Three weeks after a Memphis charter network announced it would pull its school from the state-run Achievement School District, officials say they’ve reached a temporary agreement and are staying put.
Freedom Preparatory Academy will continue operating its Westwood neighborhood elementary school as part of the state turnaround district instead of moving the school to Shelby County Schools oversight.
Roblin Webb, the charter network’s founder and CEO, said she changed her mind after finding common ground with state leaders of the Achievement School District. Webb had originally told Chalkbeat she wanted to move the school because of costs and the difficulties of operating schools in two different school districts with different protocols.
Webb had considered not only moving to district oversight but moving the students and staff from the school’s Westwood neighborhood to its campus 2½ miles away, where the charter operator already houses a high school.
“We found a way to make it work for a year, and the benefit is that we get to stay in the building for at least a year, hopefully, longer term than that,” Webb said. “We hate to have to backtrack, but we’re also grateful that we don’t have to move and deal with the complications with transportation.”
This means earlier plans by Freedom Prep to run a charter school in this new location under Shelby County Schools will be deferred for a year. It also means that achievement district leaders won’t open a new school in the Westwood building this fall, as previously announced.
Webb said a big incentive for staying with the achievement district another year was the possibility of keeping the Westwood building even after it transitions to Shelby County School oversight.
Freedom Prep would have been the first charter network to leave the state district for oversight under the local district. But Webb is hopeful the school will become a part of a different historic moment: Becoming one of the first schools to transition from state to local oversight because of improved academic performance.
Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said last week, based on an early look at test scores, that it is “entirely possible” state-run schools could return to local districts at the end of the upcoming school year. She did not mention any schools by name.
Since the achievement district was created in 2012, no schools have left state control. The district promised to raise the state’s lowest-performing schools into the top quarter academically within five years by assigning them to charter organizations, whose leaders have more control over daily operations than district principals.
State law says charter operator can return to local district oversight if it improves test scores and remains off the state’s list of troubled schools for two consecutive years, but the process for leaving is unclear. This is the first school year many achievement schools will have two consecutive years of solid testing data because Tennessee has struggled with its testing vendors.
Katie Poulos, chief schools officer for the education department, said the state “looks forward” to continuing to partner with Freedom Prep.
“We are hopeful that we will see academic results that enable us to transition schools back to their school districts in a manner that protects the interests of the students and their communities,” Poulos added.
Freedom Prep runs four other campuses under Shelby County Schools – and none of those schools will change locations as previously announced. Webb told Chalkbeat operating in two districts with different protocols has become overly complex, and that the state-run district charges charter operators an administrative fee that is about 3½ times what Shelby County Schools charges.
In emails between Webb and the state-run district’s former superintendent Sharon Griffin in late May, the two also discussed the state’s higher charges for educating students with disabilities compared with the local district’s fees.
The issues Webb previously raised still stand, but she added that the state education department has allocated more funds for state-run school facilities this year, making it more financially feasible to do another school year under state control.
“We went back and forth with the ASD for a number of reasons,” Webb said. “They didn’t want us to leave that building and the community, and we understood that and don’t want to leave, either. But we can’t figure out ways to make this happen long term.”
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