scaling back

Six Memphis Catholic schools would convert to charters under revised application

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Memphis Catholic High School in 2016.

After seeking to be the largest charter school operator in Memphis, a new organization hoping to convert Catholic schools to public ones is scaling back.

New Day Schools re-submitted its charter school application to Shelby County Schools on Friday, reducing its request from nine to six schools. That cuts out the Whitehaven, South Memphis and downtown campuses and retains the schools in Berclair, Binghampton, Frayser, Hickory Hill, Midtown, and Orange Mound.

The reduction reflects some concerns district leaders had about the organization’s initial application, but would still make the conversion the largest number of new schools a charter organization has opened at the beginning of a school year in Memphis.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
John Smarrelli is the 22nd president of Christian Brothers University — a private Catholic college in the middle of Memphis.

John Smarrelli, president of the New Day Schools’ board of directors and Christian Brothers University, said he hopes the revisions will help increase enrollment and recruit high-caliber staff for the Compass Community Schools.

“The Shelby County Schools board challenged us to consider our capacity to open nine schools within the same academic year,” he said in a statement. “Understanding that we seek to open all Compass schools at once, we felt it best to reduce the number of applications to six to ensure we open fully staffed, strong charter schools for the 2019-20 academic year.”

The Catholic Diocese of Memphis has not yet decided what to do with the remaining three buildings, said spokesman Vince Higgins. He also mentioned Chalkbeat’s inquiry was the first he had heard of the application revision.

“We hope to see on Aug. 21 the school board will approve the charter schools unfortunately with those three schools omitted,” Higgins said. The charter organization is not affiliated with the diocese.

None of the 10 applicants for charters this year got the initial green light from the district administration, which is not unusual. Every applicant had 30 days to revise their applications before another review. The board is expected to vote on the amended applications August 21.

Daphne Robinson, the district’s charter school director, said last month she had “concerns about making sure they had enough staff at the network level for their planning year” because they would need to hire dozens of teachers and finalize curriculum and materials for nine schools.

Brad Leon, the district’s chief of strategy and performance management, had said the organization did not clearly strip all the religious components in its new vision and mission for the schools.

The Catholic schools are about to enter their last year of operation after the Catholic Diocese of Memphis announced in January it would close the nine schools in the Jubilee Catholic Schools Network, plus another that received heavy funding from the network. The private school network was created in 1999 to serve children from low-income families. But it has been steadily losing money and students as the city’s education landscape grew, reflecting a nationwide trend.

Jubilee stood to gain up to $2 million annually if state lawmakers had approved funneling public dollars to private school student tuition, known as vouchers. When the measure failed to pass after several years in the Statehouse, most recently in January, the diocese sought to capture public dollars by turning the private schools into charter schools, which has had some success in other cities.

The three buildings that were cut are St. Patrick Catholic School next to the FedEx Forum downtown, St. Augustine Elementary School near Hamilton Middle and Elementary schools, and St. Joseph Catholic School, located between two elementary schools run by Shelby County Schools.

If approved, the charter schools would have to be non-religious and allow any student to apply. Existing Jubilee students would not be guaranteed spots. However, federal law does allow for the charter organization to retain the same staff.

Update, July 31, 2018: This story has been updated with a statement from John Smarrelli and the Catholic Diocese of Memphis.


Aurora school board considers whether to close or renew large charter school

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
File photo of book bins in a charter school classroom.

The Aurora school board is considering whether to renew a charter school — if it meets a long list of conditions — even though it has ignored district concerns about its finances and governing board.

The board last renewed Vanguard Classical School’s charter for just one year, because of concerns over conflicts of interest. Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said he struggled with the renewal recommendation, due in December, because he first planned to recommend closure, but then decided to give Vanguard more time to provide information.

“The ultimate thing that I keep very heavily in mind around this kind of question is whether or not student needs are being met,” Munn said. “In this circumstance, we have not had any question about their student needs being met. In that context I felt very reluctant to recommend revocation.”

The Aurora school board will make its decision March 5.

Among conditions for Vanguard, the district suggests the school replace its board to include two parents and exclude employees of Ability Connection Colorado, a non-profit that founded the school and is now contracted to manage some services for Vanguard.

School leaders told the Aurora school board on Tuesday that they’re willing to comply with the conditions, and said they are making changes already. Previously, school leaders denied problems with governance, blaming some district concerns on misunderstandings.

Vanguard’s two campuses serve more than 1,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. About 9 percent of its students qualify for special education.

The nonprofit Ability Connection Colorado opened the school in 2007. The organization, which provides education and programs for people with special needs, is led by CEO Judy Ham, who also serves as the board president of the school.

Since it opened, the school has paid the nonprofit for administrative work in human resources, risk management and nutrition and financial services.

District officials have repeatedly said that it is a conflict of interest for Ham to vote on or sign contracts between the nonprofit and the school. The district was also concerned that the contract with Ability Connection Colorado didn’t clearly list the services it was to provide to the school and wasn’t awarded through a competitive process.

One former Vanguard teacher, Audrey Monaco, whose position was cut in December, explained that staff have repeatedly complained to their school board about Ability Connection’s services.

“Every person has a story about human resources,” Monaco said.

