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Memphis-Shelby County Schools sells former Brookmeade Elementary to Libertas charter school

Bob Nardo, right, works with a Libertas student.

Bob Nardo, right, works with a Libertas student in 2020. As owners of the school building, Libertas charter school officials plan renovations and an addition to improve its special education and music programs.

Caroline Bauman / Chalkbeat

After operating as a guest in a former Frayser elementary school building for seven years, Libertas School of Memphis will soon own the place — and officials are planning to renovate and expand the school.

The Memphis-Shelby County Schools board on Tuesday agreed to sell the former Brookmeade Elementary School building, located at 3777 Edenburg Drive, to the charter school for $725,000.

As the official owner of the building, Libertas can finally take the lead on raising funds to address millions of dollars of deferred maintenance and deal with space constraints. The purchase will also help solidify Libertas’ long-term vision — chiefly, its commitment to Frayser, a predominantly poor, Black neighborhood.

“We always have been — and always will be — first and foremost a neighborhood school,” said Bob Nardo, executive director of Libertas. “We want to stay in Frayser forever. We don’t want to move.”

Libertas stands out as one of the few success stories in the decade since Tennessee launched its Achievement School District to oversee and fix dozens of chronically underperforming schools across the state, mostly in Memphis and Nashville. 

Many of those schools have failed to make significant progress, and are being returned to their home districts anyway, including four Frayser schools that are shifting back to MSCS in the fall. But under a new state law enacted last spring, higher-performing charters are now allowed to leave the ASD, bypass their local districts, and apply directly to the state Public Charter School Commission for authorization. Libertas is among three Memphis schools that are now making that transition.

Nardo opened Libertas — the first public Montessori charter school in Tennessee — in 2015 with the charge of turning around Brookmeade, which was at the time the second-lowest-achieving elementary school in the state, as measured by state standardized test scores.

Libertas has since built a reputation for its strong academic performance — despite serving a student population that faces heightened obstacles to learning. Of Libertas’ over 400 students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade, nearly 90% are Black, Hispanic, or Native American, over half come from low-income families, and nearly a quarter receive special education services.

Libertas has set itself apart from most other Memphis schools, reaching the state’s 25th percentile in proficiency and earning the highest possible composite scores on the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, which measures academic growth — even last year, as the pandemic hurt learning across the nation. In addition, Libertas’ Black students are achieving in the top half of the state, and students with disabilities are performing in the top 15% in the state, according to TVAAS scores.

That record is one of many reasons Glen Hancox’s three grandchildren attend Libertas, though they live in Whitehaven. His grandson, Elijah Campbell, started there in kindergarten.

Hancox credits the small, tight-knit charter school and the individualized attention from teachers with preparing Elijah for middle school.

While Elijah is now a seventh grader at University Middle School, his Libertas music teachers continue to offer him private piano and drum lessons, and his basketball coach plans to “give him some pointers” sometime over the summer, Hancox said.

“It’s been a good experience for all of my grandchildren,” Hancox said. “It’s sort of a family tradition at this point.”

As Libertas begins planning renovations and an expansion, Hancox is eager to see how his two younger granddaughters benefit — one who is moving into first grade and the other preparing for age-3 pre-kindergarten. 

Libertas officials are still working on a master plan, Nardo said, but the top priority is tackling critical deferred maintenance, such as replacing the school’s roof and HVAC system.

Nardo’s next priority is creating additional space for Libertas’ large special education program — the school serves the largest concentration of students with disabilities of any operator in the ASD — as well as its music program. 

Currently, the building is full and completely utilized, and Nardo says extra space for special education and designated chorus and band areas is badly needed.

Nardo expects construction will begin next summer and last about a year.

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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