Update Dec. 4, 2019: The Shelby County Schools board postponed the vote pending further discussion. The board expects to vote before Jan. 1, which is when the charter school requests would be automatically approved per state guidelines.

More than 750 spots at eight Memphis charter schools could be eliminated if the Shelby County Schools board follows staff recommendations presented this week.

Those schools — part of the KIPP, Memphis Business Academy, and Gestalt Community Schools networks — could either be forced to accept fewer students in their incoming class next year or, possibly, un-enroll some students to comply with their agreements with the district. At least one local charter leader has said such a forced reduction would “devastate” his network of schools.

The recommendations are a first for the Memphis district as leaders start enforcing some state rules and introduce a district-specific policy for those rules. The Shelby County Schools board approved the policy over the summer after two years of negotiations with charter leaders.

Over the summer, district leaders notified some charter schools that they were enrolling more students than originally set forth in their agreements. Charter school leaders are required to submit requests to change their agreements if their enrollment substantially changes.

A new school board policy says that only schools with good standing on the district’s annual report card can be approved for adding more students than they initially agreed upon. If the school is part of a charter network, then all of the schools in the network must be in good standing for any of them to gain approval.

The policy is meant, in part, to slow the growth of charter schools. Shelby County Schools oversees nearly 60 privately managed schools that receive public dollars — by far the most in Tennessee. Most of Shelby County Schools’ slight uptick in student enrollment in recent years is because of charter school growth.

The CEO of one of the charter networks that the district is asking to reduce enrollment said it’s unfair for the district to enforce the rule now, after years of consistent high demand for his schools.

Gestalt Community Schools and SunTrust Banks, Inc. relaunched this week a ‘Youth Bank’ at Gestalt’s Power Center Academy in Hickory Hill. Established to support financial literacy, the program will help students open and maintain a savings account.
PHOTO CREDIT: Gestalt Community Schools

“This is not just something that just happened. We’ve been partnering with the district. These were never issues before three months ago,” said Anthony Anderson, the founder and CEO of Memphis Business Academy, which operates six schools.

The district’s recommendation means the network would need to shrink its student body by about 20% as it prepares for a $15 million development in Frayser. Since charter schools plan their budgets for hires and educational services based on enrollment, Anderson said the drastic change “would basically kill our entire network.”

“It wouldn’t just devastate one school, it would devastate all of our schools,” he told Chalkbeat.

Based on the board policy and the district’s own report card, which grades schools on their academics, finances, and operations, Superintendent Joris Ray recommended five schools be allowed to increase enrollment or continue to enroll significantly more students than their contracts anticipated:

  • Crosstown High School, requesting 100 more students
  • Freedom Preparatory Elementary School, 180 more students
  • Memphis Grizzlies Preparatory Charter School, 140 more students and add fifth-grade students to its middle school
  • Memphis Rise Academy, 101 more students and officially change its location to Raleigh, where the school has operated since 2014
  • Vision Preparatory Charter School, 108 more students

The superintendent also recommended denying expansion for eight schools in three charter networks:

  • KIPP Memphis Collegiate High School, requesting 95 more students
  • Memphis Business Academy High, 155 more students
  • Memphis Business Academy Hickory Hill Elementary, add higher elementary grades earlier than planned
  • Memphis Business Academy Elementary, 142 more students
  • Memphis STEM Academy, 296 more students
  • Power Center Academy Elementary School Hickory Hill, 152 more students
  • Power Center Academy Middle School Hickory Hill, 62 more students
  • Power Center Academy High School Hickory Hill, 210 more students

The individual schools were in good standing, but because at least one other school in their network fell below the district’s standard, Shelby County Schools staff recommended that the charter schools reduce enrollment.

Some school board members were caught off guard by how the new board policy would impact a decision like this. One of them, Kevin Woods, argued to approve those expansion requests because the individual schools would be unfairly “penalized” under the board policy. Of all the charter networks that have already expanded, the district recommended denial for all but one, Freedom Prep.

“Here now, I’m asking myself as a board member would I have thought differently in wanting to judge each school on its own merit?” he said during Tuesday’s work session.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, who led the board in creating the new charter school policy, said the mandate was “vetted over and over again” including the requirement that all schools in the network be in good standing before approving expansion.

“The thought process was that if you were going to be judged if you had more than one school, you have to look at the whole collective if you’re going to make a change,” she responded.

Tess Stovall, director of charter schools for Tennessee State Board of Education.
PHOTO CREDIT: Laura Faith Kebede

All of this comes as the state prepares to institute more specific rules on how districts oversee a growing sector of charter schools that began opening in Tennessee in 2004.

Tess Stovall, the director of charter schools at the State Board of Education, said an emergency rule approved this summer offers some guidelines on how charter schools can amend their original agreements with their authorizing district.

Though enrollment is not specifically mentioned as a trigger to file a petition, state law considers enrollment, grade span, location, and governance structure to be important parts of the application process. A proposed permanent rule on charter amendments expected to go into effect this spring specifies that significant enrollment changes should prompt an amendment.

As far as how charter schools can reduce their enrollment if the board denies their expansion, Stovall said, “the law is silent.”

“The specifics of how that could be done would be at the local level in collaboration with charter schools,” she told Chalkbeat.

The Shelby County Schools board is expected to vote on the charter amendments at its Dec. 3 meeting. Charter schools can appeal the vote to the state board.

Another round of charter amendments regarding school location are expected to come before the district’s board early next year.