Here are seven Memphis charter schools in danger of closing

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Students at Memphis Delta Preparatory are seated for class. The charter school is one of seven in Memphis in danger of being closed if they don't improve academically under Shelby County Schools' new review process.

Seven Memphis charter schools could close in 2020 if they don’t improve, based on Shelby County Schools’ first report card comparing its schools.

The district’s newly released school performance scorecard rated seven of its 51 charters below 2 on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the top score. Under a new accountability system for charter schools, those that fall below 2 automatically begin a review process and must improve within two years or face revocation of their charters by the school board.

The schools in jeopardy are:

  • Dubois Elementary Arts & Technology
  • Memphis Delta Preparatory
  • Excel Center
  • Dubois High Arts & Technology
  • Dubois Middle Leadership & Public Policy
  • Granville T. Woods Academy of Innovation
  • KIPP Memphis Collegiate Elementary

In all, the seven publicly funded, privately managed schools serve 2,285 students. Three of the schools are operated by W.E.B. DuBois Consortium of Charter Schools, founded by Willie Herenton, the former superintendent of Memphis City Schools.

The scorecard compares test scores, academic growth, suspension and attendance rates, and whether students are prepared for life after high school, using data from the State Department of Education.

The main goal is to provide information to parents, community members, and policymakers and not to punish low-performing schools, said Brad Leon, chief of strategy and performance management. The exception is charter schools, where consequences are attached for a low score under a new accountability system developed by district and charter leaders.

But the schools on this year’s scorecard could close even sooner than 2020.

The state recently warned all seven schools that they are in danger of appearing on Tennessee’s “priority list” of schools in the bottom 5 percent, based on their performance on last year’s standardized tests. The Department of Education will release the list this fall, and charters on it will automatically be closed. Two other Memphis charters — Dubois High Leadership & Public Policy and City University School Girls Preparatory — are also on the warning list and in danger of being shuttered by the state, but didn’t score low enough to begin Shelby County’s review process.

Here’s an outline of the new review process under Shelby County’s scorecard:

  1. Charter schools that do not meet minimum expectations are notified by the district.
  2. Within a month, school leaders meet with district administrators to present an action plan. (The seven schools on this year’s list must submit their plan by Feb. 12.)
  3. District administrators may check in as the plan is executed but give the charter school full autonomy to make the improvements they deem necessary.
  4. If the charter school does not meet expectations for a second consecutive school year, they will be notified.
  5. The school must develop a second action plan.
  6. If the charter school does not meet expectations for a third consecutive school year, district leadership will recommend to the school board that its charter be revoked.

The process stands in stark contrast to the school board’s 2016 decision to revoke the charters of three Memphis schools. Their recommended closure came with little warning, and charter leaders complained that the process was rushed and haphazard. They also noted that some of the district’s lowest-performing charters were not scrutinized. The State Board of Education later upheld the Memphis board’s ruling, but criticized Shelby County Schools for its process.

In this year’s scorecard, 10 new charter schools did not receive a score because either they don’t have a third-grade class to measure state test scores or have not tested yet.

And two high schools — Dubois High Leadership & Public Policy and Freedom Preparatory Academy — did not have enough data to generate a score on how well they prepare students to enroll in college or directly enter the workforce because they did not have a graduating class in 2016, where the data was pulled. Freedom Preparatory Academy was not in danger of slipping below the threshold, but Dubois High Leadership & Public Policy was close.


Memphis candidate says no longer in running to lead Achievement School District

The only Memphis applicant to lead Tennessee’s turnaround district is no longer under consideration, the state Department of Education confirmed Thursday.

Keith Sanders told Chalkbeat on Thursday that Education Commissioner Candice McQueen called him and said that he would not advance in the application process to become superintendent of the Achievement School District. Sanders is a Memphis-based education consultant and former Memphis school principal who most recently was chief officer of school turnaround at the Delaware Department of Education.

The state later confirmed that Sanders will not advance, citing concerns from the search firm hired to find the next leader of the turnaround district.

In a March 21 letter to McQueen, the search firm highlighted Sanders’ time as a charter school leader in New Orleans as a reason he should not advance. Sanders co-founded Miller-McCoy Academy, an all-boys public school that closed in 2014. The school was academically low-performing, and Sanders and his co-founder left the school before it shuttered amidst allegations of financial mismanagement and cheating, according to the letter.

“Given the visibility of the ASD role, I think there are too many questions about his time at Miller-McCoy for him to be credible,” wrote Mollie Mitchell, president of The K-12 Search Group, in the letter.

The announcement comes a day after Stephen Osborn, a finalist for the position, visited Memphis for a second interview with McQueen. Osborn is currently the chief of innovation for Rhode Island’s Department of Education.

Sanders said he was shocked at the news, as just weeks earlier he was told that he would advance as one of two finalists for the position.

“I was given an itinerary for two days next week for my final interview process,” Sanders said. “I’m shocked that I’ve been suddenly and abruptly removed from this process. I want to be clear in this community I reside in — I did not withdraw.”

In addition to Sanders and Osborn, other candidates under consideration were: Brett Barley, deputy superintendent for student achievement with the Nevada Department of Education, and Adam Miller, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education.

McQueen emphasized during her Memphis visit on Wednesday that the superintendent search is still in progress.

“We certainly have an expectation that we’ll bring in others,” she told reporters. “At this point, we wanted to move one forward while we’re continuing to solicit additional information from the search firm on current candidates as well as other candidates who have presented themselves over last couple of weeks.”

The new superintendent will succeed Malika Anderson, who stepped down last fall after almost two years at the helm. Kathleen Airhart, a longtime deputy at the State Department of Education, has served as interim leader.

The job will require overseeing 30 low-performing schools — the majority of which are run by charter organizations in Memphis.

Editor’s note: We have updated this story with comment from the Tennessee Department of Education. 

Play nice

How can Michigan schools stop skinned knees and conflict? Use playtime to teach students kindness

PHOTO: Amanda Rahn
Macomb Montessori kindergartner London Comer plays with a ball during a Playworks session at her school.

Kindergartners play four square, jump rope and line up in two rows with outstretched arms to bump a ball during recess. What’s unusual is that the four- and five-year-olds don’t fight over balls or toys, and when one child gets upset and crosses her arms, a fifth-grade helper comes over to talk to her.

This is a different picture from last spring, when the students at the Macomb Montessori school in Warren played during recess on a parking lot outside. The skinned knees and broken equipment were piling up, and school administrators knew something needed to change.

“Recess was pretty chaotic, and it wasn’t very safe,” Principal Ashley Ogonowski said.

The school brought in Playworks, a national nonprofit that uses playtime to teach students how to peacefully and respectfully work together to settle disagreements — also known as social emotional learning, said Angela Rogensues the executive director of the Michigan Playworks branch.

Ogonowski said the change she has seen in her students has been huge. Kids are getting hurt less, and teachers have said they have fewer classroom behavior problems.

The program teaches better behavior through physical activity. Games focus on cooperation, not winners and losers. When tensions rise on the playground, kids are encouraged to “rock, paper, scissors” over conflicts.

Playworks is adamant that their coaches are not physical education teachers, nor are their 30-45 minute structured play periods considered gym class. But the reality is that in schools without them, Playworks is the closest many kids come to receiving physical education.

Macomb Montessori does not have a regular gym teacher, a problem shared by schools across the state and nearly half of the schools in the main Detroit district, and a symptom of a disinvestment in physical education statewide. In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified.

But with Playworks, the 210 elementary-aged children at the school have a daily recess and a weekly class game time lasting about 30 to 45 minutes.

Another benefit of the program is the chance to build leadership skills with upper elementary students chosen to be junior coaches. Shy kids are picked, as are natural leaders who might be using their talents to stir up trouble.

“I made it because I’m really good with kids. I’m nice and kind and I really like the kids,” Samerah Gentry, a fifth-grader and junior coach said. “I’m gaining energy and I’m having fun.”

Research shows that students are benefitting from both the conflict resolution tools and the junior coach program.

“The program model is really solid and there’s so much structure in place, I can’t really think of any drawbacks,” Principal Ogonowski said.

The program, however, is not free.  

Part of the cost is handled on the Playworks side through grants, but schools are expected to “have some skin in the game,” Rogenesus said. The program at Macomb Montessori costs between $60,000 and $65,000, but poor schools can receive a 50 percent subsidy.

The cost hasn’t prevented eight Detroit district schools from paying for the program. Rogenesus said she is talking with Superintendent Nikolai Vitti about putting the program in even more schools next year. He also identified Playworks as one organization that could be brought in to run after-school programs at a time when he’s rethinking district partnerships.

Part of Playworks’ mission is to work together with schools, even if they already have gym and recess in place or plan to hire a physical education teacher.

“PE is a necessary part of their education in the same way social-emotional learning is a necessary part of that education,” she said.