CITY BEAT

Charter schools, a top priority of Memphis Tomorrow, expand their base in Memphis.

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WAVE OF THE FUTURE With the Memphis City Schools maintenence debacle over for the time being, the Memphis business community’s other pet project for public education — charter schools — can now get the attention it deserves.

Changing a school system with 118,000 students and 191 facilities can be a bruising process, as the Trammell Crow Company and local minority vendor Memphis Chemical and Janitorial Supply found out the hard way. School board members objected to a deal struck by superintendent Carol Johnson and operations manager Lavon Alston. Alston resigned last month, Trammell Crow decided to stick to other real estate, and Memphis Chemical and attorney Robert Spence are suing to recover more than $1 million in expenses. Maintenance and supervision of school clean-up will stay in house for now..

Charter schools are a sexier story. With backing from Memphis Tomorrow, the Hyde Family Foundation, six charter schools opened in Memphis in 2003 and 2004, and four more are scheduled to open in August. If they all make it, Memphis will have 10 of the 14 charter schools in Tennessee. Another Memphis school, the KIPP alternative middle school founded in 2001, is a hybrid of charter school and MCS parentage.

Charter schools get state certification and funding. Unlike optional schools such as Grahamwood Elementary and John P. Freeman Elementary which cherry-pick top students with high test scores, charter schools have to take students who are either failing or assigned to a failing school in their district. They hold classes in churches and other unconventional locations, scramble for principals and certified teachers looking for a fresh challenge, and recruit students with a promise of long hours and classroom innovations.

Blakley Wallace, principal of the new Promise Academy in Frayser, was drumming up customers last weekend at a picnic and outside a Kroger on Frayser Boulevard. School starts August 8th at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Frayser for 60 kindergarten students, with plans to add one grade a year until Pyramid is a full-fledged K-8th-grade school.

“I give out my home phone number and cell number to people and tell them to call me about the academy,” said Wallace, who taught music for eight years in Arkansas and was assistant principal at Ridgeway Middle School in Memphis for four years. “I tell them they’re not going to get an education like this anywhere else for free.”

Promise Academy’s “life and culture curriculum” will teach etiquette, manners, and “appropriate” language for different settings and situations.

“We are not going to replace casual language but add to it,” Wallace said.

Students will also get two or three hours of language arts and an hour of math each day, plus music and art three days a week. The school day will last from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., including a nap and prepackaged lunch from MCS.

Charter schools often have a longer school day — not to mention a longer name — than traditional schools. The new Southern Avenue Charter School of Academic Excellence and Creative Arts for 80 kindergarten and first-grade students will require parents to leave their children in school for an extra hour until 4 p.m. so they can do homework. Principal Elise Evans, who has 37 years experience as a teacher, counselor, and preschool director, says the curriculum will include Spanish, ballet, chess, music by the Suzuki method, and literacy.

The two other new charter schools are the Stax Music Academy for sixth-graders and the Memphis Business Academy, also for sixth-graders. The Stax charter school is an extension of an existing and well-publicized program tied to the famous record label and museum, but the Business Academy, which will be located in Frayser, is a new venture.

Charter schools operate under a microscope. Backers say they free children trapped in failing schools run by an evil bureaucracy, while critics fear they siphon funds and moral support from the traditional schools scorned by conservative ideologues. The Memphis KIPP school made news this week for costing $1 million a year more than school board members were led to believe it would cost when they approved it. Another charter school sponsor, the Yo! Memphis Foundation, has been called on the carpet by the Memphis City Council for sloppy spending and accounting in its youth programs.

Facilities could be the next hot issue, as the strongest charter schools outgrow their temporary quarters in churches. A logical home would seem to be public schools closed for low enrollment.

Memphis City Schools spokesman Vince McCaskill said this week it’s unclear what will become of five elementary schools closed this year but at this point there are no plans to use them for charter schools.

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