Achievement School District

KIPP to pull out of school under Tennessee’s turnaround district

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
KIPP Memphis University Middle is closing after three years of operation under the state-run Achievement School District. The school operates in a former school building operated by Shelby County Schools.

A national charter network announced Tuesday that it’s scaling back its work with Tennessee’s school turnaround district.

KIPP will exit Memphis University Middle School next June due to under-enrollment and its remote location, according to a statement from the network.

The board for KIPP Memphis Collegiate Schools voted 6-1 on Monday in favor of the pullout, with one parent representative voting against the change.

The national network has had a presence in Memphis since 2008 and will continue to operate its seven other schools in the city: three under the state’s Achievement School District and four others under Shelby County Schools.

KIPP becomes the second ASD operator to announce plans to exit a school under Tennessee’s ASD. Leaders of Memphis-based Gestalt Community Schools announced in October that its board had voted to vacate its two ASD schools in North Memphis. They also cited low enrollment, a challenge that Memphis school leaders have struggled with long before the ASD came on the scene in 2012.

The pullouts show the challenges inherent in the ASD’s structure, which operates schools in high-poverty areas, often with a dwindling school-age population. The state-run district relies on charter networks that are mostly bound to enrolling students under the same neighborhood zoning restrictions as local school districts. That’s different from the national charter school scene, where operators are able to enroll students from anywhere in a city.

As of November, KIPP’s University Middle had an enrollment of 148 students, up from 83 students during its first year of operation but not enough of an increase to sustain the school, according to network leaders.

“Due in large part to its remote location in Southwest Memphis, KIPP Memphis University Middle has been under enrolled since it opened in the summer of 2014,” KIPP leaders said in a statement. “Because of this historic low student enrollment, the board determined the school was not financially viable on public dollars in the long run.”

Despite the pullouts, other ASD charter operators told Chalkbeat in recent weeks that they are committed to continuing their turnaround work under the ASD. Several even hope to expand under the state-run district.

KIPP University Middle is atypical of most of the ASD’s schools. As a new start, the school operated under laxer enrollment restrictions than for the ASD’s takeover schools, which comprise the vast majority of the ASD’s portfolio of 33 schools in Memphis and Nashville. However, it’s still restricted to enrolling students from zones with schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent academically.

Located in South Memphis near the Mississippi River, KIPP University Middle operates in a former school building owned by Shelby County Schools. When that school was shuttered in 2013, its enrollment of 181 students was more than the current enrollment under KIPP.

University Middle is one of only two ASD schools that are not considered a state “priority school,” which are schools that are academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent. The ASD’s goal — and mandate from the state — is to lift all of its schools out of the bottom 5 percent.

KIPP officials stressed Tuesday that they hope students at University Middle choose to stay in the KIPP network and that they will provide transportation to other KIPP schools. KIPP Memphis Preparatory Middle, another ASD school, is located about nine miles away, while KIPP Memphis Collegiate High School, a charter school authorized by Shelby County Schools, is 17 miles away.

Reporter Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the national KIPP network is based in California. KIPP originated in Texas.

packing up

Charter school in Tennessee’s turnaround district relocating out of neighborhood it signed up to serve

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
The new Memphis Scholars Raleigh-Egypt sign next to faded letters of Shelby County Schools name for the middle school.

When officials at Memphis Scholars Raleigh-Egypt Middle School learned that another school on the same campus could get extra help for its students, they made a big decision: to pick up and move.

Memphis Scholars announced Monday that the school will reopen next year in a building 16 miles away, where the charter operator already runs another school under Tennessee’s turnaround district. The network will pay to bus students from the Raleigh neighborhood across Memphis daily.

The move is the latest and most dramatic episode in an ongoing enrollment war between the state-run Achievement School District and Shelby County Schools in the Raleigh neighborhood.

Most recently, Shelby County Schools proposed adding Raleigh-Egypt Middle/High, which shares a campus with Memphis Scholars now, into the district’s Innovation Zone — a change that would bring new resources and, the district hopes, more students.

The Innovation Zone represents a “high-quality intervention” for students in the neighborhood, according to Memphis Scholars Executive Director Nick Patterson. But he said it makes the presence of his school less essential.

Shelby County Schools’ proposal “creates two schools, on the same campus, serving the same grades, both implementing expensive school-turnaround initiatives,” Patterson said in a statement. “Memphis Scholars strongly believes that this duplication of interventions is not in the best interest of students and families as it divides scarce resources between two schools.”

The move also allows the network to solve two persistent problems. First, enrollment at Raleigh-Egypt Middle is less than half of what it was supposed to be, putting so much pressure on the school’s budget that the network obtained an energy audit to help it cut costs. That’s because Shelby County Schools expanded the adjacent high school to include middle school grades, in an effort to retain students and funding.

Plus, Memphis Scholars ran into legal obstacles to adding middle school grades to its Florida-Kansas school. Moving an existing middle school to the Memphis Scholars Florida-Kansas Elementary campus circumvents those obstacles. Because state law requires that at least 75 percent of students at Achievement School District schools come from the neighborhood zone or other low-performing schools on the state’s “priority list,” the charter school can welcome any middle schooler in its new neighborhood.

But network officials want to keep serving their existing students, and they’re offering transportation to make that possible.

It’s unclear if Raleigh students will follow the charter school across town. Some parents reached by Chalkbeat on Monday said they hadn’t heard about the changes yet, but their students said they found out today.

“I hadn’t heard about the changes, but I don’t like that too much,” said Reco Barnett, who has two daughters who attend the school. “We’re here because it’s right by where we live. It’s right in our area. I don’t know what we’ll do yet, I just now found out when you told me, but I don’t know if we’ll be able to do that. That’s a long ways away from us.”

The move would free up the building for use by Shelby County Schools. District officials did not provide comment Monday.

Chalkbeat reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this story.

Notable departure

Last original leader resigns from Tennessee’s school turnaround district

The state-run Achievement School District began taking over schools in Memphis in 2012.

Margo Roen, who has been instrumental in recruiting local and national charter operators to Tennessee’s Achievement School District, has resigned as its deputy superintendent.

PHOTO: Achievement School District
Margo Roen

She said her departure, which is effective June 30, is not related to the State Department of Education’s plans to downsize and restructure the turnaround district by July 1.

“This decision (to leave) is an extremely hard one, and does not in any way diminish the immense belief I have in our schools and kids, and my admiration, appreciation, and respect for the ASD team, operators, and partners in this work,” Roen told Chalkbeat this week in an email.

With Roen’s departure, the ASD will lose its last original leader. She joined the state-run district in 2011 after its creation as part of Tennessee’s First to the Top plan. Superintendent Malika Anderson, who was once deputy to founding superintendent Chris Barbic, joined a few months later, along with Troy Williams, the ASD’s chief operating officer.

In addition to overseeing charter recruitment efforts, Roen has co-led the ASD’s Operator Advisory Council to give charter leaders more say in ASD decisions and collaborate across the district’s 33 schools.

Roen said she will remain in Memphis and plans to work on projects with school districts across the nation.