Charter Schools

Two charter operators are interested in running Gestalt’s ASD schools in Memphis

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Students leave Klondike Preparatory Academy Elementary, one of two state-run North Memphis schools with uncertain futures due to the planned departure of their charter operator.

As Gestalt Community Schools prepares to exit its two Memphis schools under the state-run Achievement School District, two other ASD charter operators are interested in stepping in.

Leaders for Frayser Community Schools and the ASD’s own Achievement Schools have expressed interest in operating Humes Preparatory Academy Middle and Klondike Preparatory Academy Elementary, both school turnaround projects in North Memphis, beginning next school year.

Gestalt announced this fall its plan to cease management of those schools after the 2016-17 school year. The network’s leaders blamed under-enrollment borne from declining population in North Memphis and exacerbated by the ASD’s state-imposed cap on out-of-zone enrollment.

Of the seven ASD operators eligible to step in, only Frayser Community Schools and Achievement Schools submitted letters of interest, according to a Dec. 2 email to community stakeholders from Bobby White, the ASD’s chief of external affairs.

ASD leaders are asking operators to submit their applications by this Friday, and White emphasized that there’s no guarantee either or both will apply.

The target date means that ASD leaders have pushed back their timetable for reaching a plan on the two schools’ futures. In late October, they told parents they planned to decide the schools’ fate by Dec. 9 in order “to give parents and teachers alike enough time to make informed decisions.” White said more time was needed for potential operators to map out their plans and engage stakeholders. Community meetings with potential operators are now scheduled for January.

“We are in the time period where both operators are engaged in a good amount of due diligence to assess the feasibility of their potential plans,” White said in his email.

While Frayser Community Schools has expressed interest, it’s not clear whether the Memphis-based operator will be eligible based on 2015-16 state standardized test scores at MLK College Preparatory High, its only school. The State Department of Education is expected to release those scores by next week. Eligibility to expand within the ASD is based on whether an operator “meets or exceed expectations” in at least half of its ASD schools in their 2014-15 and/or 2015-16 test score data.

MLK College Prep is located about five miles north of Klondike and Humes. Achievement Schools operates five schools, also located in Memphis’ Frayser community.

The five other ASD operators eligible to apply are Aspire Public Schools, Capstone Education Group, Green Dot Public Schools, KIPP Memphis Public Schools and Promise Academy.

Wanting the ball

Updated: Why one Memphis charter operator thinks it can save an ASD school from closing

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Frayser Community Schools CEO Bobby White makes his pitch to run Humes Preparatory Academy Middle School before community members and leaders of the state's Achievement School District.

Bobby White believes his charter organization has what it takes to save one of the state’s sinking turnaround schools in Memphis.

White says his Frayser Community Schools managed to grow enrollment of MLK College Preparatory High by 24 percent since taking charge of the Memphis school in 2014. He believes he can do the same for Humes Preparatory Academy Middle, another state-run school whose enrollment shrank by 13 percent last year alone.

The Memphis-based charter organization founded by White is the only operator that’s stepped forward and applied to succeed Gestalt Community Schools as overseer of Humes.

The state’s Achievement School District held a community meeting Wednesday night at the school to examine the application and ask questions of White and his team. About 40 people attended, and most questions centered around whether Frayser could bear the expense of running a second school, especially with Humes’ low enrollment.

If the ASD approves Frayser’s bid, the organization will have to grow the school’s enrollment while also turning it around academically — a challenge that Gestalt leaders said they had not been able to meet in five years of operating Humes.

Humes has just over 300 students in a space meant for 900 and is located in North Memphis, where the school-age population has decreased in recent years and forced Shelby County Schools to shutter Northside High School last year.

But White, a former Memphis City Schools principal, believes he can use the same recruitment strategies at Humes that helped his organization grow MLK to 640 students. Those include recruitment booths in grocery stores and community centers, targeted phone calls, and home visits.

“Representatives from the school will conduct promotional activities by speaking at those elementary schools that will feed into Humes,” according to Frayser’s application. “As a follow-up, FCS administrators, staff and volunteers will make neighborhood visits to areas likely to have high school aged children and knock on doors, distribute flyers and have informal conversations about the school.”

Currently, MLK is the only school operated by Frayser Community Schools, but White has said he wants to grow the organization. MLK’s state test scores have not improved, especially in math, but the school received an overall composite achievement score of 4 out of 5, and raised its ACT average by 1.6 points to 16.

Although Frayser is the only operator to apply, ASD officials say it’s not guaranteed a match. Leaders hope to have a decision by Feb. 1 after gauging public opinion and looking at Frayser’s application and data.

There’s also a chance that Humes could close. ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson announced earlier this week that Gestalt’s other state-run school, Klondike Preparatory Academy Middle, will close at the end of this school year. Anderson said that, just as with Klondike, the ASD would work with Shelby County Schools to reassign students to nearby schools if it decides to shutter Humes.

Here are some of the biggest takeaways from Frayser’s application for Humes, and the public hearing:

Building a neighborhood school.

White expects Humes would see an initial decrease, from 310 to 265 students, during the transition. But within five years, enrollment is projected to grow back to 300.

Humes would be marketed as a neighborhood school, which historically has been a pillar of the city’s public education system. Under state law, ASD schools also are allowed to recruit up to 25 percent of students from outside of their neighborhoods. But Frayser’s recruitment focus would be on students in the traditional zone, similar to its approach at MLK.

