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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.

As district readies to release investigation, embattled Memphis charter school tells a different story

With the findings of a district investigation expected this week, leaders of a Memphis charter school are working to reassure parents that the school is getting back on track, even as staff members and students continue to leave.

Southwest Early College High School administrators — seeking to push back on the narrative that the school year is off to a chaotic start — invited journalists to speak with parents Tuesday and see the school in action. The high school launched two years ago with Southwest Community College. It was billed as a place where students could graduate with enough college credits to earn an associate degree.

Former parents and students stood before the Shelby County Schools board three weeks ago and called for an investigation into the charter school, specifically over claims of incomplete schedules, staffing shortages, missing high school credits, and inadequate aid for students with disabilities.

Just weeks before the start of the school year, Southwest’s principal and CEO, Ashley Smith, said an English teacher and a math teacher abruptly left the school. While an English hire has been made, two more educators — a history teacher and a Spanish teacher — subsequently left Southwest amid a district investigation into the school.

About half of the 72 11th-graders enrolled at the beginning of the school year have also departed for other high schools. The district opened up transfer options following a public outcry from three former Southwest high schoolers and two former parents.

A district spokeswoman, Jerica Phillips, told Chalkbeat that the investigation has been concluded, and its findings should be released by the end of the week. While the district hasn’t specified the parameters of the investigation, Phillips did say that the probe “went deeper than the grievances that were originally collected at Southwest Early College High School.”

“We’re in the process of reviewing the findings and discussing next steps with staff, parents, and board members,” Shelby County Schools Superintendent Joris Ray said at the Tuesday school board work session. “I appreciate everyone’s patience. … We are doing our due diligence.”

Smith said that the school has been complying with the district investigation at every step, and has not had to answer additional inquiries since the school submitted its responses to district questions in early September.

Iseashia Thomas, a former Southwest parent, has switched her son to a different school, all the while remaining vocal that the school should be shut down by the district.

“The response [from the school] wasn’t adequate and didn’t hold much truth,” Thomas told board members this week. “One month after hearing my son didn’t have 11th-grade teachers, nothing has changed. … You should not only revoke charter but assure those children that they do matter.”

Carolyn Brown, a parent of a current Southwest high schooler, meets with reporters at the school.

Carolyn Brown, a parent of a current Southwest high schooler, meets with reporters at the school.

Caroline Bauman

Carolyn Brown, a parent of a current Southwest high schooler, said what has been reported on the school doesn’t match her experience. Still, the transition to this very different type of high school, where students are enrolled in community college classes as soon as 9th-grade, has sometimes been difficult for her son and others.

“My son, Adam, wants to go into nursing and was very into the idea of graduating with an associate degree by the time he leaves high school,” Brown said. “A lot of parents heard about this and assumed it would be easy for their children — it’s not easy. It takes students staying focused and passing their classes, the level of responsibility on the students is much higher.”

Brown added that the staffing challenges this year and the principal turnover — Smith is the third acting principal in three years — has been concerning. She said she likes the school’s small class sizes, though, is pleased with how her son is doing, and has no plans to move him elsewhere.

Another parent of a current student, Kelvin Rhyne, said his son Immanuel briefly considered leaving the school when a teacher told him last semester that he may not have the credits he needs to graduate high school, much less with an associate degree.

“I dug into it and was reassured that my son is on track,” Rhyne said. “It was like a couple of teachers and tutors got this in their heads. It was almost like a mutiny, the disconnect between the staff and school leadership. But when I look at how the school breaks down its credits, while it looks different than a normal high school schedule, I see how it can all work out.”

Smith said that most 11th-graders still at Southwest will finish the year with at least 11 college credit hours. But to earn an associate degree, the students will need 60 hours. Smith said that instead of an associate degree, some students might instead graduate with an associate certificate, which can be earned with 41 credits or fewer.

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