Conversion story

What needs to happen for a group of Memphis Catholic schools to become charters

PHOTO: Jim Weber/The Commercial Appeal
Students leave the Catholic High School in Memphis at the end of the school day. The entire Memphis Catholic Jubilee Schools network, along with St. Michael Catholic School, will close at the end of the 2018-19 school year unless New Day Schools is approved as a charter operator.

No shortage of things must happen for a group of financially strapped Memphis Catholic schools to be transformed into what would be the city’s largest charter school network.

A new or existing charter organization would need to step up to run the schools, and the applicant would need to navigate a complicated approval process and win over a school district that is asking more of charters and increasingly wary of losing students.

The formerly Catholic schools would need to shed a core piece of their identity — religion — even while they could keep the same teachers.

With state lawmakers again ruling out a private school voucher program that could keep the schools afloat, diocesan officials say they have no choice but to close the schools at the end of next school year and seek a path taken by other U.S. Catholic dioceses suffering plummeting enrollment in their schools.

Jubilee Catholic Schools Network announced last week its plans to close nine schools that serve mostly low-income students and another Catholic school that received substantial funding from the organization.

Catholic school enrollment nationwide has dropped steadily from its peak in the 1960s of 5.2 million to 1.8 million students last school year, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.

In the late 2000s, several schools in Washington, D.C., Indianapolis, and Miami shed their Catholic affiliation and reopened as charter schools. After the move, the schools reported higher student enrollment and diversity, according to an 2014 analysis by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, which advocates for school choice, including vouchers. (The organization, which has since changed its name to EdChoice, is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat. You can see our full list of supporters here.)

Most of the 18 schools examined retained many of the same employees, but replaced religious aspects such as Bible lessons with lessons on the school’s core values, which is more common in charter schools.

“Although the number of private schools undergoing a similar conversion is small, trends suggest that absent mechanisms to lower the cost of private schooling for consumers, this behavior may increase in the future,” the report read.

In Tennessee, converting any school into a charter requires a hefty application process through a local school district.

“There’s no magic button to convert an existing school to a charter school. In fact, state law prohibits this from happening,” said Maya Bugg, CEO of the Tennessee Charter School Center. “If Jubilee schools or any other entity is interested in starting a charter school, they would have to go through the entire process as if they never existed — beginning with a letter of intent and then developing and submitting their application to their local authorizer.”

To receive federal funding as public schools do, there must be a clear break from religious affiliation. The new organization must hold a lottery just like any other charter school, meaning no student previously enrolled in the private school is guaranteed a spot.

“However, the statute does not prohibit a newly created charter school from using resources previously used by a closed private school, including hiring teachers or enrolling students from the closed private school,” according to guidance from the U.S. Department of Education.

"There’s no magic button to convert an existing school to a charter school. In fact, state law prohibits this from happening."Maya Bugg, CEO, Tennessee Charter School Center

To help pass legal muster, parochial schools should adopt a secular curriculum, change their names, and keep a separate accounting system, said Preston Green, a professor at the University of Connecticut who explored the legal questions of churches operating charter schools in a 2001 law review article. He also expects religious schools losing enrollment to take this route as the “holy grail” of school choice — vouchers — becomes less viable.

“Charters are an easier sell if they offer it within the public system,” Green told Chalkbeat. “I think that vouchers can be a tough sell because people become more concerned about the public school system especially when talking about diverting funds. … So if you have these schools operating within the school system, you don’t have that diversion.”

Interaction with religious organizations and charter schools is not new in Memphis. For example, a community development organization in South Memphis created by St. Andrew’s AME Church operates the Circles of Success Learning Academy charter school and is housed inside the church.

Multi-site charter schools operate in Memphis, but none are as large as the Jubilee group of schools. Nor have so many charter schools from one operator opened in Memphis at once.

The district doubled the size of its charter office last year in an attempt to hold the burgeoning sector more accountable. At the same time, the district established more specific ground rules for its 51 charters on sticky issues like accountability, facilities, and funding. Last year, the school board approved just three charter schools out of 14 applicants, down from seven the year before.

The school system is also fighting to retain enrollment in its directly run schools. The conversion could run counter to the wishes of school board members who have long lamented that charters can open anywhere in the city without first considering if a neighborhood already has too many schools in the area.

Last year, the district’s charter office required applicants to identify where they hope to locate. In initial recommendations, district administrators take into consideration the charter’s proximity to district-run schools, though that has yet to be a deciding factor in approving a charter.

Jubilee’s schools are scattered throughout the city, and the Catholic network’s board members hope the charter schools would operate in the same buildings and retain most of the students.

Bugg said Jubilee’s plan is not a shoo-in, especially as her organization and others have increasingly pushed for high standards for charter applications.

“The goal is not to open charters for the sake of charters, which is why the application process is so robust and detailed,” she said. “We ultimately want to see schools and students succeed. The critical eye and consideration that is applied to every application is key to ensuring that high-quality schools open and are positioned for success and sustainability from the beginning.”

Find your school

How many students apply to Chicago’s most competitive high school programs? Search by school.

PHOTO: Hero Images / Getty Images
CPS released school-by-school results from its new GoCPS high school application system

How many students ranked each public high school program among their top three choices for the 2018-2019 school year? Below, search the first-of-its-kind data, drawn from Chicago Public Schools’ new high school application portal, GoCPS.

The database also shows how many ninth grade seats each program had available, the number of offers each program made, and the number of students that accepted offers at each program.

