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.”


A student is in custody after Noblesville West Middle School shooting that injured another student and teacher

Police asses the scene outside Noblesville High School after a shooting at Noblesville West Middle School on May 25, 2018 (Photo by Kevin Moloney/Getty Images)

A male student shot and injured a teacher and another student at Noblesville West Middle School on Friday morning, police said.

Noblesville police Chief Kevin Jowitt said the shooting suspect asked to leave a class and returned armed with two handguns. The suspect, who police said appeared to be uninjured, is in custody and has not been identified by police.

The teacher, 29-year-old Jason Seaman, was in “good” condition Friday evening at Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital, police said. The female student, who was not identified by police, was in critical condition at Riley Hospital for Children.

News outlets were reporting that Seaman intervened to stop the shooter, but authorities said they could not confirm that on Friday afternoon.

The Noblesville Police Department has a full-time school resource officer assigned to the school who responded to the incident, Jowitt said. Local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies also responded to the shooting.

“We do know that the situation resolved extremely quickly,” Jowitt said. “We don’t know what happened in the classroom, so I can’t make any kinds of comments about what [the resource officer’s] involvement was.”

Students were evacuated to Noblesville High School on Friday morning, where families met them.

Jowitt said an additional threat was made at the high school, but they had “no reason to believe it’s anything other than a communicated threat.”

Police continue to investigate. They said they do not believe there are additional suspects. Noblesville Police spokesman Bruce Barnes could not say how the student acquired the guns, but he said search warrants have been issued.

Noblesville West Middle School enrolls about 1,300 students. Noblesville is a suburb of Indianapolis, about 20 miles north in Hamilton County. The district has about 10,500 students.

The frenzied scenes Friday outside the school have become sadly familiar. Already, there have been 23 school shootings in 2018 that involved someone being injured or killed, according to media tallies.

Just last week, 10 people were killed and 13 others were injured in a shooting at Santa Fe High School outside Houston. A student at the school has been arrested and charged.

In February, 17 people — 14 students and three staff — were shot and killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and a 19-year-old faces multiple charges.  The Parkland tragedy set off a wave of student activism across the country — including in Indianapolis — calling for stricter gun control.

“We’ve had these shootings around the country,” said Noblesville Mayor John Ditslear. “You just never think it could happen in Noblesville, Indiana. But it did.”

Noblesville Schools Superintendent Beth Niedermeyer praised the “heroic” efforts of school staff and students, saying they followed their training on how to react to an active shooter situation.

Barnes also hinted at the broader trauma that school shootings can have on students and communities.

“We ask for your prayers for the victims in this case,” he said. “I think that would include a lot of kids, not only ones that were truly the victims in this case, but all these other kids that are trying to make sense of this situation.”

Watch the press conference:

A Chalkbeat reporter is on the scene:

In a pattern that has become routine, Democratic and Republican politicians offered prayers on Twitter.

temporary reprieve

Parents score a temporary victory in slowing the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Protesters gathered at the education department's headquarters to protest a recent set of closure plans.

A judge blocked the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school Thursday — at least for now.

Three families from P.S. 25/the Eubie Blake School filed a lawsuit in March backed by the public interest group Advocates for Justice, arguing the city’s decision to close the school was illegal because the local elected parent council was not consulted.

Brooklyn Supreme Court judge Katherine Levine did not make a final ruling Thursday about whether the closure plan violated the law. But she issued a temporary order to keep the school open while the case moves forward.

It was not immediately clear when the case will be resolved or even if the school will remain open next year. “We are reviewing the stay and will determine an appropriate course of action once the judge makes a final decision on the case,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in a statement.

The education department said the school has hemorrhaged students in recent years and is simply too small to be viable: P.S. 25 currently enrolls just 94 students in grades K-5.

“Because of extremely low enrollment, the school lacks the necessary resources to meet the needs of students,” Holness wrote. The city’s Panel for Educational Policy, a citywide oversight board that must sign off on all school closures, voted in February to close the school.

But the school’s supporters point out that despite low test scores in the past, P.S. 25 now ranks among the city’s top elementary schools, meaning that its closure would force students into lower-performing schools elsewhere.

“Why close a school that’s doing so well?” said Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters and one of the lawsuit’s supporters. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

The lawsuit hinges on a state law that gives local education councils the authority to approve any changes to school zones. Since P.S. 25 is the only zoned elementary school for a swath of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the department’s plans would leave some families with no zoned elementary school dedicated to educating them, forcing students to attend other district schools or enter the admissions lottery for charter schools.

That amounts to “effectively attempting to change zoning lines” and “unlawfully usurping” the local education council’s authority to determine those zones, according to the lawsuit.

But even if the education department loses the lawsuit, the school’s fate would still be uncertain. The closure plan would theoretically be subject to a vote from the local education council, whose president supports shuttering the school.

Still, Haimson hopes the lawsuit ultimately persuades the education department to back away from closing the school in the long run.

“My goal would be to get the chancellor to change his mind,” Haimson said. “I don’t think the future is preordained.”