Editor’s note: Gateway University Charter School was ordered to shut down a year after a Chalkbeat investigation into the Memphis high school found the administration falsified grades, improperly employed uncertified teachers, and awarded credits for a geometry class that did not exist. Find other articles in this series here

An embattled Memphis charter school will face a final vote Tuesday that will determine whether or not it remains open after May.

The Tennessee Board of Education’s staff on Friday agreed with the decision of the Memphis district to shut down Gateway University.

Shelby County Schools voted in late January to close Gateway after its second school year ends in May, following a seven-month district investigation into the northeast Memphis charter school. The investigation found that the school’s leaders mismanaged the school and intentionally misled the district.

If the state board votes in favor of its staff recommendations, the charter school will officially close at the end of the school year and 150 students will need to find a new high school this fall. This would come almost a full year after Chalkbeat’s investigation into the school found the administration falsified grades, improperly employed uncertified teachers, and gave credits for a geometry class that did not exist.

Gateway University is at risk of closure after an investigation found a slew of misconduct at the high school.
PHOTO CREDIT: Caroline Bauman

Read our in-depth investigation into Gateway University here, which was published last June.

In its report, the state board staff found that Gateway hired an educator who did not pass a background check, gave grades to students in a geometry class that did not actually exist, and relied on uncertified teachers in classes throughout its two school years, contrary to state law.

State board Director Sara Heyburn Morrison said in her recommendation that Gateway hired a teacher whose license had been revoked by the state after being cited by Memphis police for physically assaulting a student in Shelby County during two incidents in 2016.

Heyburn Morrison’s report also found that Gateway’s use of uncertified teachers continued into its second year of operation.

“I am certainly sympathetic to the challenge of recruiting and retaining qualified teachers and understand that it can be especially difficult for a charter school in the first year to navigate these issues,” Heyburn Morrison wrote. “However, it is clear that these challenges were not isolated to the school’s first year of operation, and instead of correcting it, this issue has continued and increased in year two.”

The 12-page recommendation, published Friday, comes more than a month after the state board staff heard an appeal from Gateway. If the board votes at its 3 p.m. Tuesday meeting to approve the recommendation, the 150-student charter school will officially close at the end of the school year in May.

“The Gateway Family is disappointed by these findings and remains hopeful that the State Board could vote in our favor,” Gateway leaders said in a statement. “Regardless of the final decision, our school year is not over until the very last day of this semester, and neither is our work for our students.”

Ian Braxton, a 10th grader at Gateway, said during a district meeting earlier this year that he wanted the school to stay open “because it’s a family” and offers him a choice outside of his neighborhood schools.

“I live in North Memphis, which is not exactly a safe neighborhood,” said Braxton, in his second year at the school. “Gateway provides transportation to the school that’s safe.”

In its appeal to the state board, Gateway University leaders say the school did not violate its charter agreement and was not given due process by Shelby County Schools, and therefore deserves to stay open. Leaders previously made the same argument to Memphis board members.

However, Heyburn Morrison disagreed, saying in her report, “Schools that act in violation of their charter agreement in a material way which violate the public trust, especially given the amount of public funds entrusted to a charter school, must be closed.”

Heyburn Morrison added that although the Memphis district was involved in some of the issues with Gateway before it launched the investigation, “this situation has also brought to light the importance of working with schools, particularly new operators, in their first few years.”

“While it is evident that Gateway experienced its share of challenges during its first two years of operation, the basis of charter school authorization is autonomy in exchange for accountability,” Heyburn Morrison said in the report’s conclusion.

This is the second time the state board staff has agreed with Shelby County Schools this year. The board affirmed the closure of City Boys University Preparatory charter school in February, which also will shut down at the end of the school year.

Gateway University leader Sosepriala Dede (right) confers with an associate before a hearing.
PHOTO CREDIT: Caroline Bauman

The state board has only overturned 16 out of 73 school board decisions to approve, revoke, or renew a charter since the first charter school opened in Tennessee in 2003.

The number of charter schools has grown steadily in Memphis and Shelby County since Tennessee opened the door to nonprofit charter schools beginning in 2003. In August, Shelby County’s school board approved nine more characters for next fall, including six Compass Community Schools that will replace the soon-to-close Jubilee Catholic Schools Network. Once those open, Shelby County Schools will have 63 charter schools — by far the most in the state.