Shelby County Schools has launched an investigation into Southwest Early College High School, where school leaders are saying that after a difficult summer, the school is responding to parent concerns.
The school’s response comes less than a week after three Memphis high schoolers and two parents stood before the Shelby County Schools board and called for an investigation into the district charter school after parents and students reported incomplete schedules, staffing shortages, and missing high school credits.
Ashley Smith, the 2-year-old school’s founder and current principal, said in a statement that many of the concerns stem from a lack of understanding Southwest’s model, which allows students to take college courses while in high school. But she added that the school had experienced some “growing pains.”
“This is a different experience for all involved in terms of culture, operations, instructional management,” Smith said. “It takes some time to get everything 100% when you start a brand new organization.”
Southwest Early College High School leaders submitted their responses to district questions on Sept. 3. Brittany Monda, the district’s director of charter schools, emailed a former Southwest parent on Sept. 5 to say an investigation had begun.
“We are currently in a formal investigation that goes deeper than the original grievances that were collected,” Monda said in the email. “We are in the process of data collection through the complaints/allegations that were made both with our office and at the board meeting last week. When we have fully completed the investigation and any further action is taken we will reach out.”
The high school launched two years ago with Southwest Community College, allowing students to graduate with as many as 60 hours in college credits and an associate degree.
In response to the board’s questions, Southwest Early College leaders said there had been miscommunication with parents over issues such as whether or not students would be guaranteed an associate degree and how students would navigate life on a college campus. Leaders added that they were working on filling vacant positions and ensuring that students receive proper special education services.
Iseashia Thomas, a former Southwest parent who spoke at last week’s board meeting, said the school’s responses were inadequate and that she was concerned the district investigation would take a long time. She added that while she has already enrolled her son in a different school, she still hears from Southwest parents looking for new homes for their students.
“If this investigation takes a year, you’ve already lost a group of kids,” Thomas said. “My biggest frustration is that SCS approved this charter school. If you’re not going to go in and hold them accountable, then send them teachers so they can give the students what they need.”
Shelby County Schools’ role is to hold schools like Southwest Early College High School accountable to a charter agreement, but the day-to-day operations are left to the school and its own governing board.
Two of the big issues Thomas and other parents raised were the school’s lack of qualified teachers and a lack of course offerings needed for high school graduation.
Because two teachers unexpectedly left this summer, Smith said the school is using an online teaching curriculum for their math classes. The high school also has hired an English teacher and is searching for another one.
Smith said that contrary to parent concerns, Southwest has offered credit recovery for failed classes in the past. She added that now the school will direct students to take credit recovery offered by the district each summer.
Starting this school year, Smith said they are implementing mandatory tutoring at least once a week for any students with less than a score of 75% in a core subject class, such as Geometry or English, or who are missing more than two assignments in any class.
You can read the school’s response to board members in full below: