” said Claudia Silva-Hernandez, the mother of two children, ages 5 and 7. “Our children deserve the peace of mind of a guaranteed-access option just like the children of South Loop, Chinatown, and Bridgeport.”

Leonard E. McGee, the president of the GAP Community Organization, said that tens of millions in tax-increment financing dollars – that is, money that the city collects on top of property tax revenues that is intended for economic development in places that need it most – originated from the neighborhood in the 1980s and went to help fund the construction of NTA. But not many of the area’s students got seats there.

Asked how he felt about the high school pitting community groups against each other, he paused. “If we’re all fighting for scraps, it must be a good scrap we’re fighting for.”

The meeting was run by Herald “Chip” Johnson, chief officer of CPS’ Office of Family and Community Engagement. He said that detailed notes from the meeting will be handed over to the office of CEO Janice Jackson. She will make a final recommendation to the Board of Education, which will put the plan up for a vote.

departures

As fate of ‘Newark Enrolls’ is debated, top enrollment officials resign

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

The top officials overseeing Newark’s controversial school-enrollment system have resigned just weeks after the school board blocked the new superintendent from ousting them.

Their departure creates new uncertainty for Newark Enrolls, one of the few enrollment systems in the country that allows families to apply to district and charter schools through a single online portal. Proponents say the centralized system simplifies the application process for families and gives them more options, while critics say it undermines traditional neighborhood schools while boosting charter-school enrollment.

Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, chief of the Newark Public Schools division that includes enrollment, and Kate Fletcher, executive director of the enrollment office, both departed on Friday. The district did not provide information about why they left or who — if anyone — will replace them, and neither of the two could be reached for comment.

Their departure comes after Superintendent Roger León, who took over on July 1, included them among 31 officials and administrators who were given the option to resign or face being fired. Days later, the school board approved all but nine of the dismissals; Ramos-Solomon and Fletcher were among those spared.

Both officials were hired in 2013 shortly before former Superintendent Cami Anderson unveiled the enrollment system, then called One Newark, as part of a sweeping overhaul that also included closing some schools. Parents were outraged by the closures and the system’s glitchy rollout, which left some students without school placements and separated other students from their siblings.

In recent years, Ramos-Solomon has overseen improvements to the system, including tweaking the computer algorithm that matches students with schools to give a greater boost to families who live near their chosen schools. While district data shows that most students are matched with one of their top choices, critics remain wary of the system and some — including some board members — call for it to be dismantled.

León, a veteran Newark educator who was expected by some observers to oppose Newark Enrolls, said in a private meeting with charter-school leaders that he intends to keep the process in place. But he will have to win over the board, whose members have asked the district skeptical questions about the system in recent months, such as why some students are reportedly matched with charter schools they didn’t apply to. (The district says that does not happen.)

Board member Tave Padilla said he was not aware that Ramos-Solomon or Fletcher had resigned, and did not know whether replacements had been lined up. He added that the board had not discussed the fate of Newark Enrolls since a meeting in June where Ramos-Solomon provided information about the system, nor has the full board discussed the matter with León.

“The district now does have the option to keep what we have in place, modify it, or do away with it,” he said. “Whether we choose to do that or not, I don’t know.”