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Charter schools scramble for students in Memphis as options grow and enrollment dwindles

Kyle Kurlick

Airways Middle School is a behemoth of a building. Stacked two stories high and stretching almost eight city blocks, the school sits just off Interstate 240, a few hundred yards from the edge of runways at Memphis International Airport. Despite its enrollment capacity of 800 students, the school has averaged fewer than 300, the result of years of poor academic performance and a recession that prompted thousands of neighborhood families to move elsewhere.

But charter school officials at Houston-based YES Prep viewed Airways as an opportunity and Memphis as their entree to expand beyond their Texas borders for the first time. Widely regarded as one of the nation’s best charter networks, the operator envisioned transforming Airways into a bustling hub of learning and education reform. Their plan: Parents would learn about the charter’s small class sizes, strong teaching force and commitment to get their students into college. They would vote with their feet and entrust their children’s education to YES Prep, as many parents have in Houston, where more than 10,000 students are enrolled in the network’s charter schools, with another 6,000 on waiting lists.

Last month, however, after two years of on-the-ground planning and preparation by a YES Prep team in Tennessee, the network’s board of directors in Houston pulled the plug on the Airways project, as well as its plans eventually to operate five other charter schools in Memphis. According to internal documents, the decision came after leaders determined they would not be able to recruit enough students to create a sustainable model, among other challenges.

Enrollment has been a major challenge for charter operators in Memphis, prompting serious reflection from both supporters and detractors about the role and viability of charters in the city’s overall education improvement strategy. Many schools, both charter and traditional, sit half empty, and administrators must scramble to adapt to a shrinking local population and high student mobility rate.

“If we don’t have a sustainable approach to serve at the highest level possible the way we have in Houston . . . we are not going to take that risk on Memphis kids,” said Bill Durbin, superintendent of YES Prep’s expansion efforts. Memphis students, he said, already have borne the brunt of numerous school closings and educational disruptions. “We’re not going to be the operator that [adds to] that.”

Fertile ground for reform

On its face, Memphis appears to be an attractive city for charter organizations such as YES Prep seeking to bring new energy to a beleaguered education landscape in a high-needs community.

With a high concentration of struggling public schools and millions of education dollars funneling in from philanthropists and the Obama administration’s Race to the Top grant, Memphis is at the front lines in a battleground state in the education change movement.

Leading the turnaround work is Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD), launched in 2011 to turn the trajectory of the state’s worst-performing schools. And at the helm of the ASD is Chris Barbic, who helped to found YES Prep in 1998 and ushered the network’s rise to national prominence before leaving Texas charters to oversee Tennessee’s pioneering initiative.

It was amid this backdrop that the ASD attracted nationally recognized charter networks to Memphis. Some — such as California-based Aspire Public Schools and Texas-based YES Prep — were making their first ventures out of state.

But established charter operators quickly learned that Tennessee, while fertile ground for growth, also presented challenges.

While most charters across the nation can recruit students from anywhere in their city, the Achievement School District chose a different model in which charter schools took over an existing school and then could enroll students only from their neighborhood zones, similar to how traditional schools operate. Barbic proclaimed that Tennessee charters would be put to the “ultimate test” of turning around struggling schools while playing by the same rules as traditional schools — an ambitious model that drew national praise.

In addition, enrollment in Memphis fluctuates constantly under a high mobility rate of 37 percent, according to a recent study. Many students register at the last minute or leave mid-year under changing family circumstances, making the job of school administrative planning, staffing and programming difficult.

Half empty

Traditional local school districts have grappled with enrollment challenges in Memphis for decades.

Struggling under generational poverty and decimated by factory closings that turned bustling communities into aging and emptying neighborhoods, Memphis has one of the highest home foreclosure rates in the nation. With a population of 653,000, its 101,000 K-12 students are spread thin throughout its 320 square miles of land — more real estate than in New York City, which has a population of 8.4 million. And for many low-income neighborhoods, access to public transportation is poor or non-existent.

To deal with dwindling enrollments and budget shortfalls, school leaders in Memphis have closed 16 schools over the last three years, impacting 3,555 students. Last month, the Board of Education for Shelby County Schools voted to close three more, including Airways Middle, at the end of this school year.

The ASD and its authorized charters have found enrollment issues equally challenging.

According to a Chalkbeat analysis of district and state records, enrollment has declined at eight of the 12 schools that the ASD has completely taken over since beginning its work in 2012. At Westside Achievement School in the city’s Frayser community, for example, just 370 students attend the school, down from 510 students in 2011 when the former Memphis City Schools operated it before merging with Shelby County Schools in 2013.

Elsewhere, while charter operators are close to their enrollment targets, the numbers are far from capacity.

The average ASD school sits only half full, with a significant percentage of students transferring in or out of school throughout the year. The challenge has prompted charter officials to launch aggressive marketing campaigns that include billboards, door-to-door canvassing and stuffing flyers in parents’ mailboxes in an effort to attract and retain students.

“A lot of these schools were grossly undersubscribed when we took them on,” explains Elliot Smalley, the ASD’s chief of staff. “Enrollment in priority schools historically has been a challenge because of low performance and parents divesting. It’s a challenge we inherit and take on when we go into certain neighborhoods. It’s not specific to the ASD. It’s endemic to the city.”

Changing environment

While public education in Memphis languished for decades without sweeping intervention, the landscape and players have changed significantly in the last five years.

Charged with turning around the state’s bottom 5 percent of academically ranked schools, the ASD now oversees 22 public schools in Memphis and turned most over to nonprofit charter organizations — mostly at the expense of Shelby County Schools, which has lost both students and per-pupil state funding in the process.

With one-third of its district eligible for ASD intervention, Shelby County Schools has responded by aggressively growing its own turnaround initiative known as the Innovation Zone, or iZone, a set of schools that operate under similar flexibilities as ASD schools but are directly run by the district. The program, while expensive, has yielded steady test gains. By next school year, almost one-tenth of the district’s students will be under the iZone umbrella.

Dorsey Hopson
Dorsey Hopson
Kyle Kurlick

In the meantime, Tennessee’s legislature is expected to vote on school voucher legislation this month that would provide state-funded scholarships for families wanting to send their children to private schools — potentially siphoning off even more students from local districts.

In Memphis, the convergence of factors has set up a competitive education environment among charter and traditional schools as they scramble for students and accompanying state funding.

“This is what competition looks like,” said Shelby County Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earlier this year as district leaders grappled with a $125 million budget shortfall and dwindling enrollments.

Charter-friendly legislation

Despite the much-ballyhooed policy of ASD charters playing under similar enrollment restrictions as traditional schools, the Tennessee Department of Education initiated legislation this year that would allow ASD-operated charters to expand their enrollment footprint beyond traditional neighborhood zones.

“This is less about not being full; and it’s more about just giving families an option if they want to send their kid to one of our schools,” said Barbic, speaking in favor of the proposal in February to the Senate Education Committee.

Under the measure, any ASD-authorized charter school operator could enroll students beyond the zone structure — as long as out-of-zone students don’t exceed 25 percent of the school’s total enrollment. The out-of-zone students also must come either from an underperforming school, from a low-income family so that they qualify for free or reduced price lunch, or have a family member who works at an ASD school.

ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic
ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic
Daarel Burnette

State Education Commissioner Candice McQueen supports the bill as a way to give struggling students seats in turnaround schools. Barbic estimates the revised policy could draw about 400 out-of-zone students to ASD charters — less than 5 percent of the ASD’s total student population.

However, critics charge that the change would give charters an unfair competitive advantage over traditional public schools by allowing them to push out low-performing or special education students and improve their schools’ overall test scores — a process known as “creaming.”

“It’s almost a bait-and-switch situation if that’s the way it’s playing out,” said Marcus Pohlmann, a political science professor at Rhodes College who has studied the history of Memphis schools. “I’m not saying it’s their intention, but it could easily become that. In that case, we’re expanding charter schools without directly addressing the real serious underlying problem of educating the folks living in these communities.”

Charter administrators say their intention is not to “cherry pick” their student population but to serve students in surrounding neighborhoods — and anyone else who shows up at their doors wanting the best education possible for their children.

“While we are the neighborhood school, we work just as hard to recruit students to our school,” said Allison Leslie, executive director of Aspire’s Memphis schools, which operates three schools in the city. “Parents still vote with their feet. We have to make a great school where they want to come.”

Approved last week by the Tennessee House, the legislation next faces a crucial vote in the Senate, expected this week.

But no matter the outcome, the effort reflects the realities and challenges of today’s environment for charter school advocates.

“[Charter school leaders] are trying to reconcile two really important principles that sometimes bump into each other,” explains Chris Gibbons, who runs Strive, a charter organization in Denver. “One is that charters are public schools and should be serving comparable incoming populations if they are going to be compared with the same criteria. But the second equally important principle is we want a system that allows for choice for families. If you’re too far on the equity side, you eliminate choice for family. If you’re too far on the choice side, schools are serving really different groups of children.”

Charter pitch

The legislation’s outcome will help determine where DeVonte Payton is allowed to knock on doors in Memphis’ poorest neighborhoods as he spreads the gospel of KIPP Memphis Collegiate Schools, a charter management organization where he is the director of student recruitment. KIPP Memphis operates three ASD-authorized schools and another four authorized by Shelby County Schools.

DeVonte Payton
DeVonte Payton
Daarel Burnette

“To and through college!” Payton tells families with children who are eligible to attend a KIPP school, pointing out that college advisers await their children in middle school and pledging that KIPP will shepherd their children to get a high school diploma, a college degree and wider opportunities.

In KIPP strongholds such as Newark, N.J., and New York City, charters bustle with activity and brim with students, their hallways lined with college pennants to remind students why they’re there. With a waiting list to enroll, many operators hold a lottery to determine who gets in.

But in Memphis, residents often are wary of names such as KIPP, Aspire and YES Prep — sometimes even staging protests when a charter organization is given authority to begin taking over a school that previously was operated by their local district. For charter leaders, it’s difficult to tell if parents are slow to embrace them because of their personal experiences, the community’s high mobility rate, academic reputation or access to the schools.

At Aspire Coleman Elementary School in the Memphis suburb of Raleigh, principal Owen Ricciardi dressed in purple and stood outside the school for months before its opening, talking to parents about Aspire and responding to questions and concerns about the charter network.

Such sales pitches are necessary. If charter schools don’t hit their enrollment targets, administrators must shrink their budget and cut staff crucial to programming.

“That bit of predictability is a big deal,” said Shaka Mitchell, Tennessee’s regional director for Rocketship, which has been approved to open several schools in the ASD but has held back under the current enrollment policy. “As a school administrator, we need to know how many students to expect so we can . . . know what sort of enrichment we’re providing. If we don’t have an accurate prediction, we have to trim back programming and that makes certain things impossible,” Mitchell said.

Beyond YES Prep’s ‘No’

While ASD schools are far from full, the ASD’s Smalley calls the gap between actual and projected enrollments “nuanced.” He urges patience as the ASD and its charters work to improve the quality of schools, win parents back and build enrollment. “With most of our schools in their first or second year of operation, now isn’t the time to be making major assumptions or drawing big conclusions,” he adds.

Meanwhile at Airways Middle School — once viewed as YES Prep’s future anchor to build its charter network in Memphis — educators and students are winding down the school year as district officials prepare to shutter its doors for good in June. Next school year, Airways students will be moved to Sherwood Middle, an iZone school.

While enrollment was a major sticking point for YES Prep, network leaders noted that Memphis parents also have more quality options now than in 2013 when YES Prep received state authorization to set up shop in the city. In addition, while YES Prep had planned to phase in its operations at Airways one grade at a time, Hopson announced last November that Shelby County Schools no longer would support the co-location model, in which the district scales back a school’s traditional operations while a charter grows and gradually takes over the building.

“With no clear path to meeting student enrollment needs and low probability of future school matching with phase-in program model, we will not be able to deliver on the vision we outlined for opening a region of schools in Memphis,” Durbin told YES Prep’s board. “Even with additional philanthropic support, we do not see a path to YES Prep-level student achievement results based on student-generated revenue.”

The departure was a significant blow to the ASD. But Barbic remains adamant that the state-run district is steadily continuing its mission with existing charters, several of which, he says, are closing in on projected enrollment numbers, while student mobility rates are showing a slight improvement as well.

“Not everyone,” he says matter-of-factly of YES Prep, “is cut out for this work.”

Contact Daarel Burnette II at dburnette@chalkbeat.org or (901) 260-3705.

Follow us on Twitter: @Daarel, @chalkbeattn.

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