The district deployed the GoCPS system for the first time in advance of the 2018-2019 school year. The system had students rank up to 20 choices from among 250 programs in 132 high schools. Through the portal, applicants had the choice to apply separately to, and rank, the city’s 11 in-demand, selective enrollment programs. Before the GoCPS system streamlined the high school application process, students lacked a common deadline or a single place to submit applications.

A report released Thursday by the University of Chicago Consortium of School Research and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago found that the system is mostly working as intended. The majority of students who used GoCPS ultimately got one of their top three choices. But the study also disclosed problems that the district now faces: There are too many empty seats in high schools. Main findings of the report are here.

School choice

New data pulls back curtain on Chicago’s high school admissions derby

PHOTO: Joshua Lott / Getty Images
Chicago's new high school application system has provided a centralized inventory of school-by-school application data

Before the online portal GoCPS system streamlined the high school choice process, Chicago schools lacked a common deadline or single place portal to submit applications. Some students would receive several acceptances, and others would get none. But a new report shows that the new, one-stop application system is working as intended, with the majority of students ultimately getting one of their top three choices.

But the study, released Thursday by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, also lays bare a major problem with which the city’s public schools must wrangle: There are too many empty seats in high schools.

And it shows that demand varies by income level, with students from low-income neighborhoods casting more applications than students from wealthier ones and applying in greater numbers for the district’s charter high schools. Click here to search our database and see demand by individual school. 

The report leaves unanswered some key questions, too, including how choice impacts neighborhood high schools and whether a streamlined application process means that more students will stick with their choice school until graduation.

Deployed for the first time in advance of the 2018-2019 school year, the GoCPS system let students rank up to 20 choices from among 250 programs in 132 high schools. Separately, applicants can also apply to, and rank, the city’s 11 in-demand selective enrollment programs through the GoCPS portal.

The data paints a never-before-seen picture of supply and demand for seats at various high school programs across Chicago Public Schools. One in five high school options is so popular that there are 10 applicants for every seat, while 8 percent of programs fall short of receiving enough applications, according to the report.    

CPS CEO Janice Jackson said the new data presents a full, centralized inventory and will help the district “have the kind of conversations we need to have” with communities. The district is facing pressure from community groups to stop its practice of shuttering under-enrolled schools. Asked about what kind of impact the report might have on that decision-making, Jackson said that “part of my leadership is to make sure that we’re more transparent as a district and that we have a single set of facts on these issues.”

As for declines in student enrollment in Chicago, “that’s no secret,” she said. “I think that sometimes, when when we’re talking about school choice patterns and how parents make decisions, we all make assumptions how those decisions get made,” Jackson said. “This data is going to help make that more clear.”

Beyond selective enrollment high schools, the data spotlights the district’s most sought-after choice programs, including career and technical education programs, arts programs, and schools with the highest ratings: Level 1-plus and Level 1.

“What that says to me is that we’re doing a much better job offering things outside of the selective schools,” said Jackson, who pointed out that 23 percent of students who were offered seats at both selective enrollment and non-selective enrollment schools opted for the latter.

“Those [selective] schools are great options and we believe in them, but we also know that we have high-quality schools that are open enrollment,” she said.

Programs in low demand were more likely to be general education and military programs; programs that base admissions on lotteries with eligibility requirements; and programs located in schools with low ratings.

Other findings:

  • Chicago has far more high school seats than students — a dynamic that’s been clear for years and that the report’s authors stress is not interfering with the admissions process. About 20,000 freshman seats remain unfilled across CPS for the upcoming school year. At least 13,000 of those empty seats are a consequence of plummeting enrollment at CPS.
  • It’s still not clear how neighborhood schools, which guarantee admission to students who live within their boundaries, affect demand. About 7,000 students are expected to enroll at their neighborhood high schools. When CPS conducts its 20th day count of enrollment at district schools, more complete details will be available. Lisa Barrow, a senior economist and research advisor at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, said one of the things researchers weren’t able to dig into is the demand for neighborhood programs, because students didn’t have to rank their neighborhood schools.
  • The report suggests that the process would be more streamlined if students could rank selective enrollment programs along with other options. “If students received only one offer, there would be less need to adjust the number of offers to hit an ideal program size,” the report says.
  • Students don’t participate in the new process evenly. The report shows that students from low-income neighborhoods were more likely to rank an average of 11.7 programs, while students from the wealthiest neighborhoods ranked an average of 7.3. The authors said it was not clear whether that meant students from wealthier neighborhoods were more willing to fall back on their neighborhood schools.  
  • Students from the city’s lowest-income neighborhoods were also more likely to rank a charter school as their top choice (29 percent), compared to students from the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods (10 percent). The same was true of low academic performers (12 percent), who chose charter schools at a percentage considerably higher than their high-performing peers (12 percent).
  • While the new admissions process folded dozens of school-by-school applications into one system, it didn’t change the fact that schools admit students according to a wide range of criteria. That means the system continues to favor students who can navigate a complicated process – likely ones whose families have the time and language skills to be closely involved.

Barrow, the researcher from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, said one final question the report cannot answer is whether better matching students with high schools on the front end increases the chance that they stick around where they enroll as freshmen.

“If indeed they are getting better matches for high schools,” Barrow said, “then I would expect that might show up in lower mobility rates for students, so they are more likely to stay at their school and not transfer out.”

This story has been updated to reflect that the excess capacity in Chicago high schools does not interfere with the admissions process.