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Shelby County school board approves three charter schools, denies one

Board member Chris Caldwell and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson listen to a budget presentation in 2015.
Board chairman Chris Caldwell and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson listen to a budget presentation in 2015.
Kayleigh Skinner

Three charter operators whose requests to open schools in Memphis were rejected in May got the green light to move forward on Tuesday evening from Shelby County Schools Board of Education.

Promise Academy got permission to open a third location with elementary school grades; Memphis Business Academy will open an elementary school with a science, technology, engineering and math focus; and Memphis Delta Preparatory will open its first school, for K-8. All propose to open in 2016.

The board turned down a fourth application, from Omni Schools, for a second time, with district officials saying that the network’s existing schools are too low-performing to warrant an expansion.

“Given their performance, we felt it was in the kids’ best interest to hold these schools accountable, to fix these schools and raise them up, before opening more,” said Superintendent Dorsey Hopson, who makes recommendations to the board about which charter schools should be allowed to open.

The board’s decisions underscore the challenge of ensuring that nonprofit operators running local charter schools are up to the job. When Promise, Memphis Business and Memphis Delta first applied, the board sent them away to rework parts of their proposals in order to meet criteria. For example, Promise Academy strengthened their academic plan for science and social studies in their reapplication to gain approval.

Omni Schools had applied to open a high school in the Raleigh-Frayser area of north Memphis. Its elementary and middle school, located in the same area, are on the state priority list because their test scores rank them in the bottom 5 percent statewide.

Omni Schools co-founder Cary Booker said he was disappointed that the application was denied and that the organization plans to reapply in the future.

“We’ve had a lot of demand from current parents for a high school,” said Booker, who is the older brother of U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey. “We have concerns about the fairness of the process and have expressed that to the board. We have assurances from them that they will look into concerns.”

Booker said a main concern was that Omni was denied an interview with the district during the review process, while the other charter organizations with applications were granted interviews.

At the board meeting, Bradley Leon, the district’s chief innovation officer, said Omni was not offered an interview because the district did not have additional questions.

Several board members expressed concerns over the application process, especially the choice to deny Omni Prep an interview. All five board members present voted to approve the three charters and deny Omni, although Misha Clay Bibbs said she had some major issues with the process before she cast her vote.

“There are a lot of problems around this process I want to discuss, but today, I’m voting yes,” Bibbs said.

Omni Prep Academy Lower and Middle Schools almost shuttered their doors this year as they were on the priority list of the state’s 5 percent of worst performing schools, making their closure mandatory this summer under a 2014 state law. However, a new law gave districts the authority to choose whether or not to close low-performing charter schools, giving Omni Schools and two other charter schools a year for redemption.

An added wrinkle is that every new charter school that opens competes with schools run by the district for students — and their associated state funding. That means the board is in some ways voting against its financial interests when it allows new charter schools to open.

Charter applications
Charter applications

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