Southwest Tennessee Community College is cutting ties with a charter school that it partnered with to allow high school students to earn a diploma and an associate degree, according to a letter sent to high school parents this week.
Southwest Early College High School came under scrutiny four weeks ago after three Memphis high schoolers and two parents stood before the Shelby County Schools board and reported incomplete schedules, staffing shortages, missing high school credits, and inadequate aid for students with disabilities.
The disaffiliation came as a surprise to school leaders, according to the Sept. 24 letter emailed to parents by high school board Chair Sharon Jones. The college is also evicting the school from its campus.
“Our Board and administration have asked for specific reasons for this decision but have not received that information, nor were we invited to meet and discuss concerns and points of view,” Jones said.
However, college President Tracy Hall said the decision had been a long time coming and that she informed the school’s board on Sept. 10 of her decision. While the college was not involved with day-to-day operations of the high school, Hall said they monitored it closely and were deeply concerned over staff turnover and a lack of social and emotional support for the students.
“After no movement to address our concerns, we were left with no choice but to say we have to end this partnership,” Hall said. “Students are not being well served… We asked for the basics: strong leadership from the school and that the leadership commits to providing students what they need to be successful. We did not feel that was too much to ask.”
This is a significant blow to the school because, after this academic year, students will no longer be able to earn the associate degree or certificate they were originally promised.
The announcement comes about a week after Shelby County Schools said it will recommend closing the school at the end of the school year – the district school board will vote on that recommendation on Oct. 29.
A district spokeswoman said the school failed to ensure that only licensed teachers were in teaching positions and failed to provide proper services to its special education students.
However, Jones said in her letter that the district has not provided “reasonable specificity about concerns or violations of statute or charter that would threaten our ability to continue to operate, and we have retained legal counsel to further investigate the nature of the complaints and the legality of such actions as might impact the school’s future operations.”
The high school opened two years ago. It was billed as a place where students could graduate with enough college credits to earn an associate degree, but it has struggled this year to keep students and teachers.
The school is currently trying to hire three teachers, and has lost half of its 11th-graders since the allegations were made public in August. Ashley Smith, the charter organization’s CEO, is serving as the school’s third principal in two years.
Hall said the final straw came after she attended parent meetings at the start of this school year.
“We saw that parents were having the same concerns as us,” Hall said. “We want to ensure that students are successful. As difficult as this decision was, and we never wanted to be in this position, but what we found is that by continuing the partnership, we would continue to hurt students academically.”
Hall added that Southwest Tennessee Community College provides dual-enrollment courses for almost 1,000 high school students in Shelby County Schools and suburban school districts, and that those relationships would not change.
Shelby County Schools rarely recommends closing the charter schools under its authority, but lately has ramped up oversight of new charter schools and current schools with low test scores and poor operations. Since the first charter school opened in Tennessee in 2003, the state board has overturned 25 out of 83 school board decisions to approve, revoke, or renew a charter.
Last school year, both the Shelby County Schools board and the state board voted to shutter the charter school Gateway University after a Chalkbeat report into allegations by former staff members. Several of those allegations, including that the school falsified a geometry class and relied on uncertified teachers, were substantiated in the district investigation.
You can read the full letter to Southwest high school parents below: