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Memphis-Shelby County Schools board approves expansion of two charter schools

MEMPHIS, TN - April 15, 2021: The Believe Memphis Academy’s Badger Postal Service program delivers meals and school supplies to the students of Believe Memphis Academy.

Believe Memphis Academy will expand by four grade levels beyond its current 4-8.

Brad Vest for Chalkbeat

Two charter schools that have been at odds with Memphis-Shelby County Schools administrators won approval from the school board for their requests to expand.

In a pair of 8-0 votes at a specially called meeting, the board allowed Memphis STEM Academy, a K-5 charter school in Frayser, to increase its enrollment, and gave Believe Memphis Academy, a South Memphis college preparatory charter school, permission to add four grade levels beyond its current 4-8.

The vote to allow Believe to expand to K-8 went against the recommendation of district administrators, who raised concerns about the school’s academic performance. While the school met the district’s standards for operations and financial management, the school received an overall score of 2.74 for academics. Board policy recommends that charter schools have a composite score of at least 3 for each of the three areas.

But board members ultimately came together to support Believe Memphis Academy for different reasons.

Board member Amber Huett-Garcia questioned whether it was fair to judge the school based on student performance data from last year, when schools were still dealing with the continued impact of the pandemic. 

Chair Althea Greene said most Believe students are not from the South Memphis area and are therefore not pulling students or resources away from Alcy Performing Arts Elementary, MSCS’ traditional school in the neighborhood.

Board member Frank Johnson, who was recently appointed to represent MSCS’ District 7, which includes South Memphis, expressed his support for Believe and the impact it has had on the community since its opening in 2018.

“I am from this community that’s in question, and when Danny Song landed in our community, it was actually a benefit,” Johnson said, referring to the school’s founder and executive director. The school, Johnson added, “patched a hole” left by the KIPP Memphis charter network, which closed two schools in the area in 2020.

The board’s vote to allow Memphis STEM Academy to expand aligned with the recent recommendation from district officials. But earlier this year the district had actually called for closing the school, because it had enrolled more students than allowed under its agreement with the district. Board members ultimately spared it from closure. And their latest vote clears the school to increase its enrollment to 300. 

With 218 students as of Oct. 7, Memphis STEM Academy is currently compliant with its agreement with the district, according to materials shared during the board meeting. In addition, district officials said, the school meets the district’s standards for academics, operations, and financial management, and has provided data showing more families are interested in enrolling their students there and that the building can accommodate more students.

Samantha West is a reporter for Chalkbeat Tennessee, where she covers K-12 education in Memphis. Connect with Samantha at swest@chalkbeat.org.

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