News » Cover Feature

Charting a New Course

Three charter schools will open next year. Can they help improve the performance of Memphis City School students?



Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering (MASE) founder Tommie Henderson speaks in the clear, controlled tones of someone who really wants you to understand what he's saying. Obviously comfortable with public speaking, his eye contact never falters and he repeats the points he thinks are the most important.

An East High alum, he came back to teach at the school six years ago because he heard the engineering program -- the one that had helped him get into MIT -- was floundering. But now he's starting a charter school.

"When I first got to East," he says, "it was hard to encourage the students to take tougher courses because they were so used to courses that didn't demand a lot of them." Then, a few years back, a group of five young men -- all African-American -- signed up for an Advanced Placement (AP) course in physics, a course that hadn't been taught at East for about 10 years. If students score well enough on the AP test after taking the class, they can earn college credit. Only two of the students had taken a physics course before.

"That year," he says, "we somehow got under the radar. A lot of people didn't know these students hadn't taken a physics course before. We weren't trying to hide that fact. I just didn't know they had to have taken physics before they took AP physics."

The students did extra study sessions after school, on weekends, and during school vacations. In the end, all five passed and scored well. That year, there were only 10 African-American students in Tennessee -- and only 200 in the U.S. -- who passed the AP physics exam. Most of the others in Tennessee were from private schools.

The next year, bolstered by that group's success, 17 East High students signed up for Henderson's AP physics class. Fifteen of them had never taken physics before, and this time, the class didn't get under the radar. Those 15 students weren't allowed to take the class. The other two couldn't either, because there weren't enough students to make up a class.

A similar situation happened again the next year. "When a junior saw that a senior took this class and passed this class and then when [the junior] wanted to take the class and he couldn't, that basically kills it," says Henderson. "The sophomores don't get to see this year's juniors taking the class and doing the same thing. You basically hold back something that's been successful."

Now Henderson is the driving force behind MASE, one of the three charter schools that will be opening their doors in Memphis next fall. Although he loved working at East, he says his desire to do an even better job is what pushed him toward a charter school.

"It becomes a quagmire of bureaucracy to get anything done that you know will have a tremendous impact," says Henderson. "What attracted me to charter schools was the autonomy from that process."

For many people, the Memphis City Schools hit rock bottom when it was revealed that Memphis had the most schools on the state-identified list of low-performing schools. Outgoing MCS superintendent Johnnie Watson and the school board each have initiatives to bring up test scores. Watson has also made a plea for the community's help.

"In every speech that I've made since being superintendent, I've said that nine members of a board and the superintendent working alone can make very little difference," he said recently. In many ways, people have listened. Not only is the district's "Our Children, Our Future" volunteer tutoring program meeting expectations, but next fall, the community will be involved in opening four new schools, all focused on children in danger of falling through the cracks. Former Craigmont principal and state education commissioner Jane Walters -- along with the Memphis Grizzlies -- will start the Grizzlies Academy, targeting 15- and 16-year-olds who have not passed eighth grade. Additionally, three new charter schools will also open: an elementary school, a middle school, and a high school.

Although charter schools began generating a buzz nationally in the early 1990s, it was not until last summer that the Tennessee legislature made charters an option for the state's students. Dedrick Briggs, executive director of the Tennessee Charter School Resource Center, says that educators stopped seeing charters as a threat and started seeing them as a viable alternative, maybe even a last resort. "It got to the point where there were not many options for schools on the low-performing lists," says Briggs. "I think that prompted everyone to say we need to do something and we need to do it now."

So while most of the district's students are out for the summer, the leaders behind Memphis' three charter schools -- the Memphis Academy of Health Sciences, Circles of Success Learning Academy, and MASE -- will be working feverishly to get their schools off the ground.

"It's a daunting task," says Dr. Jerrie Scott, professor of instruction and curriculum leadership at the University of Memphis and a board member of Circles of Success. "There are so many things that we take for granted that schools have done over the years. If you're starting at the bottom, you have to do it all." The schools have to think about things as complex as creating a record-keeping system and as simple as making sure there are chalkboards in each classroom.

The charter-school legislation passed last year in July, and applications were due to local school boards in November. MASE was easily approved as Tennessee's first charter, but both Circles of Success and the Memphis Academy of Health Sciences were denied the first time and had to amend their charters.

Briggs says he thinks all four charter schools that have been approved for next year -- three in Memphis and one in Nashville -- deserved the go-ahead. "The department of education had the applications out in mid-September and they were due November 15th, so there wasn't a lot of time," says Briggs.

Those involved with the Memphis charters were looking for ways to help local students before the legislation was even passed. Derrick Joyce is the founder of the Memphis Academy of Health Sciences, a middle school in North Memphis. Joyce says that he knows people from his church who work two or three minimum-wage jobs to send their children to private school. "Seventy-five percent of the individuals in North Memphis make an annual household income of $6,000-$7,000. They can't afford to send their children to private schools."

