This fall’s surprise announcement that Gestalt Community Schools is leaving Tennessee’s school turnaround district doesn’t appear to be a bellwether for other charter networks operating in the Achievement School District.
Of the state’s 13 charter operators, half that spoke with Chalkbeat said they have no plans to exit the ASD. And several are open to expanding under the state-run district, which oversees 33 public schools in Memphis and Nashville.
“Aspire is focused on growing in Memphis,” said Allison Leslie, Memphis superintendent for the California-based network, which operates three schools in the city and tried last year to add a fourth.
Leaders for Capstone Education Group and Frayser Community Schools said their Memphis-based networks also would like to expand under the ASD. Capstone wants to grow from three to five schools in Memphis by 2021, while Frayser Community Schools, now with one school, has expressed interest in managing the two that Gestalt will leave behind.
Other operators characterize Gestalt’s decision as an outlier rooted mostly in enrollment challenges in North Memphis. The network had sought to turn around two low-performing schools in an area where the city’s population of school-age children had hollowed out in recent years.
Gestalt Community Schools was one of the first charter networks to join Tennessee’s turnaround district that launched in 2012; now it will be the first to depart. Leaders of the Memphis-based network announced plans in October to pull out at the end of this school year. CEO Yetta Lewis blamed chronic under-enrollment, exacerbated by a state-imposed cap on out-of-zone enrollment for ASD schools. Gestalt will continue to operate five other Memphis charter schools authorized by Shelby County Schools.
Read our Q&A with Gestalt Community Schools CEO Yetta Lewis about why Gestalt is leaving the ASD and lessons learned.
The work has been hard for ASD charter operators tasked with taking schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent and turning them around in five years — a goal that ASD leaders now acknowledge was unrealistic.
Created in 2010 with the help of federal Race to the Top funding, the ASD recruited and incentivized charter networks to join its portfolio of schools and granted them broad discretion in hiring, curriculum, instruction and budgeting. But especially in Memphis, charter leaders have grappled with high student mobility, extreme poverty, a lack of shared resources, barriers to school choice, and on-the-ground opposition in communities with intense loyalty to neighborhood schools.
Like schools statewide, charters also have had to deal with the void in state test scores in 2015-16 due to Tennessee’s cancellation last spring of its new TNReady assessment for K-8 students. The bumpy testing transition prompted ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson to halt takeovers of low-performing schools for one year.
Enrollment has been another challenge. Gestalt has not been alone in that struggle, but its two ASD schools — Klondike Elementary and Humes Middle — suffered some of the district’s largest enrollment losses: about 13 percent of their student population in the last year.
“We keep trying something new or different but came to realize that over the last four years, people have moved pretty steadily out of North Memphis,” Lewis said.
With a limited pool of high-quality national charter networks, the ASD is working to cultivate more local operators to be part of its future expansion. This fall, the district kicked off a series of trainings in Memphis and Nashville, inviting community leaders to learn about the basics of charter schooling in Tennessee and how to create schools through the ASD.
Chalkbeat reporter Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this story.