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Memphis Catholic High School in 2016.

Memphis Catholic High School in 2016.

Six Memphis Catholic schools would convert to charters under revised application

After seeking to be the largest charter school operator in Memphis, a new organization hoping to convert Catholic schools to public ones is scaling back.

New Day Schools re-submitted its charter school application to Shelby County Schools on Friday, reducing its request from nine to six schools. That cuts out the Whitehaven, South Memphis and downtown campuses and retains the schools in Berclair, Binghampton, Frayser, Hickory Hill, Midtown, and Orange Mound.

The reduction reflects some concerns district leaders had about the organization’s initial application, but would still make the conversion the largest number of new schools a charter organization has opened at the beginning of a school year in Memphis.

John Smarrelli is the 22nd president of Christian Brothers University — a private Catholic college in the middle of Memphis.

John Smarrelli is the 22nd president of Christian Brothers University — a private Catholic college in the middle of Memphis.

Caroline Bauman

John Smarrelli, president of the New Day Schools’ board of directors and Christian Brothers University, said he hopes the revisions will help increase enrollment and recruit high-caliber staff for the Compass Community Schools.

“The Shelby County Schools board challenged us to consider our capacity to open nine schools within the same academic year,” he said in a statement. “Understanding that we seek to open all Compass schools at once, we felt it best to reduce the number of applications to six to ensure we open fully staffed, strong charter schools for the 2019-20 academic year.”

The Catholic Diocese of Memphis has not yet decided what to do with the remaining three buildings, said spokesman Vince Higgins. He also mentioned Chalkbeat’s inquiry was the first he had heard of the application revision.

“We hope to see on Aug. 21 the school board will approve the charter schools unfortunately with those three schools omitted,” Higgins said. The charter organization is not affiliated with the diocese.

None of the 10 applicants for charters this year got the initial green light from the district administration, which is not unusual. Every applicant had 30 days to revise their applications before another review. The board is expected to vote on the amended applications August 21.

Daphne Robinson, the district’s charter school director, said last month she had “concerns about making sure they had enough staff at the network level for their planning year” because they would need to hire dozens of teachers and finalize curriculum and materials for nine schools.

Brad Leon, the district’s chief of strategy and performance management, had said the organization did not clearly strip all the religious components in its new vision and mission for the schools.

The Catholic schools are about to enter their last year of operation after the Catholic Diocese of Memphis announced in January it would close the nine schools in the Jubilee Catholic Schools Network, plus another that received heavy funding from the network. The private school network was created in 1999 to serve children from low-income families. But it has been steadily losing money and students as the city’s education landscape grew, reflecting a nationwide trend.

Jubilee stood to gain up to $2 million annually if state lawmakers had approved funneling public dollars to private school student tuition, known as vouchers. When the measure failed to pass after several years in the Statehouse, most recently in January, the diocese sought to capture public dollars by turning the private schools into charter schools, which has had some success in other cities.

The three buildings that were cut are St. Patrick Catholic School next to the FedEx Forum downtown, St. Augustine Elementary School near Hamilton Middle and Elementary schools, and St. Joseph Catholic School, located between two elementary schools run by Shelby County Schools.

If approved, the charter schools would have to be non-religious and allow any student to apply. Existing Jubilee students would not be guaranteed spots. However, federal law does allow for the charter organization to retain the same staff.

Update, July 31, 2018: This story has been updated with a statement from John Smarrelli and the Catholic Diocese of Memphis.

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