Why would they feel they had to do that? Because all the middle schools in North Memphis are on the state-identified list. "That's why we were watching the legislation," says Joyce. "If all the schools are failing, wouldn't you want another option for your child?"

"It's terribly important that the public school system has everything it needs. It's also terribly important that we step in and shoulder some of the responsibility and are willing to roll up our sleeves and help. That's what public charters can do," he says.

The group decided to start a middle school because they feel many students have trouble adjusting from elementary to high school. They've decided to continue reading classes through eighth grade ("They need it," says Joyce) and to have fewer class-changes than a traditional middle school. The plan also includes a longer school day as well as a year-round calendar. "Why give them two to three months off in the summer?" asks Joyce. "They're not doing anything. They don't have jobs."

Another key component for Joyce is a strong black male presence in the school. The school's sponsor, the 100 Black Men of Memphis organization, currently tutors at Hanley Elementary. Joyce says of the experience: "When we go into schools, students look at us as heroes. They see black men who are wearing suits who aren't preachers. ... What they see is what they'll be."

MASE's Henderson also began contemplating a charter school before the legislation was passed at the state level. At East, Henderson had developed a widely acclaimed and often implemented and copied four-year engineering program. "I knew there was a possibility of charter schools becoming available in Tennessee in the future, so I was putting together an educational program in my mind," he says. He was teaching a summer session at Phillips Exeter Academy when he heard the news. By the time he got back to town in the fall, he had developed an entire program. But there was a snag.

"I was really excited that I could be part of starting a charter school. I did my research and I found out that to actually start a charter you have to [be a nonprofit organization]. Well, this is August and to start a [nonprofit] takes six months, so I was looking at the fact that, okay, it looks like I'm not going to start a charter school."

Luckily, he got hooked up with the Memphis Biotech Foundation. The foundation wanted to start a school but had not developed a curriculum. Then they heard about Henderson.

"They were talking about biotechnology and we're talking about creating a school based on science, engineering, mathematics, and technology," says Henderson. "It just meshed very well together. It was a perfect marriage."

The third charter school is Circles of Success, an elementary school aimed at catching students it says are "at risk of failing in a traditional setting." Last January the group received a grant from the Hyde Family Foundation to research the problem. They visited two charter schools in Detroit, one a for-profit school run by "edupreneur" and charter conglomerate Edison, the other a grassroots community effort.

The charter schools pose an interesting contrast. The city schools have instituted a districtwide curriculum in hopes of solving their problems. In his vision for one consolidated school system, city mayor Willie Herenton has also sopken highly of a systemwide curriculum. The charter schools are taking a completely different tack.

Through its research, for instance, Circles of Success decided that at-risk children were not connecting with what they were learning and thus were not as likely to retain it.

"A lot of times, children who are at-risk come from lower socioeconomic groups and their own prior knowledge and experiences and culture are not represented," says Scott. "Therefore, there's simply no way for them to make a link because all the stuff in the materials doesn't consider their experiences."

To combat the problem, Circles of Success will arrange the lessons into themes across subject areas, so a lesson learned in science will also be taught from a social-studies perspective. The school is also looking at how to get parents more involved, from enrolling them in GED programs to having them work with their children at home.

"We want to build what we call a two-way bridge between teachers and parents," says Scott. "The prevalent model is that teachers tell parents how to do what teachers do in school." Instead, Scott says the teachers should know what happens naturally at home and tell parents how to use those things to teach. "People who have a limited formal education may not be excellent readers and writers, but those people cook. Everybody cooks," says Scott. "We're looking to show parents how to turn natural things into learning experiences. Cooking can become a math lesson or a reading lesson."

If they can't get parents involved, Circles of Success has come up with the idea of "surrogates." "Those people, we would expect to do the same kinds of things the parents would do when the need arises," says Scott. "We expect them to attend parent conferences, we expect them to take the children to suggested events or to the library."

At MASE, students will be immersed in science and engineering, although they'll also have activity periods such as student council or drama. Seventh- and eighth-graders will have class from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; 9th- and 10th-graders will be in school from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and 11th- and 12th-graders will be there from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

"As the students get older, they'll want to have more time to actually be able to utilize the facilities in the research park [at the Biotech Foundation]," says Henderson. "They'll also want to have internships with some of the professionals in the research park and all around the city. By releasing them, we give them an opportunity to use that time to work with a research scientist. Believe it or not, those are the partnerships we're putting together right now."

In fact, partnerships are a key part of Memphis' new educational landscape. The Hyde Family Foundation has provided financial assistance to all the new charters and was the impetus for bringing KIPP to Memphis two years ago. The Grizzlies and Jane Walters are certainly an impressive combination.

