Four charter schools are seeking to open in Memphis in 2021 — a five-year low and fewer than half of the schools that applied last year.

Two are repeat applicants who run other schools in the city; the other two will be first-time charter operators if the Shelby County Schools board approves them. Last year, applicants sought to open 11 schools, down from 18 the year before.

There are several possible explanations for the significant drop in charter school applications. It mirrors a national trend as the number of new charter schools opening has steadily decreased since 2013, according to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

In Tennessee, a new state law — wrapped into a bigger school package — moved the application deadline up two months from April 1 to Feb. 1, which some potential applicants may not have known. And locally, Shelby County Schools’ new stricter policy could have had a chilling effect. The policy the school board approved in July allows it to reject a charter school based on where it wants to locate and resulted in only one new school approval last year — a historic low. The state Board of Education mounted opposition to the policy when it reversed the local board’s decision in one case, but the state is unlikely to undo the policy anytime soon.

If all the schools are approved, they would eventually enroll about 2,100 students, which would make a small dent in the district’s need for 44,000 more “high-quality” seats in various neighborhoods, according to the district’s updated analysis. That’s despite already having about 22,000 more seats than students across the district.

Memphis School of Excellence is a 10-year-old charter network in Hickory Hill.
PHOTO CREDIT: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Of the four applicants, three plan to locate in neighborhoods the district says need better quality schools. The fourth proposed school in Cordova partially meets the district’s stated need.

The analysis, now in its second year, also measures how many high-quality seats are in each neighborhood based on data compiled by district that compares state test scores, academic growth, suspension rates, and college readiness.

The school board must take its first vote by May 3 or the applications will automatically be approved. Any rejected applicants will have 30 days to amend their proposal and resubmit it. The school board’s final vote is expected by Aug. 1. You can review the applications online and give Shelby County Schools feedback through March 3:

Bluff City Collegiate is a new operator seeking to open a college prep middle school in the 38111 or 38122 zip codes, which include Berclair, Highland Heights and East Memphis neighborhoods. The school would be led by Luke Savidge, a former teacher trained through Memphis Teacher Residency and most recently an instructional coach at Westside Middle School, a charter school in the state-run Achievement School District. Savidge is a fellow in BES (formerly Building Excellent Schools), a training program that has produced several Memphis-area charter school leaders.

Capstone Education Group is applying for the second time to open under Shelby County Schools. The network already operates two schools under the state-run district, a network mostly of charter schools that will eventually be dismantled by the state. The new Cornerstone Prep K-8 school would focus on college preparation in Sherwood Forest or Parkway Village. The network appealed its 2018 rejection to the state board, which denied the petition.

Luceo Collegiate School of the Arts would be a K-8 arts school in Binghampton led by LeBaron McClary, a professional dancer turned teacher and administrator who is a BES fellow. The school is planning for 75 minutes of arts instruction per day in elementary school and 90 minutes in middle school, including sketching, painting, drawing, and pottery, instrumental and vocal music (jazz, classical, popular), drama, and classical ballet, classical and contemporary modern dance, West African dance, ballroom dance, and hip-hop dance.

Read Foundation is again seeking to open Memphis School of Excellence Cordova, a middle and high school focused on science, technology, engineering, and math. It would accompany the elementary school the board approved last year that is opening this fall. The board previously rejected the application based on the school’s desire to locate in Cordova. More seats for students are needed at the high school level, but not for middle school, the district’s neighborhood enrollment analysis concluded, which has not changed. The state board rejected the network’s appeal, citing low math test scores. The board also was concerned about the network’s ability to keep up with student services if the group grows. The network opened in 2010, operates schools serving grades K-12 in Hickory Hill and has some of the highest ACT scores in the district.