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VOL. 128 | NO. 19 | Tuesday, January 29, 2013

First Charter School Faces Renewal

By Bill Dries

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Countywide school board members make a decision Tuesday, Jan. 29, about the future of the first charter school in the city as well as in the state.

The Memphis City Schools administration is recommending the board not renew the charter of the Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering for another 10 years.

The school opened in 2003 with a seventh grade and is currently a grades 6-12 school drawing several hundred students from across the city.

The board’s debate and decision is likely to hinge on the specifics of MASE’s drop in math scores at a time when state student performance standards began to change. MASE fell to the state’s bottom 5 percent schools by those standards.

Based on last week’s school board discussion at a work session, where the students from the charter school would go if it were closed also probably will be a factor.

“Any decision to close MASE has to take the students in mind. … Eighty percent of those middle school students that would now have to go find a school would go back to their zoned school and would be lower-performing schools than MASE,” said Steve Bares, chairman of the school’s board of directors. “One of the first rules is do no harm. We don’t believe that is logical in any way.”

School system administrators admit that the academy improved its math achievement test scores and has showed growth. But so did conventional schools.

“The charter schools should be leading the way in innovation and excellence. It’s a failing school. They made nice growth, but so did the whole district,” said Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash. “It needs to be oxymoronic to be a charter and be a failing school.”

“Any decision to close MASE has to take the students in mind.”

–Steve Bares, chairman of MASE board of directors

Cash tried to convince the state-run Achievement School District to take over MASE.

Bares acknowledges the academy had a rough transition three years ago that it could have handled better.

“We lost a lot of teachers, had a big transition and there were some personnel issues that were all at one time that had to be overcome. All that occurred for us in 2008,” Bares said. “We didn’t handle it perfectly in 2009. The question is, do we get up and fix it and turn it around? And that’s what we did. We didn’t wait for somebody to tell us.”

The changes include a faculty who are all levels 3-5 teachers by state evaluation standards, which are the four highest ratings.

Bares also argues that just as the school conquered its “average yearly progress” deficiencies and “blew the doors” off those student achievement standards, new standards began to apply and judged MASE as a high school instead of a combination middle and high school.

“Because it’s both a middle and a high school they rank MASE not only with the three-year average but they aggregate that all into place and rank MASE against high schools, which inherently puts any school in that situation at a disadvantage,” he said.

Cash was unsympathetic saying he believes MASE is likely to remain in the bottom 5 percent and that is not acceptable for a charter school.

But some board members are undecided.

“To me, the mark of a good teacher is not in the number of children or entities that don’t succeed,” said school board member Sarah Lewis. “It is what you do to help them succeed. Where would these children go so they could get this same kind of focus and instruction? Right now, I am conflicted about this decision. I’m not certain what else could have been done.”

“These test scores seem to reflect good leadership, great teaching and good student achievement,” said school board member Oscar Love.

School board member Mary Anne Gibson also gave MASE credit for acting on a problem.

“We have to respond, I do believe that,” she added. “But I don’t want to set a precedent for 80 percent of those students who would have to go to underperforming schools.”

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