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SCS Board questions new role for charter schools in district

Ford Road Elementary is among schools in Shelby County's Innovation Zone, a program that stands to benefit from money headed to the district as part of a settlement with the city of Memphis.
Ford Road Elementary is among schools in Shelby County's Innovation Zone, a program that stands to benefit from money headed to the district as part of a settlement with the city of Memphis.
Jacklyn Zubrzycki

A district plan to work more closely with charter schools to improve some of Shelby County Schools’ struggling schools raised eyebrows among board members at last week’s work session.

Shelby County Schools is considering asking charter schools to run schools in its 17-school Innovation Zone, which is tasked with improving schools ranked in the bottom 5 percent in the state.

But board members last week questioned whether charter schools have the track record in Memphis—as part of the district or in the state-run Achievement School District—to justify expanding their role in the district.

“Why do we have to hire whole charter schools?” asked Chris Caldwell, after the district presented its strategy.

Results from the 2013-14 and 2012-13 Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) showed that schools run by the district’s Innovation Zone, which are not charter schools, had stronger scores as a group than schools run by charter schools and directly as part of the ASD. Both the Innovation Zone and ASD focus on schools ranked in the bottom 5 percent in the state and receive extra funds, flexibility and new staff in an effort to improve academic performance.

The district’s chief innovation officer, Bradley Leon, said that bringing charters in was a way for the district to increase the talent pool from which it is drawing. Earlier this year, he said there have been concerns in the current model that schools that lose staff to Innovation Zone school struggle.

“What we’ve done in the I-Zone is remarkable,” Leon said. “Our internal staff know this work. They do it better than anybody else in the city of Memphis. But, knowing there’s this talent deficit, if we’re going to have treatment for every one of these schools, we’re going to need some help.”

Several national charter management organizations, such as Yes Prep, Green Dot, and Aspire, have recently come to Memphis to open schools as part of the ASD. The schools often bring staff from their previous locations (California, in the case of Aspire and Green Dot; Houston, in the case of Yes Prep) and recruit nationally for teachers.

According to the plan laid out by the district, charters who run Innovation Zone schools would have to accept students zoned to the school, adopt Shelby County’s expulsion policy, and pay for maintenance and utilities in the building.

But Caldwell questioned whether bringing in new organizations is the most beneficial approach. “If we’re saying the only way to continue on that upward trend is to bring in outsiders, the argument doesn’t resonate that well. If we’re saying we’ve done well with I-Zone schools, how do we leverage resources? If it takes an effective leader, we need to really focus on our bench,” Caldwell said.

Caldwell noted that some schools within the Innovation Zone and the Achievement School District had done better than others. “Analysis from you about what were the common threads [in successful schools] would be helpful. If we’re not using that model in leveraging it district-wide, then that’s not a good use of our resources.”

The district also plans to focus on creating a performance framework for all schools, traditional and charter; closing low-performing charters; and creating a compact that delineates how charters will share services and gain access to district resources and buildings. The plan also said that the district would be collaborating more closely with the state-run Achievement School District.

One school in the Innovation Zone, Hamilton High School, is run by a former charter school founder, Curtis Weathers. District officials said earlier this year that Weathers had already broached the idea of charter conversion with the Hamilton community.

Caldwell suggested that the board discuss this plan in more depth in future board work sessions.

The next meeting of the Shelby County board is tonight at 5:30, in the Frances Coe Auditorium at 160 S. Hollywood St in Memphis.

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