While Shelby County Schools revoked the charters of four schools this year, the district also has been taking applications for new charter schools, viewed as a potential tool to drive up the quality of public education in Memphis.
Thirteen applications are under review as the school board prepares to approve or deny them in August. They include a homegrown, philanthropically supported group seeking to establish the proposed Crosstown High School in midtown, as well as three out-of-state charter networks currently operating Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Achievement School District.
Quality will be central to the screening process, according to Brad Leon, the district’s strategy and innovation chief.
The district’s request for applications declared that Shelby County Schools is “only interested in authorizing charter schools that we believe can reach the top quartile of performance in the state.”
That’s a high bar for a district that has a high concentration of schools in Tennessee’s bottom quartile. But in 2014-15, Shelby County Schools saw academic gains in every subject except reading, and administrators are looking for engines that can help continue that trajectory.
Charter schools are publicly funded but independently operated schools that are tuition-free. In Tennessee, they are mostly authorized by local school districts.
In Memphis, the prospect of opening new charter schools creates public perception challenges amid budget constraints and the recent closure of four district-authorized charter schools for low performance. But Leon said the focus needs to stay on quality.
“We’ve got to do both. We have to authorize high-quality options. We have to close low-quality options,” he said.
Leon will make his recommendations to the school board during a June 21 work session. Operators can amend their applications based on the feedback before decisions are made in August.
Inherent in the screening process will be the search for operators who can can help the district reach its goals under Destination 2025. The strategic plan aims by 2025 to have 80 percent of seniors college or career-ready, 90 percent of students graduating on time, and 100 percent of college or career-ready seniors enrolled in a post-secondary opportunity.
The request for applications emphasized that the “most urgent area of need relates to reading language arts at all tested grade levels.” Increasing the district’s ACT scores also was cited as an area of need in preparing students for post-secondary opportunities.
Leon said a common theme among applications is an emphasis on STEM education — or science, technology, engineering and math. While the district did not solicit that particular focus, national trends have shifted toward those areas to prepare students for projected job growth in those fields.
The applicants include five vying to open schools in Hickory Hill, an area in southeast Memphis that has seen population growth in recent years.
Three national operators authorized in Memphis by the state-run ASD are seeking local authorization under Shelby County Schools: Green Dot, Pathways in Education and Scholar Academies.
Shelby County Schools and the ASD already have several operators in common, including KIPP, Gestalt, Freedom Prep and Promise Academy.
The applicants are:
- Crosstown High School Inc. — The college prep high school proposed for midtown Memphis would feature partnerships with noted health care organizations slated to operate in the newly renovated Crosstown Concourse development.
- Green Dot Public Schools — The Hickory Hill-area high school would be a feeder for Kirby Middle and Wooddale Middle, two of the four schools that Green Dot operates under the ASD.
- Pathways in Education — The alternative school operator has two charters under the ASD that opened in 2014.
- Scholar Academies — Memphis Scholars Charter School would be an elementary and middle school in South Memphis seeking a full enrollment of 675 students.
- Legacy Leadership Academy — The grades 6-12 school would focus on science technology, engineering, arts and math, as well as developing leadership skills, under the helm of Tamika Carwell, a former principal and teacher with Memphis City Schools.
- Memphis Business Academy Inc. — The elementary school proposed for Hickory Hill would be the fifth by the operator, known for weaving business and economics across curriculum.
- Memphis Business Academy Inc. — The middle school in Hickory Hill would complete the feeder pattern of the operator, which already has elementary and high schools authorized by Shelby County Schools.
- Life Preparatory Academy of Excellence — The grades 5-8 school in Hickory Hill would have an emphasis on math and literacy, doubling class time in both subjects and offering classes in life skills.
- The LeFlore Foundation — The Gentleman and Ladies Academy School would operate in Cordova, serving grades K-5 with an emphasis on STEM subjects.
- Kaleidoscope Schools — With a focus on on the arts, the Kaleidoscope School of Memphis would serve grades 6-8 and be located in close proximity to the South Main Arts District.
- Glory Tabernacle Christian Church — “The” Academy All Girls Charter elementary school would be based in northeast or midtown Memphis with an emphasis on literacy.
- Artesian Schools Inc. — Southwest Early College High School would operate in Frayser or Raleigh and seek to develop first-generation college-goers.
- Gateway University High School — The proposed downtown high school would focus on computer science.
Chalkbeat reporter Micaela Watts contributed to this report.