UPDATE, JAN. 7: On Monday, the state Board of Education voted unanimously to uphold the recommendation, meaning Southwest Early College High School will officially close in May. 

The state Board of Education’s leader is advising that a Memphis charter school be shut down at the end of this school year.

Sara Heyburn Morrison, executive director of the Tennessee State Board of Education
PHOTO CREDIT: Micaela Watts

This vote will finally decide the fate of Southwest Early College High School more than three months after Shelby County Schools board members voted 5-3 in favor of closing it. School leaders appealed to the state in a final effort to stay open.

State Board members will vote either in line or against Director Sara Heyburn Morrison’s recommendation at a special called meeting Monday afternoon (you can read the recommendation in full here).

At stake is the education of 133 students who could need to find a new high school after May.

“We are obviously disappointed about the executive director’s recommendation,” Southwest CEO Ashley Smith said in a statement released Friday. “We have anticipated a vote in our favor, so we’ve been negotiating with new college partners and visiting potential new locations for our school for next school year.” 

She added that school staff are trying to sway state board members to vote against the recommendation and are encouraging parents to keep their students at the high school through May, regardless of Monday’s vote.

The Memphis district voted to shutter the school after its investigation found that half of the high school’s teachers are not properly credentialed and that the school struggled to support students with disabilities. The high school’s college partner, Southwest Community College, announced after the district started investigating that it would no longer house the charter school following this school year.

Morrison’s report confirmed that the issues with staffing, serving students with disabilities, and the exit of the community college were reasonable grounds for closure.

Although the high school announced a new partnership with Bethel University – which would allow the school to continue to provide dual enrollment courses after May – Morrison wrote that she agreed with the district’s assessment that the new agreement wouldn’t replace the role Southwest Community College had played.

“The evidence supports that the loss of this partnership is so central to the school’s ability to comply with the approved charter application and agreement that it rises to the level” of a grounds for closure, Morrison wrote of the fissure with Southwest Community College.

While she said there was an opportunity for Shelby County Schools to “more effectively” oversee its charter schools, Morrison also acknowledged the district offered the school a chance to fix its “egregious special education violations,” but the problems continued.

“Evidence from SCS’s investigation revealed SECHS’s continued non‐compliance in special education, a lack of institutional knowledge…lack of urgency for initiating special education services, and lack of planning for how to ensure special education students initiated dual enrollment classes at the community college with accommodations in place,” Heyburn Morrison wrote.

However, Southwest’s leaders have questioned the district’s investigation and communication in the school’s response, saying they were not given proper time to fix issues the investigation uncovered. Smith told Chalkbeat previously that she is hoping the state board will vote in line with their October decision to overturn the closure of a charter school in Metro Nashville Public Schools – placing the Nashville school on probation rather than closing it.

State board members do not often vote against Morrison’s recommendations.

Monday’s meeting will come just a couple of months after the state board voted in line with Morrison to uphold Shelby County Schools’ decision to deny three other charter schools from opening. The state board also overturned one of the Memphis district’s decisions, allowing an elementary charter school to open this fall.

Enrollment at Southwest has dropped by more than 100 students since the start of the school year. Its latest scores on the state exam fell below district averages, but it received a good rating from Shelby County Schools in the district’s own report card.

Shelby County Schools 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 26 out of 87 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.