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.”

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned picking a fight now because of the limited scope of the negotiations. That would be the current agreement governing ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.

lesson plan

Denver hopes to keep its schools open in a strike — and the union wants you to send your kids

PHOTO: Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post
Students eat lunch in the cafeteria at Dora Moore K-8 School in Denver.

Superintendent Susana Cordova says she is committed to keeping Denver schools open and continuing to educate students in the event of a strike.

In Los Angeles, where a teacher strike is entering its second week, many students are watching movies and playing games. Cordova said she plans to do more for the 71,000 students in district-run schools if teachers vote to strike and state intervention does not lead to a deal. The 21,000 students who attend charter schools will not be affected.

“We want to assure parents school will stay open,” she said. “We know it is critically important that we focus on the education of our kids. Sixty percent of our kids qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. We know they depend on school not just for their meals but for their access to opportunity.”

Negotiations broke down Friday between the district and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the union that represents teachers and special service providers such as nurses, school psychologists, and counselors. A strike vote is taking place in two sessions, one Saturday and another Tuesday. The earliest a strike could start is Jan. 28.

This would be the first strike in 25 years in the state’s largest school district. In 1994, the district used more than 1,000 substitutes to keep schools open, though many parents kept their children at home, something union leaders encouraged.

It’s not clear yet how high teacher participation in a strike would be. During the final week of bargaining, some teachers reported near universal support in their buildings, while others said some of their colleagues were uncertain. Some teachers have said they disagree with the union position in the negotiations and won’t participate as a matter of principle.

Teachers who strike do not get paid while they are not at work.

Cordova said the district is “in the process of building out our sub pool” and offering higher pay to those willing to work during a strike. But she declined to say how many substitutes the district could call on, and some teachers say they already have a hard time finding subs for routine absences.

Substitutes who work during a strike will earn $200 a day, double the normal rate, and “super subs” who work more than a certain number of days a year will get $250.

Many central office staff who have past teaching experience will be sent to schools to work with students. Cordova said the district is working on pre-packaged lesson plans for every grade and subject area so that learning can still take place, and officials will prioritize placing qualified staff members with special education and preschool students, those she deemed most vulnerable.

Students who get free or reduced-price lunch will still be able to eat in school cafeterias.

For its part, the union is encouraging parents to send their children to school, but with a different purpose.

“One major goal of a strike is for school buildings to be shut down as a demonstration of the essential labor performed by educators,” the union wrote in an FAQ document. “To this end, we encourage parents to send their students to school if their school building remains open. Student safety is paramount for all district schools, therefore the district will be obliged to close schools if safety becomes an issue due to limited staffing.”

Union officials said they were working to establish alternative daytime care with community partners like churches and Boys and Girls Clubs should schools close.