The same month they were slated to close their doors forever due to low academic performance, three Memphis charter operators received notice from Shelby County Schools that their schools will remain open for the upcoming school year.
City University School Boys Preparatory, Southern Avenue Middle School, and Omni Prep Academy Lower and Middle Schools are on the priority list of the state’s 5 percent of worst performing schools, making their closure mandatory this summer under a 2014 state law. However, a new law passed this year by the legislature gave districts discretion in deciding whether the schools should remain open for now.
“In light of the recent change in legislation that amended [the 2014 law], this letter is to notify you that district will not be pursuing the closure of your schools this year,” said Bradley Leon, the district’s chief of strategy and innovation, in a May 7 letter to school administrators.
The news was cause for jubilation for the Memphis schools, which lost students and faculty following the district’s confirmation in December that it would comply with the 2014 law.
“Regardless of the prior [loss] of faculty, staff and scholars due to the district’s announcement of closure earlier this year, I am excited that we will be afforded an opportunity to continue to move the academic needle amongst our scholars at City University School Boys Preparatory,” said founder and Chancellor R. Lemoyne Robinson.
Under the new law, district-authorized charter schools now have until 2017 to get off the state’s priority list before state-ordered shutdown. However, local school boards still have authority to close a charter for poor performance before 2017.
Omni founder Cary Booker, who lobbied for the revised legislation, said the policy change should be seen as a necessary clarification, not a second chance for the beleaguered schools. “I see it as the law is now aligned with its original legislative intent,” Booker told Chalkbeat.
The reversal does not please everyone, however.
“Our perspective is that schools that are not performing don’t need to continue operating, but this decision is ultimately the decision of the authorizer.” said Emily Lilley, director of policy at the Tennessee Charter School Center, an advocacy group based in Nashville.
On TCAP tests in 2013-14, less than 15 percent of students earned proficient reading language scores at City University; under 27 percent at Omni Middle; 11 percent at Omni Lower; and about 23 percent at Southern Avenue Middle.
The schools now have opportunity to improve their performance before the state releases its next priority list in 2017.
“This will give you additional time to address identified weaknesses and make any necessary revisions to your academic programs,” Leon said in his letter.
Administrators say they are responding proactively.
At City University, students have all been assigned summer reading and homework, and the school will remain open during break for students needing assistance. Parents also have become more involved in their children’s education after learning the school was scheduled for closure. “The effects were grave, so it did not go unnoticed,” Robinson said.
Leon said the district will monitor the schools’ performance and is developing new tools to evaluate and hold charters accountable in the future. “Having these standard performance metrics will both highlight our top-performing charter schools and inform accountability measures when charters are not meeting expectations,” he told Chalkbeat.
Administrators from Southern Avenue Middle School did not immediately respond to Chalkbeat’s request for comment.
You can read a copy of Leon’s letter in full here.