A fourth charter operator has pulled out of an agreement to take over a low-performing school as part of Tennessee's Achievement School District. This cancellation has a particularly personal sting for the ASD's superintendent.
YES Prep is walking away, after more than a year of legwork.
The Houston-based charter operator was supposed to take over a Memphis middle school one grade at a time starting in the fall. But headwinds kicked up. For instance, Shelby County Schools now refuses to cooperate with takeovers unless the charter assumes responsibility for an entire school at once. YES Prep’s Bill Durbin says his model doesn’t work like that.
“We weren’t going to come in and run one school that couldn’t be sustainable and take an experiment on the backs of Memphis kids," he says. "That’s just not OK.”
And then there’s the money. The Achievement School District has run out of Race to the Top funding. It will start charging a 2.5 percent fee to its charter schools to pay for running a central office. That cuts into what a charter can use to pay teacher salaries.
While not the only charter operator to back out of an agreement to take over a school, YES Prep is the first to completely leave Tennessee.* Others still run schools in Memphis.
"It's just a real head-scratcher for me," ASD superintendent Chris Barbic says.
This is the charter organization Barbic founded — the reason Gov. Bill Haslam picked him to be the ASD’s founding leader.
Barbic says his former colleagues knew taking over a school on behalf of the state would be hard.
“That probably sounded good and fun, and then when you get into it, you find out that it’s really hard," Barbic says. "Not everyone is cut out for that.”
Barbic says the school turnaround business is always “a little messy” and involves some risk of failure. YES Prep officials say they must have a lower tolerance for risk.
"YES Prep is not afraid to do the tough work and work with the most needy students,” Durbin says. "This is a responsible decision made to not take risks that were ultimately going to impact students in Memphis."
*Added at 9:50 a.m. for clarity.