With the snip of a ribbon, Tennessee leaders helped to officially open a charter school on Tuesday in Memphis that marks a major shift in how the charter sector can grow in the state.

Bluff City High School, operated by Green Dot Public Schools in southeast Memphis, is the first charter school authorized by the State Board of Education.

The school opened last week at full capacity with 160 ninth-graders and a waiting list, despite uncertainty about its location as recently as four months ago. The plan is to grow the school to 600 students and four grades by 2020.

Bluff City’s opening adds a new layer of oversight to charter schools in Tennessee, where local school boards and the state-run Achievement School District already have that authority. Now the State Board does too under a 2014 state law that allows charter applicants to appeal to the State Board when local school boards deny their applications.

That’s what happened in Memphis last August when Shelby County Schools denied Green Dot’s application. The State Board later voted unanimously to overrule the local board.

“We felt like Green Dot really was prepared to serve this community well, and I think that’s already born out in the fact that it’s fully … enrolled even in its first year,” said Sara Heyburn Morrison, the board’s executive director.

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Math students are at work during the school’s second week.

Most students came from Wooddale and Kirby middle schools, both operated by Green Dot under the ASD. Green Dot used a lottery system to decide which of 270 applicants could attend. The operator already runs two other Memphis high schools, Fairley and Hillcrest, also under the ASD.

“Part of the reason we even applied for this school in the first place is — when the moratorium on growth for the Achievement School District happened — we were just starting our third year with Wooddale Middle and had bused 27 students across the city to Fairley. We still do that, but it’s hard for students,” said Megan Quaile, Green Dot’s executive director in Tennessee. “If they didn’t have a ride home, they didn’t get to participate in extracurriculars or sports the way you would if you were able to walk home from school.”

Quaile said her organization felt strongly about appealing the local school board’s decision. “We have been running schools since 2000, and we have a very strong high school model,” she said of the California-based operator.

Bluff City is starting with 10 classrooms and plans to build a gym this fall.

“Working with the State Board of Education has just been a very positive experience,” Quaile said. “They’re very thoughtful, they’re very responsible. We’ve worked really well with them to get everything started.”

Now the State Board will need to work with both Shelby County Schools and the ASD to align the city’s public schools and services to meet students’ needs in the Bluff City. That could be challenging given that the State Board stepped in to authorize the new Memphis school. 

“This is new territory for all of us in terms of the working relationship that we’ll need to continue to build out with Shelby County,” said Heyburn Morrison, whose team will also begin overseeing two Nashville charter schools in 2019.

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Darryl Buchanan and Adarrius Hicks are founding class members of Bluff City High School.

While the road to starting Bluff City High School was complicated, students who participated in Tuesday’s opening ceremony were mostly just interested in what lies ahead. They were excited to have a say in building the school’s culture by voting on a mascot (the wolves) and a school color (Carolina blue). Plans are also underway to establish clubs and a student government.

“I feel pressure, but this is going to make us into better leaders,” said Darryl Buchanan, 14, who wants his education to prepare him to be a politician someday. “Everyone here is going to be something and they want us to be successful. They want us to be a somebody.”