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How do you start a school from scratch?

Memphis Rise Academy founder Jack Vuylsteke, planning to open the new charter school in 2014-15.
Memphis Rise Academy founder Jack Vuylsteke, planning to open the new charter school in 2014-15.
J. Zubrzycki

The goal: Recruit 108 rising 6th graders to attend Memphis Rise Academy, and 12 staff members to help educate them, before the next school year starts this fall.

The challenge: Memphis Rise Academy doesn’t exist yet.

Memphis Rise Academy will be one of three brand-new charter schools authorized by Shelby County Schools opening next school year. Memphis is in the midst of a major expansion in charter school enrollment: While 5,840 students attended the publicly-funded, independently operated schools in 2011-12, more than 12,000 are projected to attend such schools next year. You can read more about the ramifications of that expansion here.

Memphis Rise Academy is opening next year with just a 6th grade. If all goes as planned, it will eventually have a full middle school and a high school, both with a longer school day and a college preparatory focus, near the Berclair neighborhood in Memphis.

What does it take to start a school from scratch? What makes a teacher want to work for a school in start-up? What makes a parent pick a brand-new school? Below, Memphis Rise Academy founder Jack Vuylsteke, teacher Claire Dufresne, and parent Christie Gattis tell their stories.

Jack Vuylsteke: A founder’s perspective

“When you’re founding an organization, you sit in the center of a lot of camps. Some days I’m a lawyer, some days I’m a leasing agent. And at the end of the day, the only person who really gets all of it is you.”

Jack Vuylsteke, 27 years old, completed a fellowship with Building Excellent Schools and is currently working out of an East Memphis office as part of the Tennessee Charter School Center’s incubator program. Both BES and the charter center have helped start a number of new schools in Memphis.

Vuylsteke is not a Memphis native – he was a Teach For America corps member in St. Louis and did a month-long residency in Nashville. But, he said, “in education reform, people’s eyes are on Memphis. It used to be New Orleans, now it’s here. You hear Teach 901: the place is Memphis, the time is now.”

He said someone told him that his biggest barriers would be “age, race, and experience,” but that he had found many families to be receptive to his plans.

Vuylsteke plans to be the school’s first principal, ideally for at least as long as it takes his first group of students to graduate. But before that, he has to recruit those students, hire a staff, locate a building, locate a board, and figure out how to fund the school.

Some of his challenges:

Finding a space and an authorizer:

Determining where to locate the school will shape many other aspects of the school, from who authorized it on the front end to who will attend in the end.

  • Vuylsteke was particularly interested in placing the school in an area where there were no other charter schools. He landed on Northeast Memphis:
  • Memphis Rise is authorized by Shelby County Schools rather the state-run Achievement School District because the ASD mostly takes over schools in the bottom five percent of the state. Some of the schools near where Vuylsteke wanted to run his school were in the bottom ten percent, but were not slated for takeover by the ASD. He said the ASD would in some ways have been a more attractive authorizer – they provide buildings for free – but he wanted to stick with his vision of opening a brand-new school in a charter-free part of town. “We’re there to give opportunities that aren’t there to kids who deserve them.”
  • By late February, Vuylsteke had explored a former office building, a healthcare facility, and a warehouse, but had not yet found a site. Prospective parents were very concerned about where the school building would be located, both due to safety concerns and commute length. By late March, he’d settled on an empty lot near Route 240 and Covington Pike, which will have a temporary building next year while a permanent one is being constructed.

Recruiting a diverse group of students:

Vuylsteke conducted a series of home visits to get to know the area before he applied for a charter. He envisions a diverse school, with black, Latino, and white students. But, he said, “recruitment is the grayest area. We have to plan for the school as if it’s fully enrolled. I’m obsessing.”

  • Enrollment has funding implications: Charter schools’ government funding is determined by the number of students enrolled, though the school has received additional start-up funds from organizations including Building Excellent Schools and the Walton Foundation.
  • Start-up support is necessary because “your first year, you have to spend the most money, but you have the fewest students,” Vuylsteke said.
  • Recruiting students takes many forms: A charter school fair, phone banking, direct mailers, signs, door-to-door canvassing, meetings at apartment complexes – any way to find families of 5th graders.
  • Recruitment efforts shifted over time. Canvassing allowed for a more direct connection with families, but signs and online recruitment have brought more applications overall – though they’ve also drawn calls from people with questions about charter schools more generally.
  • The group connected with community organizations like Latino Memphis. Northeast Memphis has more Latino families and students than most other parts of town: Of nearby elementary schools, Berclair is 50 percent Latino, Grahamwood 20 percent, and Kingsbury more than 60 percent. Just 9 percent of Memphis students overall were Latino in 2012-13.

Finding teachers:

  • Starting teachers’ salaries will be comparable to Shelby County Schools salaries – Vuylsteke said they are perhaps 1.5 percent more.
  • Most administrators will be new to their jobs – most have 3-5 years of experience. They will be paid less than most Shelby County administrators at first, he said.
  • Six of the seven teachers recruited by February are local.
  • Key quality for teachers interested in the school: “Comfortable with uncertainty.”
  • There will likely be more-rapid career advancement for interested teachers than in regular public schools.
  • Vuylsteke said he ultimately wants to create a fellowship program for graduate students interested in charter schools.
  • The school will have extra math and reading classes.

Claire Dufresne: A teacher’s perspective

“The blank slate is a little scary, but it helps knowing that you’re surrounded by good people who are interested in the community and working together.”

One of the school’s first teachers is Claire Dufresne, who is finishing her masters degree in education at the University of Memphis. Dufresne now works at Latino Memphis.

“One of the things that attracted me specifically to Memphis Rise was the fact that he came to Latino Memphis to figure out how to make sure that the school and the outreach (that) is appropriate to the Latino community,” said Dufresne, who will teach reading.

Being part of a smaller, mission-driven school was appealing to Dufresne: “Not all charters are created equal,” she said. “But the approach I got from the school was, it’s a team effort. I felt like if I had an issue it’d be addressed. I’ve heard the lost-in-paperwork issue several times from friends in the public school system,” she said.

Dufresne is already working on her lesson plans for next year and has regular meetings with the school’s founder.

Christie Gattis: A parent’s perspective

“Everyone wants what’s best for their kids. I already know what he’s getting and has gotten, and I’m pretty sure where it’s going. So I’d like to see if I can get something better.”

Parent Christie Gattis, whose 5th-grader Perry is signed up to attend the school next year, said she found out about the school because the school’s administrators were passing out flyers in the neighborhood.

“I didn’t know much about charters at all,” she said. “Let’s put it this way: It had never been offered to me.”

Gattis said that her older son attends the same Shelby County School she herself had graduated from. “It’s not a bad school, but it’s not that great a school,” she said. “For [Memphis Rise] to offer a change, something new – that really made me want to sign up. They’re working really hard to get the school opened.”

Gattis said she felt that the public schools “don’t offer as much as they used to, especially with the change from Memphis City to Shelby County…When my son was in 3rd grade, they quit doing spelling.” She said Perry still struggles with spelling.

“It seems to me that this school is willing to be more one-on-one,” she said. “I got a good feeling.”

Gattis has put up a sign advertising the school in her front yard. “Several of my friends have kids going into sixth grade too.”

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