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Published in Print: April 22, 2015, as Charters Pull Back From Memphis Takeovers

Charter Operators Pull Back From Memphis Turnaround Effort

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Three national charter school networks have scaled back plans to take over failing schools in Memphis through Tennessee's state-run district, underscoring the challenges and risks involved in the high-stakes, politically charged endeavor of school turnarounds.

What has unfolded in Memphis in recent months is a complex tale of balancing old systems with the new in the pioneering work of state-led school turnaround efforts that have only been brought to scale in one city: New Orleans. As other states look into launching their own state-run districts, experts say the situation in Tennessee's Achievement School District could offer valuable lessons when it comes to tapping charter operators to turn around troubled schools in high-needs communities.

Some of the challenges that have confronted charter-management organizations in Memphis echo concerns from charter network leaders five years ago, when many were reluctant to get involved in federally driven school turnaround efforts. At the time, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan exhorted them to play a key role in the Obama administration's $3.5 billion initiative to raise achievement in the nation's most chronically failing schools, but ultimately, only a small number of CMOs opted to do so.

"I think every charter-management-organization leader would be the first to say that it's a tremendous educational challenge," said Joshua L. Glazer, an associate professor of education at George Washington University in Washington who is studying the Achievement School District, or ASD. "Even national networks who are used to working with disadvantaged communities would say the level of need in Memphis is very high."

The latest setback in the ASD's attempt to improve schooling in Memphis took place late last month when the high-performing Houston-based YES Prep Public Schools suddenly scrapped plans two years in the making to take over Airways Middle School in August, and said it would leave Memphis altogether. Last fall, the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, and California-based Green Dot Public Schools, also scaled back plans to take over troubled schools in the ASD, although they weren't as far along in the process. Both groups remain active in Memphis, are running other schools through the ASD, and plan to expand.

Inheriting Challenges

The ASD was created by the state to turn around Tennessee's bottom 5 percent of schools. Since 2012, it has taken over 23 schools and handed the majority to charter operators. Most of those schools are in the city of Memphis, which is part of the Shelby County school district.

But rather than starting from scratch with a small group of families, as most CMOs are accustomed, the operators have had to take on students already in the schools' attendance zones. Although the takeover deals usually come with a building—something charter schools across the country struggle to obtain—CMOs also inherit the challenges.

Only one in six students in schools eligible for takeover read and write at grade level, 16.3 percent qualify for special education, and 96 percent qualify for free and reduced-price meals.

"You've got charters that have been doing this for years, and they've gotten great results from Day One because it is easier to open a school where the families pick you than to do neighborhood-conversion work," said Chris Barbic, the superintendent of the ASD, who founded YES Prep.

Mr. Barbic maintains that the reasons the three CMOs have pulled back are not related.

CMOs coming into the ASD must navigate an environment where families may mistrust the change being foisted on them and a system that involves multiple actors from the state and local levels. For charters that have built their models on independence and choice, this setting can require a major reworking of their systems.

YES Prep officials say their withdrawal was based largely on the fact that key policies changed midstream. Primary among them, the Shelby County school district announced it would no longer locate charters and the regular public schools they were slated to take over in the same building. That meant that instead of taking over a school one grade at a time as planned, YES Prep would have had to adopt all three grades of Airways Middle School at once.

"With one grade, you're able to build a structure of excellence with a small group of students who can lead the way," said Jason Bernal, YES Prep's chief executive officer. "We've had tremendous success with that." YES Prep officials said they could either abandon the model they are familiar with, or strike out into uncharted territory with a model they couldn't guarantee would produce results. The CMO has been serving families in the Houston area since 1998 and has been widely praised for its student-achievement results in low-income communities.

The model of growing one grade at a time, sometimes called "fresh start," is not unique to YES Prep; it's central to many KIPP schools as well.

KIPP currently has seven schools in Memphis. The network was given the opportunity to move an existing KIPP school of 6th graders into a state-labeled "priority" school, or one that falls into the bottom 5 percent. KIPP would have absorbed the 7th grade the first year and the 8th grade the following year as those students moved up. When Shelby County district officials made taking over all grades at the same time a condition of the move, KIPP decided not to go forward, according to network officials.

Community Buy-In

Then there was Green Dot, which faced staunch opposition from some community members to its takeover of Raleigh-Egypt High School in Memphis. The charter operator opted to heed the community's wish to give the school's still-new principal a chance to turn things around.

"The principal of Raleigh-Egypt started just last summer. Even though it was a priority school, they felt strongly in the community that they were on a good trajectory and they wanted to see how that would go," said Megan A. Quaile, the chief growth officer for Green Dot and the interim executive director for Tennessee.

Ms. Quaile said Green Dot made the decision in concert with the ASD to pull back, for now.

A large, multistate network, Green Dot prefers to start running all grades of a school at once, and robust community organizing is a major piece of its takeover strategy.

When Green Dot was poised to assume leadership last year of another ASD campus in Memphis, Fairley High School, the network hosted community events and pulled together alumni, parents, and students to advise on the transition. Green Dot flew the group to California to see the CMO's existing schools.

"A student at Fairley High School is going to have different credibility and level of access talking to other students than I'm going to," she said.

Related Blog

Although many charter school experts resist singling out one charter school model best suited for taking over schools through a state-run turnaround district, many agree flexibility is vital to navigate a panoply of actors. In Memphis, those include the Shelby County district, the ASD, and a community group set up to match low-performing schools slated for takeover with operators.

"I think that's the headline there, you're asking operators to work in a more uncertain and somewhat more unstable environment where you have more actors who are involved and you're depending on, and that's challenging," said Mr. Glazer of George Washington University.

Other pressures—including intense news-media scrutiny—raise the stakes even more for operators. Despite that, said Nina Rees, the president and chief executive officer of Washington-based National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, charter advocates don't want CMOs to turn their backs on turnaround work.

"I think it's important for us to challenge ourselves to meet the needs of these students," she said, "because we're often told that the neediest students are not coming to our schools, because their parents are not choosing our schools."

Vol. 34, Issue 28, Pages 1,14

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