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Crosstown Concourse, a building being redeveloped in midtown Memphis, is the site of a proposed selective high school.

Crosstown Concourse, a building being redeveloped in midtown Memphis, is the site of a proposed selective high school.

Shelby County Schools, private funders eye Crosstown high school for midtown Memphis

Months after a charter network abandoned its plan to open a new school in a prominent midtown Memphis development, the district has another proposal for the space — a selective school that would appeal to the city’s middle class.

Crosstown High School would serve as a college prep school designed for students who perform on or above grade level on state tests, according to a proposal that the Shelby County Board of Education is scheduled to discuss for the first time Tuesday evening.

The proposal is a change of direction from an earlier plan by Gestalt Community Schools, which was named a year ago as a future tenant for the Crosstown Concourse development. The high-performing charter network, which pulled out of the deal last fall, focuses on serving students from poor families and does not screen students by ability.

It also would represent a new direction for the school board, which for years has focused almost exclusively on efforts to improve Memphis’ lowest-performing schools. Those efforts have included overhauling some struggling schools and ceding others to charter operators, causing the district to lose students and the state funding that follows them.

In part because of those efforts, the educational landscape in Memphis is becoming increasingly competitive and the district needs “as many good programs as it can” have, said board member Chris Caldwell, who serves the city’s midtown neighborhoods.

“If we’re trying to provide more environments and more schools that are high performing, we’re going to attract kids that may not be in this district,” he said. “The bottom line is: the more options kids have, the better.”

Ultimately, Caldwell and his fellow board members will have to weigh whether the advantages of creating a selective high school outweigh the costs. While the school has the potential to recapture some students who now attend private, parochial or charter schools, it also could drain higher-performing students from district schools, steepening challenges for existing schools.

The few details available so far about the planned 500-student school suggest that it would generally serve wealthier families than do existing district schools. The Crosstown school would aim for a student population with at least 35 percent who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, according to documents provided to the board. In contrast, 65 percent of students across the district come from families that poor.

Its midtown location is just a few blocks north of Northwest Prep Academy, a priority school scoring in the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools. But it is also less than two miles from Central High, a century-old selective school that scored in the state’s top 5 percent in academic gains in 2015.

And its location, in a high-rise building being redeveloped in a former Sears warehouse built in the 1920s, is likely to be a pull for families who live in midtown neighborhoods, an area east of downtown Memphis that serves as a hub for the arts, higher education and cultural attractions. Crosstown High would be located on the fourth and fifth floors of the Crosstown Concourse building, joining other tenants from mostly educational, healthcare and retail sectors.

After Gestalt decided last year not to use the space, a group of private funders approached Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson about creating a contract school governed by an independent board of directors, with operations funded by Shelby County Schools, according to several sources familiar with the discussions.

Shelby County school board member Chris Caldwell listens during a board meeting.

Board member Chris Caldwell (left) listens during a recent meeting.

Kayleigh Skinner

The arrangement could be a boon to Shelby County Schools. Contract schools are similar to charter schools in that they are operated by third-party organizations, but unlike charter schools, they remain part of the district. That means that the district retains funding for students in contract schools — and credit for their successes.

Hopson declined to discuss the proposal over the weekend, but a memorandum before the school board calls it a “unique opportunity to create a college preparatory school that, by virtue of its location in the Crosstown Concourse building, can leverage partnerships with well-respected organizations including St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Methodist Le Bonheur, the Church Health Center, and local universities to provide a rich educational experience for students.”

The memorandum provides a starting point to discuss the Crosstown proposal, according to Caldwell.

“It’s not a forgone conclusion that it’s going to happen,” he said. “It’s a board decision. I’m only one member of the board, and I think that it ought to be an interesting discussion.”