Frayser Charter Seeks to Take Over Humes Prep Academy

By Bill Dries

Bobby White admits Humes Preparatory Academy is a “challenging situation.”

“The trajectory is upward,” Frayser Community Schools executive director Bobby White said Wednesday, Jan. 11, of Humes Preparatory Middle School. “We want to come in and continue and catapult that.” 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

“But it’s a situation that is manageable,” he told a group of 40 people in the auditorium of the North Memphis school Wednesday, Jan. 11.

White – the co-founder and CEO of Frayser Community Schools, the charter operator that runs Martin Luther King Jr. College Preparatory High for the state-run Achievement School District – acknowledged the low enrollment at Humes, currently operated by Gestalt Community Schools.

That low enrollment – around 300 students – prompted Gestalt to announce in October that it would pull out of Humes and Klondike Preparatory Academy – both in North Memphis and both part of the ASD – at the end of the current academic year.

The ASD is a turn-around district for schools in the bottom 5 percent statewide in terms of student achievement.

Gestalt has operated Humes Prep since the ASD began in 2012. Klondike was added to the district the following school year.

Gestalt also started and still operates the Power Center Academy schools in Hickory Hill outside the Achievement School District

No charter operator applied to take on Klondike. Parents of students there learned this week that the school will close at the end of the current academic year and its students will be zoned to nearby Vollentine Elementary, part of the Shelby County Schools system.

The crowd at the Klondike town hall meeting Monday was a bit larger and the mood much different. ASD superintendent Malika Anderson told parents there that the district and Gestalt are operating in an inner-city environment common to SCS and others educators.

“There are too many schools,” she said, adding the goal is to build “mightier, stronger schools.”

Tosha Downey, a community activist in the audience Monday, agreed, citing the street she grew up on in South Memphis.

“There are two houses on our block and three schools in our neighborhood,” she said, mentioning Shelby Count Schools’ closure of Carver High last year.

“Somebody needs to put the numbers up,” Downey said. “We were at Carver doing this last year. … You have a high school with 190 kids. With $8,500 per student, you can’t run all the English classes, math classes and science classes with those dollars.”

The dollar amount is the amount of state funding awarded per student.

Frayser Community Schools was the only charter operator that applied to take over at Humes, which will remain part of the Achievement School District next year if its application is approved by the ASD.

Frayser Community Schools executive director Bobby White speaks at a town hall meeting at Humes Prepatory Academy on Wednesday, Jan. 11.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

ASD officials are evaluating the application. The Wednesday town hall, which included questions from the ASD board, was part of the process. The district will announce its decision by the end of January.

White, a veteran educator and principal in the old Memphis City Schools system who also was a leader of the Tennessee Charter School Resource Center before starting the charter company, said he hopes to grow Humes’ attendance beyond its current 300 students.

But he also said Humes is different than the old Frayser High School he took over three years ago and renamed MLK Prep.

“Gestalt has operated this school at a high level,” White said. “The trajectory is upward. And we want to come in and continue and catapult that and help take that to the heights that they intended it to be had they been able to continue to operate.”

White touts enrollment gains at MLK Prep, which currently has 633 students in grades 9-12. Expulsions and suspensions are down. The school has gone from an overall growth score of Level 1 to Level 4, the highest level, in the most recent Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System standards. And like Gestalt, White’s organization is local.

Different schools for different grades mean different approaches said Kimberly Hopkins-Clark, the curriculum and instruction director for Frayser Community Schools and principal at MLK Prep.

She and White said Humes principal John Crutchfield will remain in that position and that the two charter operators are already working to rehire many of Humes’ teachers under Gestalt before they get offers from other schools.

“I have committed to this community,” Crutchfield said as he talked of trying to keep much of the faculty, despite Frayser Community Schools having a slightly lower pay scale compared to Gestalt.

“There is a purpose in the work we do that is beyond money,” Crutchfield said. “I don’t think educators get into it for the money, and if you did, I’m sorry for you.”

White’s return to Frayser High, the school he graduated from in 1990, came with a heavy dose of what he calls “old school” philosophy about education. But he also felt it was necessary to change the name of the school to shake its association with media reports of a high percentage of teenage pregnancy and other problems.

As part of Memphis City Schools, White faced the same kind of image problems when he became principal of Westside Middle. Once a high school, the death of a student in a school bathroom as part of a gang initiation had created a stigma White acknowledged and worked against in convincing parents to send their younger children to Westside.

Frayser High was one of the first two high schools the ASD took over, and it is in an area that the ASD initially focused on when it began in 2012 because Frayser had the highest concentration of schools in the bottom 5 percent statewide. The ASD chose to run directly elementary and middle schools in the Frayser High feeder pattern.

“I don’t think I ever imagined how much mediocrity and failure can become the norm and how folk can believe that it’s OK,” White said Wednesday of the general lessons he’s learned since the start of MLK Prep in August 2014. “And how you have to dig deep and often make enemies to help folk to understand that’s not right.”