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Shelby County Schools board votes 5-3 to shut down Southwest Early College High; school appeals

Members of the public listen during a hearing for Southwest Early College High School.
Members of the public listen during a hearing for Southwest Early College High School.
Caroline Bauman

Update: On. Nov. 8, Southwest Early College High School officials submitted their appeal to the State Board of Education. The board scheduled a hearing at 1 p.m., Dec. 4 at the Frances Board Auditorium at the Shelby County Schools office. Board members will then vote on whether to uphold or reverse Shelby County Schools’ decision to close the school down at the end of the school year. You can read Southwest’s appeal in full at the bottom of this article.

Update: On Oct. 29, Shelby County Schools board members voted 5-3 in favor of closing Southwest Early College High School at the end of the school year. Leaders of the charter school will have 10 days to file an appeal with the State Board of Education, which would then either uphold the district’s decision or reverse it. Southwest CEO Ashley Smith told Chalkbeat she will appeal the board’s decision.

Board members Michelle McKissack, Scott McCormick, and Kevin Woods voted against closure. Votes in favor of closure were Stephanie Love, Shante Avant, Althea Greene, Joyce Dorse-Coleman, and Miska Clay Bibbs. For more from the meeting, go here.

During a 45-minute question-and-answer session, leaders of an embattled Memphis charter school defended their right to educate students, and district officials countered that they don’t have faith in the school.

The Shelby County Schools board is expected to vote on the charter revocation of Southwest Early College High School on Tuesday.

Board members expressed concern during their questions to the school on Monday that the school is in its third year but still struggling with staffing and serving its students with disabilities in a timely matter.

“In your third year, why did you not have processes worked out so that within three or five days, you were in compliance [with serving special education students], rather than having to be notified?” asked district board member Shante Avant.

Jeremiah Frazier, the school’s interim principal, said they have students coming to them from more than 20 middle schools, which made paperwork tricky. Southwest CEO Ashley Smith added that four students came in with greater needs than the school had served previously, creating a delay as the school learned how to best serve them.

The investigation found that those four students with disabilities weren’t getting the correct services due to scheduling confusion during the start of the year, and a district official told the board that school leaders should have been able to access the students’ information in a timely matter.

At stake is the education of 133 students who could need to find a new high school in less than two weeks if Shelby County Schools board members vote for charter revocation renovation on Tuesday. But if Southwest appeals to the State Board of Education within 10 days and the state upholds the district’s decision, the school would not close until Jan. 7.

Smith said she plans to appeal if the board votes to close the school, and that she was encouraged by this week’s state board vote to overturn the closure of a charter school in Metro Nashville Public Schools.

District officials said this is the first time in recent history they have recommended immediate closure of a charter school due to “egregious” misconduct.

Brad Leon (left), the district’s chief of strategy and performance management, said there was disagreement around the facts.
Brad Leon (left), the district’s chief of strategy and performance management, said there was disagreement around the facts.
Caroline Bauman/Chalkbeat

The school came under scrutiny last month after three Southwest students and two parents stood before the Shelby County Schools board and reported incomplete schedules, staffing shortages, missing high school credits, and inadequate aid for students with disabilities.

The district’s investigation found no evidence of missing credits or that students weren’t on track to graduate. However, the investigation did determine that half of the high school’s teachers are not properly credentialed and that the school struggled to support students with disabilities.

Southwest’s leaders questioned the district’s investigation and communication in the school’s response.

School leaders said that the district’s evaluation of their teaching staff was wrong. The school currently employees six teachers who are properly credentialed, but that only makes up for 50% of the staff needed, according to Smith. To fill the vacancies, the school is using substitute teachers and the online program Proximity Learning.

But Brittany Monda, the district’s director of charter schools, told board members that the school knowingly employed unlicensed teachers and hired another unlicensed educator to teach world history even after the district launched its investigation.

Board member Scott McCormick asked the district to respond to the school’s claim that the findings were incorrect, as well as comments from Southwest leaders that the district did not give them help or allow them time to correct any wrongs.

“There is disagreement around the facts, especially surrounding teachers,” said Brad Leon, the district’s chief of strategy and performance management.

Monda said that based on its findings, the district wasn’t confident that the school would correct course if the district partnered with it on an improvement plan.

“Conclusions reached by the charter school office were based on limited information, without requesting additional documentation or asking questions to ascertain facts,” Southwest noted in a presentation that argued that the district didn’t give the school a fair trial.

Enrollment at Southwest has dropped by more than 100 students since the start of the school year. 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.

According to district materials, if students currently at Southwest return to their zoned high school, only five of the more than 100 students would attend a school with a better district ranking than Southwest high.

“According to the district’s own data, our school is a better choice for students,” said Ed Harper, a board member for Southwest.

Board chair Miska Clay Bibbs clarified that students would not necessarily return to their neighborhood school if Southwest closes.

“The families that have personally been in contact with me have picked schools not in their community,” Clay Bibbs said.

Board member Kevin Woods asked district officials for a plan on what would happen if the school closed immediately, stating that he couldn’t recall another instance of a charter school being closed in the middle of the year.

Woods went on to ask the school how it would rectify the loss of its college partner, Southwest Community College, which announced it would end its partnership with the high school at the end of the school year. The high school launched with the promise that its students could graduate with as many as 60 college credit hours and an associate degree.

“That’s what you stated you’d offer to families,” Clay Bibbs said. “If today you don’t have that partnership, that becomes an issue because you’re not doing what you said you would do in your charter agreement.”

Ed Harper, a board member for Southwest, addressed district questions during the hearing.
Ed Harper, a board member for Southwest, addressed district questions during the hearing.
Caroline Bauman

Smith said they are hopeful Southwest “might reinvest in this relationship after this investigation is over,” but added the school is looking at other options.

Jazlyn Ward, 16, an 11th-grader at Southwest, said she didn’t take issue with Monday’s hearing, but she wished there were more opportunities for students to talk to the Shelby County Schools board.

“I plan on staying at the school and I wish more people in the school, like people who have stayed at the school, were heard from,” she said. “I’m actually getting college credits right now, and I want to stay for that.”

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.

On. Nov. 8, Southwest Early College High School officials submitted their appeal to the State Board of Education. You can read the appeal in full below.

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