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Three Memphis charters spared from closure under new state law, while former superintendent plans to appeal decision to close one of his schools

Willie Herenton is a former superintendent of Memphis schools and current mayor candidate.
Willie Herenton is a former superintendent of Memphis schools and current mayor candidate.
Jim Weber/The Commercial Appeal

A charter school leader running for mayor plans to appeal Shelby County Schools’ decision to close one of his schools after he said board members used a double standard when voting to close low-performing charter schools.

The board voted earlier this week to keep open three out of six Memphis charter schools that appeared on the state’s list of lowest-performing schools and challenged them to create improvement plans. The board voted to close the three other charter schools on the list, all run by former superintendent and current Memphis mayoral candidate Willie Herenton.

One of his schools slated for closure scored high on the state’s 5-point scale comparing student growth on tests — the standard that some board members used to allow other schools to stay open.

“It looked like the board had two processes going on and treated one of our schools differently,” Herenton said.

Overseeing more than 50 charter schools has been complicated for Memphis, which has more of them than any other area of the state. The district has cleared up a lot of past confusion with recent changes created with charter school leaders. But some policy is still evolving 17 years after the first charter schools opened in Memphis.

Under previous law, the Shelby County Schools board would have closed all six schools based on low test scores. Charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run by nonprofit organizations, have a lot of autonomy when compared with traditional schools. That’s why state law held them to higher standards when their test scores over three years fell to the bottom 5% in Tennessee.

But effective last week, the law allows school boards to keep some charter schools open — as long as they have an improvement plan. If they show up on the state’s list again three years later, the state requires the board to close them. But there is nothing in the law that explains how a board should decide which schools to keep open.

The Shelby County Schools board unanimously voted with no discussion Tuesday to close three 6-year-old schools in Herenton’s charter network: Du Bois Elementary School of Arts Technology, Du Bois Middle School of Arts Technology, and Du Bois Middle School of Leadership Public Policy.

The arts technology middle school earned the state’s highest score on academic growth, but was not spared like City University Girls Preparatory was. The girls school has also been open 6 years and achieved the same growth score.

Board members initially voted to close the girls school, but after finding out the school’s growth score, three board members — Shante Avant, Michelle Robinson McKissack, and Althea Greene — changed their vote to keep it open.

That discrepancy prompted the Du Bois network board chair Ernest Strickland to send a letter to Avant, the school board chairwoman, and Superintendent Joris Ray seeking “clarity.”

“The Du Bois Middle School of Arts and Technology met this criterion but was not considered to remain open,” read the letter dated May 1. Herenton would have until May 10 to appeal to State Board of Education. Avant was not immediately available for comment.

The school board also voted Tuesday to spare Granville T. Woods Academy of Innovation and Memphis Delta Preparatory.

School board member Stephanie Love.
School board member Stephanie Love.
Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Granville T. Woods academy also achieved a high growth score on state tests. Several board members said they spared Memphis Delta Prep, the newest school on the state’s list that prompted the revised state law, because it landed on the state’s list with only one year of test scores.

“We have schools that were level 4 and 5s and the state gave us the opportunity to keep those schools in our possession,” said board member Stephanie Love. “I believe things can change with a strong academic plan in place.”

But board member Kevin Woods stressed that the board was not obligated to spare schools with high growth.

“I don’t want to convolute the fact that Ms. Love bringing her personal recommendation to keep level 4 and 5 schools open is a requirement,” he said.

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