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Southwest high school fires back at district recommendation of immediate closure, citing ‘incomplete information’

Students get ready to go home after a day of classes at Southwest Early College High School.
Students get ready to go home after a day of classes at Southwest Early College High School.
Caroline Bauman

The leader of an embattled Memphis charter school is pushing back on allegations following a surprise announcement that Shelby County Schools is asking for immediate closure of Southwest Early College High School.

The 133 students who attend the school might need to find a new school in as soon as 11 days, which school leaders say would create a situation where students “would not be well-served.”

In a statement released Thursday, Southwest High CEO Ashley Smith addressed three of the board’s allegations: that it relied on uncertified teachers, didn’t provide proper special education services, and would be homeless after the end of the school year as Southwest Community College, which shares its campus with the high school, announced last month that it would no longer be a partner.

“There have been hiccups in our three years, but those are part of the start-up of any school,” she said.

“Thankfully we have been able to have some productive and eye-opening meetings with some of the school board members,” Smith added. “Inaccurate and incomplete information about our school has been disseminated. We simply want a chance to correct it.”

Shelby County Schools said that 60% of the school’s teachers aren’t properly licensed for the classes they are teaching, and five classes weren’t being taught by credentialed educators.

Smith said they have six licensed teachers and “several substitute teachers on staff who help to fill temporary course vacancies.

“Several of these substitute teachers are working toward teacher licensure and are currently applying for teaching permits from the state,” she said. “Again, having new teachers in the classroom who have not yet completed the full licensing process is common in Tennessee.”

The district investigation also found that the school didn’t have a permanent schedule for the special education teacher and wasn’t providing proper services to students with disabilities. Smith said she has a licensed special education teacher, a director of special education, and a special education classroom assistant on staff.

She admitted that from Aug. 4 to Sept. 6, some students didn’t receive full services due to “scheduling difficulties common at the start of any school year,” but that those issues have been resolved.

Smith, formerly the acting principal, said she promoted Jeremiah Frazier to interim principal this week to help shepherd the school. Enrollment has dropped by more than 100 students since the start of the school year, and Smith has struggled to keep teachers. Its latest scores on the state exam fell below district averages, but it received a good rating from Shelby County Schools in the district’s own report card.

The high school launched a program two years ago with Southwest Community College that allows its students to graduate with as many as 60 college credit hours and an associate degree. Smith said the school is looking for partnerships beyond Southwest Community College to provide students the opportunity to earn an associate degree and “will announce additional partnerships soon.”

In a district presentation posted online, Shelby County Schools staff in charge of charter school compliance cited board policy approved earlier this year that allows for immediate closure for “egregious acts of malfeasance by the charter school.”

“Perhaps if we had been able to meet with Superintendent Joris Ray or SCS board staff, we would have learned that they were going to recommend SECHS’s immediate closing – rather than having to hear the news from a Chalkbeat reporter,” Smith said in the statement.

Charter school leaders and the district can present their case to board members at hearing at 4 p.m. Monday. The board is expected to vote on the revocation at its monthly board meeting on Oct. 29.

Parents and students protest Shelby County Schools's recommendation to close Southwest Early College High School, which aims to graduate students with associates degrees on top of high school diplomas.
Parents and students protest Shelby County Schools’s recommendation to close Southwest Early College High School, which aims to graduate students with associates degrees on top of high school diplomas.

Smith said they reached out to district staff to attempt to meet ahead of Monday, but were unable to schedule a meeting.

Southwest board chairwoman Sharon Jones previously told Chalkbeat the school plans to appeal the decision if the Board of Education votes to revoke the school’s charter. If Southwest appeals and the State Board of Education upholds the district’s decision, the school would close Jan. 7, according to the district’s recommendation. If the school does not appeal, the school would close Nov. 8.

Shelby County Schools rarely recommends closing the charter schools under its authority, but lately has ramped up oversight of new charter schools and current schools with low test scores and poor operations. Since the first charter school opened in Tennessee in 2003, the state board has overturned 25 out of 83 school board decisions to approve, revoke, or renew a charter.

Last school year, both the Shelby County Schools board and the state board voted to shutter the charter school Gateway University after a Chalkbeat report into allegations by former staff members. Several of those allegations, including that the school falsified a geometry class and relied on uncertified teachers, were substantiated in the district investigation.

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