She and other employees have complained about unpaid benefits, dropped insurance, and missing documents. Monaco said that in the four years she worked at Vanguard, she had to provide her teaching license to the same Human Resource employee three times.

“I was like, where are you losing my confidential information?” Monaco said. “This was pretty upsetting to me.”

Monaco said she didn’t understand why the non-profit kept getting the contract when services didn’t measure up. However, one of the employees of Abilities Connection was Ham’s daughter, she said. District documents also reference concerns with Ham’s daughter, an employee of Ability Connection.

The Aurora district’s proposed conditions would require Vanguard to evaluate its service provider and to include a review of fair market values and survey responses from the Vanguard staff and families.

Another concern the district lists in its recommendation is about gaps in how the school tracks its finances. An audit, for example, showed money transfers to Ability Connection for about $465,000 that were not approved by the board and did not include itemized receipts. School officials later told the district the money was used for things like furniture, kitchen equipment and background checks, but did not provide documentation.

Munn noted that these issues could eventually affect how students are educated, though he doesn’t think they have yet.

“We think there are some organizational things around, just to be blunt, some adult issues that need to be fixed so that student needs can continue to be met,” Munn said.

Monaco believes the district’s conditions are fair and necessary so that the school can continue to operate.

But others, like Chad Smith, a parent of a 9-year-old student at the school, fear the district is using an “iron fist” to change the school.

“I believe Vanguard East and West was born from ACCO [Ability Connection] and I’m disappointed that you are demanding them to no longer have any influence or some kind of access to what their creation becomes,” Smith said. “I fear a new board will not be Vanguard Classical East or West, it will be whatever this new board chooses it to be. I hope it is still a school that I will want my daughter in.”

District board members seemed skeptical about renewing Vanguard’s charter after having had this same conversation about a year ago. Munn and Brandon Eyre, the district’s attorney who helps write charter contracts, said that because the district had less information a year ago about the problems at Vanguard, the conditions imposed last year weren’t enough to really address the problems, even if the school had complied.

As an example, district officials had asked the school to hire a new executive director. But district staff say they found that the current executive director “was hand-chosen by Judy Ham and presented to the Vanguard Board as the sole option for approval” — evidence that conditions meant to empower the board “failed.”

Aurora board member Dan Jorgensen noted that he has heard only good things about the school’s education and programs.

Board members asked if the district felt confident Vanguard would meet the conditions this time around. District staff explained that if the school doesn’t comply with the conditions by the deadlines set in the contract, the board could close the school at that time, without waiting until the end of the proposed two-year contract.


Aurora school board votes to close new charter school, saying it failed students with special needs

Sixth graders listen to a math lesson at Vega Collegiate Academy in Aurora during a September 2018 class. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Vega Collegiate Academy must close at the end of the school year after the Aurora school board determined the charter was failing to educate properly students with special needs.

The board voted unanimously Tuesday to approve the district’s recommendation to revoke the school’s charter. The board room erupted in people shouting, “shame on you,” at the school board. Children started crying.

Vega, which enrolls just under 200 students in kindergarten, first grade, fifth grade, and sixth grade, opened for the 2017-18 school year. The school adds two grade levels per year, and planned to serve kindergarten through eighth-grade students. In its first year, the school’s students managed to earn the state’s highest math growth scores.

Charter school leaders said they will appeal the school board’s decision to the state.

District officials, in a presentation two weeks ago, told the school board they had found problems at Vega back in October — including that the school had enrolled two students it was not equipped to serve, that it did not have a teacher licensed to educate students with special needs, and that it segregated some students in ways that violated federal laws. District officials said that in discussions with the school since then, they had not been able to resolve all the problems.

School officials denied some of the allegations, such as improperly segregating students, and admitted to others, such as having enrolled two students who needed services from a specific center-based program. School leaders said that as a new school they were unclear on some procedures and assured the board that they were making changes.

Before the vote, Vega parents spoke at the meeting Tuesday, pleading with the board to keep the school open. Many more were in attendance with their children.

Alberto Torres, a father of a Vega student, told the board that his son wasn’t learning anything at his previous Aurora school.

“Before, it was meetings and meetings, and every single meeting I had teachers tell me my son needed special education,” Torres said. “It was frustrating for me.”

Within five months of starting at Vega, Torres said his son has finally started learning to read. He is now considering returning to his previous school just to show them his son was able to learn.

“In Vega, he spends most of his time reading, he’s been doing so much in five months,” Torres said. “I don’t understand the reason why you want this school closed.”

Four of the school board members, elected in November 2017 as a union-backed slate, spoke out against charter schools in the district during their campaigns. This is the first significant action against a charter school by the board.

Board members clarified with their attorney that what they were tasked with considering was whether or not the school committed a breach of its contract.

“I do believe there was a failure to comply, not only with our contract but with federal law,” said board member Debbie Gerkin. “I believe according to the pieces of evidence brought forth that Vega had the opportunity to cure these deficits and did not in a timely manner. I don’t have confidence that we’ll continue to see that taken care of in the future.”

The school had also been at odds with the district last year over facilities. Vega leaders had located a building on Colfax Avenue that would be big enough to accommodate the school as it grew, adding more grades with each passing year. But Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn denied the school’s relocation based on its proximity to a marijuana shop. The school opened in the basement of a church in northwest Aurora, and has continued to operate there.