After months of deliberation, California-based Aspire has decided to spin off its Memphis schools into a new, independent charter school organization.
The four schools – and their 1,600 students – would officially transition at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year if the plan comes to fruition.
Aspire Memphis Superintendent Nickalous Manning would remain the leader of the four schools and work with Aspire to spin them off over the next 12-18 months, Aspire officials announced at a public meeting Thursday held in California.
The Aspire network was one of the first outside charter groups recruited to Memphis to join the state-run Achievement School District five years ago and now runs three schools in the turnaround district. Aspire was founded in California in 1998 and oversees 36 schools there.
Aspire’s board voted unanimously Thursday to pull out of Aspire East Academy, Aspire Coleman Middle School, Aspire Hanley Elementary School, and Aspire Hanley Middle School, and keep them open under a new Memphis-based charter network with its own brand, board, central office, and fundraising arm.
“Nick [Manning] and I see this as the next evolution for the schools and feel excited for what lies ahead,” said Mala Batra, interim chief executive officer with the national Aspire organization. “A big piece of that fits with Nick and his leadership.”
Batra said many factors spurred the decision, including lack of academic progress and the Memphis schools’ slower-than-projected growth. Aspire originally envisioned 10 or more schools in Memphis, but the group has only opened four schools in the region since 2013.
“As we’ve talked about, our academic results are not where we want them to be, where they can and will be,” Batra said.
“We know since we went to Memphis that there is a perception of Aspire and several other organizations as having an outsider status, and we’ve been trying to integrate into that community authentically since we’ve been there,” she added.
Manning told board members that he was confident his local team is up to the task, and that meetings with parents over the last two months about the potential change have been largely positive.
“The locally operated model allows us to be more nimble,” Manning said. “Over the past seven years, our organization has put a tremendous amount of support [into Memphis]. Because of that, we now have the opportunity to move forward in this new work.”
Part of moving forward will be addressing a $2 million operating deficit. But Batra and board members emphasized that they believed the spin-off was the best way for the Memphis schools to become more financially stable. Batra said they had verbal commitments from Memphis-based and national funders to support the new charter school operation.
Jim Boyd, executive director of the Pyramid Peak Foundation in Memphis and Aspire board member, said he believes the change might open more doors politically.
“The thinking of some is that this is an outside group and not a group from Memphis that’s really concerned about our kids,” Boyd said. “While I know that’s not true, it’s hard to change perception on the part of some leaders locally. ”
A task force of national and Memphis-based Aspire leaders, as well as outside consultants, was created to analyze the future of Memphis schools and made the recommendation to the board. The green light on the recommendation comes about two months after Aspire’s national board met in Memphis.
At the Nov. 2 meeting, the task force was looking at three other options, including merging the schools with an existing charter organization or creating an Aspire “franchise.”
Batra said on Thursday that after November, the task force’s decision came down to either spinning off or continuing its governance in the Memphis region with major changes. The group zoned in on the spin-off model as the best option, she added.
The recommendation was met without any serious pushback from board members or Aspire staff. Memphis principal Monique Cincore, who participated in the meeting by video, said that during the November visit, she was most concerned about the option of merging into another charter organization.
“As I got additional information on how we can operate, it became clearer to me,” Cincore said. “I love my Aspire team in California… After sitting down, talking, weighing options, and looking at the needs of students here, it helped me to feel better about transitioning.”
Cincore leads Aspire East Academy, a K-3 elementary school, under the local Shelby County Schools. Aspire also runs Coleman Middle School, one of only nine schools in the Achievement School District that is no longer in the bottom 5 percent of schools, according to the state Department of Education. Aspire Hanley Elementary School also improved enough last year to come off of the state’s list of troubled schools, called the “priority list.”
Aspire isn’t the first national charter organization to spin off its turnaround Memphis schools. Memphis Scholars, which runs three schools in the state district, previously was part of national charter network Scholar Academies. Project GRAD USA pulled out of Tennessee’s turnaround district and closed its school.
National board chair Jonathan Garfinkel said he was “deeply conflicted” about the decision, but ultimately thought the task force made a compelling case.
“In other situations I’ve seen, leaving a big organization to plan a new one tends to be harder than people think,” Garfinkel said. “It tends to be driven by ego and a sense of independence, and I don’t get the slightest hint of that in this process. The local team came to a point of view that this is the right choice for students and families.”