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Shelby County Schools approves two charter applications, foreshadows district-wide performance system

Gestalt Community Schools will soon be running two new charter schools in Memphis—one in Hickory Hill, and one in the renovated Crosstown building—while 11 other groups that had hoped to open new schools are back to the drawing board after the Shelby County school board’s business meeting on Tuesday.

Shelby County Schools chief innovation officer Bradley Leon presented the status of all charter school applications the district had received and introduced a plan to take a new approach toward evaluating charter and non-charter schools. 

In his presentation to the board, Leon demonstrated a performance framework used to evaluate schools in the district’s Innovation Zone, a group of turnaround schools that aim to bring schools ranked in the bottom 5 percent in the state up to the top 25 percent. “We need something like this for charter schools, and for every school in the district,” he said. Using the current Innovation Zone template, he said, it’s clear that “some [charter] schools are making progress, others are not.” 

He said having that framework would also help evaluate applications from organizations that already run schools.

As the number of charter schools in Shelby County, and the number of students attending those schools, has grown dramatically in recent years, Shelby County Schools officials—and state and national advocacy groups—are starting to discuss ways to ensure the quality of the publicly-funded, independently-operated schools and even close low-performing schools.

This year, the district received 13 applications for charter schools, and three more letters of intent to apply that were never completed, Leon said. Each application was ranked based on its financial, academic, and operations plans and capacity and additional information.

Applicants whose charters were not approved got feedback on their plans, Leon said. Applicants have until June 26, 2014 to resubmit their applications to Shelby County Schools. The board will then hear the district’s next recommendation in July.

It’s not unusual for applicants rejected in the initial round by Shelby County Schools to later apply successfully after responding to feedback and questions, said district spokeswoman Stefani Everson.

This is not the last step for organizations hoping to open charter schools in Memphis: A new law means that even those applications that are rejected after resubmitting their applications can appeal the decision to the state’s board of education. And the state-run Achievement School District also authorizes charter schools in the city.

Shelby County Schools received charter applications from local groups such as Memphis Goodwill Industries and national operators such as Aspire Public Schools, which runs schools in California and is part of the Achievement School District.

Leon referred to Memphis-based Gestalt’s application as a “replication”—Gestalt already runs several charter schools in the district. That means Shelby County can evaluate the performance of existing Gestalt schools in Memphis when considering whether to open new schools. Leon said Gestalt is the highest-performing charter school in the state of Tennessee.

Crosstown Academy plans to open a 9th grade in 2015-16 and eventually enroll 700 high schoolers. Power Center Academy Elementary would operate a kindergarten and first grade in 2015-16 and eventually enroll 750 elementary schoolers. 

The board unanimously approved the district’s recommendations to approve Gestalt’s applications and deny the rest.