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 due to financial challenges.

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.”

More autonomy

These Denver schools want to join the district’s ‘innovation zone’ or form new zones

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
McAuliffe Manual Middle School students at a press conference about test scores in August 2017. The school has signaled its intent to be part of a new innovation zone.

Thirteen Denver schools have signaled their desire to become more autonomous by joining the district’s first “innovation zone” or by banding together to form their own zones. The schools span all grade levels, and most of the thirteen are high-performing.

Innovation zones are often described as a “third way” to govern public schools. The four schools in Denver’s first zone, created in 2016, have more autonomy than traditional district-run schools but less than charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Denver Public Schools recently released applications for schools to join the first zone, called the Luminary Learning Network, or to form new zones. The school district, which at 92,600 students is Colorado’s largest, is nationally known for nurturing a “portfolio” of different school types and for encouraging entrepreneurship among its school principals.

The district is offering two options to schools that want to form new zones. One option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen not by the district but by a nonprofit organization. That’s how the Luminary Learning Network is set up.

Another, slightly less autonomous option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen by the district. “Some additional autonomies would be available to these schools, but many decisions would still be made by the district,” the district’s website says.

One tangible difference between the two: The principals of schools in zones overseen by the district would answer to district administrators, while the principals of schools in zones overseen by nonprofit organizations would be hired and fired by the nonprofits’ boards of directors.

Schools in both types of zones would have more control over their budgets. A key flexibility enjoyed by the four schools in the Luminary Learning Network has been the ability to opt out of certain district services and use that money to buy things that meet their students’ specific needs, such as a full-time psychologist or another special education teacher. The zone schools would like even more financial freedom, though, and are re-negotiating with the district.

The district has extended the same budgetary flexibility to the schools in Denver’s three “innovation management organizations,” or IMOs, which are networks of schools with “innovation status.”

Innovation status was created by a 2008 state law. It allows district-run schools to do things like set their own calendars and choose their own curriculum by waiving certain state and district rules. The same law allows innovation schools to join together to form innovation zones.

The difference between an innovation zone and an innovation management organization is that schools in innovation zones have the opportunity for even greater autonomy, with zones governed by nonprofit organizations poised to have the most flexibility.

The deadline for schools to file “letters of intent” to apply to join an innovation zone or form a new one was Feb. 15. Leaders of the three innovation management organizations applied to form zones of their own.

One of them – a network comprised of McAuliffe International and McAuliffe Manual middle schools – has signaled its intent to join forces with an elementary school and a high school in northeast Denver to form a new, four-school zone.

Three elementary schools – Valdez, High Tech, and Swigert – submitted multiple intent letters.

Amy Gile, principal of High Tech, said in an email that her school submitted a letter of intent to join the Luminary Learning Network and a separate letter to be part of a new zone “so that we are able to explore all options available in the initial application process. We plan to make a decision about what best meets the needs of our community prior to the application deadline.”

The application deadline is in April. There are actually two: Innovation management organizations that want to become innovation zones must file applications by April 4, and schools that want to form new zones have until April 20 to turn in their applications.

Here’s a list of the schools that filed letters of intent.

Schools that want to join the Luminary Learning Network:

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College High School
Valdez Elementary School
High Tech Elementary School

Schools that want to form new innovation zones overseen by nonprofits:

McAuliffe International School
McAuliffe Manual Middle School
Northfield High School
Swigert International School
These four schools want to form a zone called the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone.

McGlone Academy
John Amesse Elementary School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Montbello Children’s Network.

Grant Beacon Middle School
Kepner Beacon Middle School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Beacon Network Schools IMO I-Zone.

Schools that want to form a new innovation zone overseen by the district:

High Tech Elementary School
Isabella Bird Community School
Valdez Elementary School
Swigert International School
DCIS at Ford
These five schools want to form a zone called the Empower Zone.

First Responder

Jeffco’s superintendent has some ideas about preventing school shootings — and none of them involve gun control or armed teachers

Jeffco superintendent Jason Glass at the Boys & Girls in Lakewood (Marissa Page, Chalkbeat).

Superintendent Jason Glass of the Jefferson County school district isn’t interested in talking about gun control in the wake of yet another deadly school shooting.

Home of Columbine High School, Jefferson County is no stranger to these tragedies or their aftermath, and Glass doesn’t think calls for restricting firearms will get any more traction this time than they have before. Nor is he interested in talking about arming teachers, a proposal he considers just as much of a political dead end.

“A solution is only a solution if we can actually enact it,” Glass wrote in a blog post published Monday. “We are not able to get either of these solutions passed into law so they have no impact.”

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to talk about, he wrote. Glass lays out four ideas that he sees as more politically feasible and that might make a difference:

  • Put trained, armed law enforcement officials in every school
  • Increase funding and support for school mental health services
  • Create a federally funded center to study school safety and security
  • Change the layout of and access to school buildings to make them safer, much the way we’ve renovated airports, stadiums, and other public facilities

Glass describes these measures as “proactive, preventative, and reactive steps that would make a big impact in making our schools much safer than they are today.”

Some schools and districts already have an armed police presence on campus or offer mental health services, but Glass argues these efforts need more money, more support, and more cohesion.

“These solutions need to come from the federal level to create the scale and impact we really need,” he wrote. “Congress and the President need to act and now. … Flexibility and deference can be built into these solutions to accommodate differences across states and communities – but we have a national crisis on our hands and we have to start acting like it.”

Of course, even studying something, as Glass envisions this new center on school safety doing, can be political. Since 1996, the federal government, at the urging of the National Rifle Association, has placed tight restrictions on the ability of the Centers for Disease Control to study gun violence as a public health issue.

The blog post provoked a vigorous debate in the comments. Some called on Glass to join the national movement demanding more restrictions on firearms. This is not a time for “half measures,” one woman wrote.

Others said that turning schools into “fortresses” would work against their educational mission and questioned how well school resource officers could be trained to respond appropriately to students with special needs – or how fair the district-level threat assessment process is.

In the wake of another school shooting at Arapahoe High School in 2013, one largely forgotten outside the state, Colorado legislators passed a law that holds schools liable for missing warning signs in troubled students.

In an interview with Colorado Public Radio, Bill Woodward, a former police officer who trains schools in how to prevent violence, said more schools are doing threat assessments. But their success may require schools to take even more seriously the idea that their own students might be dangerous.

“I think the biggest barrier is the climate of the school, because I think sometimes schools are just thinking in terms of working with students, helping students out,” Woodward told CPR. “And sometimes when you’re looking at someone who’s made a threat, you have to change to the Secret Service model.”

Woodward said a more comprehensive solution may involve gun control. Schools can’t afford to wait, though.

“There is no silver bullet, speaking metaphorically, but I think gun law changes may well be needed,” he said. “I just think we have to do what we can do now, and we can do things now.”