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Memphis school board postpones closing seven charter schools

Parents and staff from Memphis Delta Preparatory Charter School urge school board members to delay a vote to close the South Memphis school.
Parents and staff from Memphis Delta Preparatory Charter School urge school board members to delay a vote to close the South Memphis school.
Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

The seven Memphis charter schools that state law says should close because of poor academics are getting a temporary reprieve from the Shelby County Schools board.

The board on Tuesday decided to delay a vote to close the schools because members said they want to know more about the schools’ performances on state tests, which have gone through a myriad of technical issues in recent years.

“I do not believe all these schools have to be closed,” said board member Kevin Woods. “Some of these schools have shown improvement and I would like to hear more details and conversation.”

The delay is a rare concession for a school board that has been quick to close charter schools that are not meeting state standards. But it does fall in line with the district’s distrust of using state test scores to make drastic decisions about schools.

“We don’t want to close a school without exhausting all the options. There has been so much upheaval in our testing coming from the state,” said board member Michelle McKissack. “The state has not kept up its end of the bargain of providing proper testing.”

Parents from Memphis Delta Preparatory, an elementary school in its third year, showed up at the board’s meeting with signs urging members to postpone the vote. The charter school in South Memphis landed on the state’s list of schools with the lowest test scores, and a recent law mandates those charter schools close. But the school’s status is based only on scores from its first year in operation, 2016-17.

The school’s founder, Michael McKenna, said he hopes the state legislature will “add nuance” to the law for schools that recently opened.

“Our school has drastically improved and families are happy,” he told Chalkbeat.

After another round of technical glitches in state testing last spring, lawmakers banned education officials from using 2018 test scores when calculating the priority list unless the scores helped a school escape the dreaded designation. So, even though Memphis Delta Preparatory scores have improved, they did not improve enough to avoid the list, according to the state.

Those test scores don’t reveal everything about the quality of the school, said parent Susie Phillips. She enrolled her three sons there in January 2017 after trying a district-run elementary school, and a private Catholic school. Since then, one of her sons went from failing to excelling in school.

“They’re comfortable, they’re happy, they’re motivated,” she said of her sons. “When they come home, it’s not a sad feeling. They’re energetic and talking about all the good things that have happened to them throughout the day.”

State law does not account for recently opened schools and does not allow for local discretion in revoking charters from schools that appear on the priority list. The law does not require the board to vote on the issue immediately, but does say that revocation would take effect at the end of the school year. For now, school board members plan to discuss the issue more in a committee and will reschedule a vote.

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