Though the Grizzlies Academy is not a charter school, it was approved by the Memphis board of education as a break-the-mold school. Its 40 students will attend class in the Pepper Building at the corner of Poplar and Second.

"[The Grizzlies] came to me and said they were going to put a good deal of money into the school system," says Walters. "We just talked about a variety of possibilities. ... They were committed to being in the schools, and this was just another program they thought would be helpful." The school district will pay for what it would at any other school, and the Grizzlies will pick up the tab for things such as keeping the students for dinner two nights a week, extra tutoring, or the weeklong retreat out of the city before school starts. The main goal of the school is to graduate these behind-grade-level students as quickly as possible and with a degree that will allow them to do whatever they want after high school.

"There are things you can do in a small setting that you can't do in a large setting. When you have 40 kids instead of 400, you can literally put them in one room and eyeball them if you have to," says Walters. "If you have two absent, you can get in your car and go to two houses and knock on the door." And don't think she won't. Walters says if students play hooky, she'll be their worst nightmare. "I'm not a nice person. I don't mean no child will ever be absent because there will be children who are sick. But just to be absent because you'd rather sleep? No. No, no, no."

It's not just the Grizzlies who have volunteered to help out. "I was stunned by the calls and the letters I've gotten. They've come from young, old, black, white, rich, poor. They've all said basically, 'I'll be there,'" says Walters. "I think you have to realize that for the great majority of young people in Memphis, the city schools are their only option. They would like [the school system] to be as good as possible."

Teresa Sloyan of the Hyde Family Foundation says that the charters have also found a lot of community support. "In a lot of cases, they really need that volunteer support to succeed and you see them seeking it out and really wanting to develop partnerships, whether it's with corporations in town or individuals who have expressed an interest."

Though local low-performing schools won't let charters "recruit" at their schools, Henderson doesn't see himself -- or any charter -- in competition with the local district. In fact, his aim is to help.

"If these charter schools are successful at showing how you can do things better, how you can be more effective in educating students, it's beneficial to the entire system," says Henderson.

Scott agrees and says that the goal of Circles of Success is to find out what works with the at-risk student population and share that information with public schools. "We're not trying to do a public-school bashing campaign," she says. "The benefit is essentially this: There are some children in the traditional setting who are, because of their special needs, unable to get those needs met. They also make it difficult for teachers to meet the needs of the other students. We feel if we can pull those children out, it's a benefit to the entire school."

Of course, first the charters have to prove that their methods are working the same way any other school has to: test scores. Dedrick Briggs at the Charter School Resource Center says that it's important that charters succeed, if only because there are so many people waiting for them to fail. The burden to have good test scores in the charters is no different from other schools.

"Because of No Child Left Behind [the widespread educational reform created by President George W. Bush], there are serious consequences for schools that don't improve, so [the burden of improving test scores] is not greater, but there's definitely a sense of urgency and more motivation to do that," says Briggs. Charters are more immediately connected to their performance, meaning they have to succeed to stay open. "Not only are charter schools accountable to the state, they're also accountable to the parents," says Briggs. "If the parents are not comfortable with your school, they'll transfer their children. If you have a charter school with no students, you no longer have a school." There are more than 40 groups currently interested in applying for charters for the 2004-2005 school year.

As part of a partnership with the Hyde Family Foundation, the University of Memphis' Steve Ross will also be conducting a study on the implementation progress and outcome of the Memphis charters.

And while most people are optimistic about the area's four new schools, not everyone is without worry. The stakes are too high, both for the schools and the students they serve.

"Sometimes I lie awake at night," says Walters, "and think, You're an old woman. What have you promised?" n

Charter Schools: a quick and easy primer

The basic premise behind charter schools is a sort of marriage between private and public schools. Charters get public moneys -- the same local and state per-pupil amount as the local school system -- but are run independently by sponsoring organizations.

A group, such as 100 Black Men of Memphis, gets together and decides they want to start a school. They then submit an application to the local district, providing in great detail their plans for running the school and educating students. The Tennessee law is geared especially toward students who attend state-identified low-performing schools and prohibits any "for profit" schools.

When charter schools began mushrooming across the country in the early to mid-1990s, they were seen as the next best hope for education. Not all of them have worked out that way, but they have given rise to a whole new culture in education. The first charter law was passed in Minnesota in 1991, and since then, everyone from groups of parents unhappy with their public school choices to so-called edupreneurs like Edison (with 150 schools in 20 states) have opened up charters around the country. -- MC

Keep the Flyer Free!

Always independent, always free (never a paywall),
the Memphis Flyer is your source for the best in local news and information.

Now we want to expand and enhance our work.
That's why we're asking you to join us as a Frequent Flyer member.

You'll get membership perks (find out more about those here) and help us continue to deliver the independent journalism you've come to expect.

Add a comment