“What we did, in year one (for Humes), was we decided we were not going to count anything other than students that are currently zoned in the community,” White told Chalkbeat. “As we build a brand, two things will happen. When you start to build pride in community schools, the children who are currently in the neighborhood who are attending other schools will notice. We’re counting on that. We’re also counting on keeping kids who are current 5th graders in the neighborhood.”

Cut expenses, seek philanthropic support.

Gestalt leaders said their impending pullout is necessary because Humes’ student enrollment and related funding can’t pay for the supports needed to turn the school around. Frayser says it can run a leaner machine, albeit one that relies heavily on foundation dollars.

Frayser expects to receive $100,000 in philanthropic support from local organizations and foundations such as Pyramid Peak, Hyde Family and Poplar, according to its financial summary.

White said his team has run the numbers based on an enrollment ranging from 260 to 300 students, and that his charter operation could stay in the black.

ASD officials asked the Frayser team about their plan if philanthropic dollars fall through.

“We do depend on philanthropy and have done so in past,” said Jeffrey Gayhart, who is in charge of finances for Frayser. “We do feel very confident that the $100,000 in the budget is understated. If philanthropy doesn’t come through, Mr. White and I would comb through the budget and prioritize items that could be cut, especially those that don’t affect student outcomes.”

Teachers and staff

Humes principal John Crutchfield would be retained, which would help ease the transition and community-building process. Teachers would have to reapply for 24 positions expected during the first year, but any teacher recommended by Crutchfield would get priority.

Those not coming on board would be provided the information for next steps as well but would be expected to stay for the duration of the current school year,” according to Frayser’s application. “Although we do not anticipate teachers not returning, we do have a pool of qualified substitutes to ensure proper coverage in case there is a number of folks who resign and capable replacements cannot be secured before the year ends.”

Teacher pay at Humes would take a hit — a projected decrease that prompted Anderson to ask how Frayser planned to retain highly effective teachers when “the proposed salaries look very different than what’s currently at this school.”

“When people apply, that’s when we’ll have a better understanding of what we’ll be able to do,” White answered.

The meeting allowed people to ask questions of both ASD and Frayser leaders. Several spoke in support of Frayser Community Schools, including Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love, who has children who attend MLK.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with details from Wednesday night’s community meeting.

it's official

State-run Memphis school definitely will close, says Achievement School District

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Achievement School District Superintendent Malika Anderson listens to parents' concerns during a meeting Monday at Klondike Preparatory Academy Elementary.

After coming up empty-handed in the search for a new operator, Tennessee’s turnaround district will close its first school at the end of this school year, leaders announced Monday night.

Officials with the Achievement School District previously had said that Klondike Preparatory Academy Elementary might close this year, but made it official during a meeting with about 60 Klondike parents, teachers and stakeholders.

The students will be reassigned to Vollentine Elementary, which is less than a mile away and operated by Shelby County Schools. The state took over Klondike from the local district in 2012 due to low performance.

“The reality is this: Our babies deserve to go to a close-by school and stay in the neighborhood,” ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson told the crowd. “They deserve to go to higher-performing school,” she added, noting that she worked with SCS Superintendent Dorsey Hopson to find a higher-performing school for Klondike’s students.

The impending closure is a blow to the state-run district, which has taken over 24 low-performing schools in Memphis since the state legislature created the ASD in 2010 as a mechanism to turn those schools around. The ASD now faces the closure this spring of up to three schools after two of its charter networks announced plans last fall to pull out or scale back their work with the state district.

KIPP Memphis, which is part of a national network, announced in December that it also will pull out of one of its four ASD schools, while Memphis-based Gestalt Community Schools plans to exit both of its ASD schools. Both operators cited under-enrollment. ASD leaders have not announced a final decision about the future of KIPP’s Memphis University Middle School, while Memphis-based Frayser Community Schools has applied to operate Gestalt’s Humes Preparatory Academy Middle.

The state-run district’s relationship with Shelby County Schools has been mostly combative in recent years as the ASD has steadily expanded and siphoned off both students and funding from the local district. But Anderson told parents Monday that the ASD is collaborating with SCS leaders to support Klondike students in the transition ahead, and that the local district will provide bus transportation to Vollentine.

Shelby County Schools, which also has struggled with under-enrollment, now stands to gain students in the transition. Vollentine currently has 258 students and Klondike has 194. Both buildings are designed for more than 500 students.

“There are too many schools for the number of students we have in this county,” Anderson said in response to questions about recent school closures in North Memphis. “What we can do is not be surprised about it. What we can do is make sure we plan for the future. … That’s exactly what the ASD and SCS are engaged in.”

To give parents a choice, the ASD worked with the Memphis School Guide to provide families with a list of up to 13 SCS and ASD schools available to attend. Anderson said Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy group that promotes school choice, is available to provide one-on-one counseling for families needing help.

ASD leaders fielded questions from the crowd about the process for deciding to close the school.

“Why weren’t families engaged more?” asked Klondike Principal Jennifer Islom. “We had an initial meeting, and parents got emails sent to them, but no other committee was created.”

Anderson said seven current ASD operators, including the ASD’s own network, were eligible to apply, but none did.

“We did our due diligence in looking at the finances and honestly we could not make it work,” she said of the decision by the ASD’s Achievement Schools not to apply. “We couldn’t provide a breadth of services here with the number of students available. Instead of providing a subpar experience, we will work with SCS, and find out how we combine these communities.”