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Seven Memphis schools could have charters revoked next week

Students at Memphis Delta Preparatory, a charter school, are seated for class.
Students at Memphis Delta Preparatory, a charter school, are seated for class.
Caroline Bauman / Chalkbeat

About 1,700 students will need to transfer to a new school next year if the Memphis school board votes to close seven charter schools that the state flagged as the lowest performing in Tennessee.

The vote scheduled for next week comes about a month after the Tennessee Department of Education released its “priority list” of schools that performed worst on state tests. The list does not include scores from the 2017-18 school year since state lawmakers deemed those test results unreliable because of technical issues last spring.

A recent state law calls for any charter school identified on the priority list of schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent to shut down.

The Memphis charter schools on that list are:

  • City University School Girls Preparatory
  • Du Bois Elementary of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle School of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle School of Leadership Public Policy
  • Granville T. Woods Academy of Innovation
  • Memphis Delta Preparatory
  • The Excel Center

Charter schools use public money but are managed by a nonprofit board of directors. Shelby County Schools oversees more than 50 charter schools, a sector that has steadily grown since a 2002 state law allowed them to form. Compared to district-run schools, charters have more autonomy in personnel and curriculum decisions in exchange for more accountability for results.

Most of the schools up for closure have been open for years. But for elementary school Memphis Delta Prep, its priority list status is based only on scores from its first year in operation, 2016-2017. Founder Michael McKenna said that process “fails to show a full picture” of how the school is serving students. Since that first academic year, he said the school is doing better than nearby district-run schools and those in the state’s school improvement district.

“While we, therefore, believe that this rating list is imperfect and incomplete, we welcome the conversation and focus on high standards for all schools,” McKenna said in a statement. “Every student deserves to attend a school the helps them reach their fullest potential, and as a state, we shouldn’t rest until that basic right becomes a reality.”

Charter schools are allowed, under state law, to contest the state department’s calculations. As of Monday, the department had not received requests for formal reviews, a spokeswoman said.

In a statement, the Tennessee Charter School Center, which provides resources to charter school organizations and lobbies state lawmakers on related issues, said it is important to have consequences for low test performance, but also “it is important to consider strong momentum and progress.”

Another outlier is The Excel Center, a Memphis Goodwill Inc.-run charter school that works with adults to get a high school diploma equivalent or recover course credits for students who recently dropped out of high school. It has filled a unique role for the district since 2016, when Shelby County Schools stopped directly serving adults after Messick Adult Center abruptly closed.

“That population is so unique,” Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said last month of Excel. “So, while they are on the list, we have been speaking with them about some different ways they can continue to operate.”

An official for The Excel Center declined to comment.

The three Du Bois schools on the list are operated by former mayor and Memphis schools superintendent Willie Herenton. Closing them would leave just one such school in operation: Its Du Bois Elementary School of Entrepreneurship, which was recognized by the state for high academic growth. The network’s two high schools closed in May because of low enrollment and teacher shortages.

School board members are expected to discuss the vote at its work session Tuesday.

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