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Charters cry foul on impending SCS closures

Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

At least three of four charter schools Shelby County Schools will shutter for low performance next spring say they will fight to keep their schools open, even though they don’t have a right to a formal appeal under state law.

Shelby County is the first and so far only school district in the state to use a new law that makes such closures possible.

The district sent letters earlier this month to Southern Avenue Middle, Omni Lower and Middle schools, and City University Boys Prep informing them they must close at the end of the current 2014-15 school year. District officials met with charter administrators last week to map out a transition plan.

This is the first time that any of the charters have been on the state’s priority list of lowest-performing schools. That’s one of several reasons that two of the three operators said they believe they should be allowed to keep operating.

One operator of a charter targeted for closure pointed out that the fate of her school may well rest on test results of fewer than 20 students.

Southern Avenue Middle founder Elise Evans said if the state reviews her school’s eighth grade math data, the school could be removed from the state list. Evans said 18 advanced students took a ninth-grade Algebra I end-of-course test instead of the easier grade-level assessment, which caused the school’s math scores to drop.

Evans said her school’s attorney requested a state review of the schools test data.

“We feel the state will be honest, just and fair,” she said.

Omni Schools founder Cary Booker said he will lobby lawmakers in January to consider the impact the law has on schools that have so little time to turn things around. Booker said charters operated by the state’s Achievement School District are allowed to be on the priority twice before being subject to closure.

“We acknowledge our (academic) challenges, we know our third grade data is not good,” Booker said last week. “We disagree with the process, the way the law is being applied. We want the same degree of equal treatment and accountability.”

City University Boys Prep did not respond to Chalkbeat’s request for comment.

Despite the charters’ efforts to fight the closure, the district is moving forward with the transition. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the charter closures will affect 650 students.

“We’ll work with parents to reassign students to a Shelby County School to ensure a smooth transition,” Hopson said during a recent board meeting.

The law in question passed the legislature in March. It went into effect in July and requires automatic shut-down of district-approved charters if the schools land on the state’s priority list after 2015.

There is more leniency for charter operators that fall under ASD control, and charters brought in to turn around low-performing schools. They will have to land on the priority list twice to before facing automatic closure.

The state produces the priority list every three years. It’s based on three years of student test scores. The next list will be published in 2017. Schools on the state’s priority list are the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in the state. Shelby County has 59 schools on the priority list.

Schools on the list can fall under the control of the ASD, or be placed in Shelby County’s own Innovation Zones. Both efforts involve planning and adopting turnaround models to improve the schools.

The charters facing automatic closure do not have a right to appeal to the State Board of Education, since they are designated priority schools, according to Shelby County Schools office of charter schools.

At the four closing charters, student improvement has been stagnant in some areas; fewer than 35 percent of the student body at all of the schools can demonstrate proficiency in math and reading.

For example, at Southern Avenue Middle, which opened in 2010, only 24.7 percent of its students are reading on grade level, a 3.1 percent increase from the previous year. The scores are even lower in math with 18.6 percent of students showing proficiency. Math scores increased by only 1 percentage point on state tests taken earlier this year.

At Omni Lower, just 13.6 percent of students are proficient in math and reading. Student performance decrease by 4.4 percent in reading and 1.1 percent in math this year. Omni Middle had the highest amount of growth of all of the closing charters, with 28.6 percent of students reading on grade level, a 9 percentage point increase, and 31.1 percent proficiency in math, a 17.6 percentage point improvement from the previous year.

The Omni schools were founded by Cary Booker and Marc Willis in the fall of 2010. Booker is the older brother of U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Willis is the son of Memphis civil rights leader A.W. Willis.

City University Boy Prep, which opened in 2004, had the lowest math proficiency, 6.4 percent, which was a 12.2 percentage point decrease from the previous year. Reading was only slightly better with 16.3 percent of students proficient, an increase of 3.6 percentage points.

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