Leaders of Tennessee’s Achievement School District are giving parents and teachers notice that two Memphis charter schools are in limbo with the exit next spring of Gestalt Community Schools as their operator.
The possibilities range from replacing Gestalt with one or more operators, to shifting management directly to the state-run district, to closing one or both schools and transferring students to other schools.
Whatever path is chosen, ASD leaders have set a Dec. 9 deadline to make a decision “to give parents and teachers alike enough time to make informed decision,” said Bobby White, chief of external affairs.
ASD leaders laid out the options during two meetings Monday with parents and teachers at Humes Preparatory Academy Middle and Klondike Preparatory Academy Elementary.
Earlier this month, leaders of Memphis-based Gestalt announced plans to pull out of the two schools at the end of the school year. They cited chronic low enrollment as the chief reason. The network is the first to exit operations of an existing ASD school since 2012 when the turnaround district began to take control of low-performing schools, usually assigning them to charter operators.
“We’ve seen a 15 percent enrollment drop each year since we started at the schools,” CEO Yetta Lewis told Chalkbeat on Monday. “We tried new tactics, but the population of North Memphis keeps declining. We couldn’t provide the quality of education we wanted.”
This year, Klondike has about 200 students and operates at 33 percent of building capacity, while Humes has 320 students, which is about 69 percent of its capacity. The changing demographics of North Memphis also contributed to Shelby County Schools’ decision to close Northside High School earlier this year. Several other schools in the community are under-enrolled as well.
Shelby County Schools board member Teresa Jones, who was present at the Humes meeting Monday night, told Chalkbeat that the decline has been gradual. “It didn’t just happen last year. … It’s always been the case, even before Gestalt moved in,” she said.
Gestalt’s departure — after five years of operating Humes and four years at Klondike — as well as the population decline in North Memphis, will make it challenging for other charter operators to jump into the fray. Superintendent Malika Anderson told parents at Humes that the ASD is “racing” to vet operator candidates and that options eventually will be presented to a committee comprised of Humes and Klondike stakeholders.
Another option is for the ASD, which currently operates five schools under the management of its Achievement Schools, to step in and run one or both of the schools itself. The two schools also could be combined into a single K-8 school.
One idea not on the table is returning the schools to Shelby County Schools next year. The state wrested their control from the local district because the schools were on the state’s priority list of the bottom 5 percent of Tennessee schools. Anderson told parents that the schools would be returned to Shelby County Schools only after they’ve been off the state’s priority list for two consecutive years.
“Despite the reduction in school-age students in this neighborhood, the ASD made a commitment that every child here deserves an excellent neighborhood school,” Anderson said.
Parents spoke up during the meetings and urged ASD leaders to keep their schools open, as well as their students’ teachers in place.
“My daughter could have gone to any school, but they chose here,” said Humes parent Hilarie Barch. “This school has the most highly educated, most qualified staff I have ever seen. And my kids have attended private and optional schools. You’ve got to keep the staff.”
White told parents that charter operators have full control over decisions regarding staffing and school culture.
“This is just a rehearsal,” he said. “When operators are identified or express interest, we’ll ensure that you have the opportunity to share the same things we’ve heard tonight.”