By Jane Roberts, The Commercial Appeal
Three Memphis charter schools could be forced to close as early as this summer for poor academic performance, displacing as many as 1,475 students and sending shock waves through the city's young charter network.
The schools are Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering in the Medical Center area, Promise Academy in North Memphis and the middle school at Memphis Business Academy in Frayser.
Without a waiver for the schools from the federal government, the city school board could be asked to decide as early as August whether to shut them down.
"I would say it's very likely at this point," said Memphis City Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash, who would have to make the recommendation to close the schools. "My concern is by the time [the appeals are heard], we are at the start of school. For me, it is unfair to parents and students to get late notification."
If Cash recommends the schools be given another year, he says they face an uphill battle because "it's very improbable they can make it even next year, given where they are at the present time."
In Tennessee, which has the strictest charter accountability laws in the nation, charters can be closed after two years of failing to make adequate academic progress.
Other states give charter schools up to nine years to improve.
The decision to close will be based on state tests students took this past spring. Individual schools' scores are embargoed until early August, giving MCS and the state board of education time to sift through anomalies.
Charter school leaders say an error in even one student's score could turn the tide under "safe harbor" provisions, which allow schools to show academic progress if 10 percent of students made gains.
"The conversation is so fragile that no end results have been determined yet," said Anthony Anderson, head of Memphis Business Academy, which opened in 2004.
But his middle school staff left for the summer knowing the school was in trouble.
Promise Academy leaders said they too are on the closure list because the state's grading formula automatically includes a fifth-grade writing assessment in an elementary school's TCAP scores, even though they have no fifth-graders. The school, which opened in 2004, is in the old Hollywood Elementary School.
"We were the only K-4 school in Memphis," said Charles Gerber, chairman of the Promise board. "Last year, we missed [adequate yearly progress] by one tenth of 1 percent in reading. The average contribution from the writing test would be 10 points.
"It's kind of like taking the SAT and only getting credit for half the score."
Matt Throckmorton, executive director of Tennessee Charter Schools Association, is advocating at the state level for Promise, and says Memphis charters deserve special attention because they were forced to operate in an unstable financial climate created by the city withholding money and confusion over whether charters would even exist in a city-county schools merger.
At Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering, Bioworks Foundation leader Steve Bares said the city's oldest charter school, which opened in 2003, lost $350,000 in 2008-09 alone. That year, the City Council cut funding for education, creating a financial shortfall that has required Bioworks, the charter's sponsor, to step in several times to cover the school's payroll.
"Obviously, when you withhold money, it's hard to do things," Bares said, adding that he hopes "logical heads will prevail" in the closure issue.
In March, city schools leaders ordered each of the three charters to complete a contingency plan "that provides details for closing the school," including provisions for securing and returning student records.
The city school board has not been in this position since 2007, when it revoked the charter of Yo! Academy a week after school started for poor math scores.
The situation could be remedied if Tennessee receives a No Child Left Behind waiver from the U.S. Department of Education.
The NCLB law has been in the process of being rewritten since 2007. In the meantime, Tennessee and other states have raised academic expectations dramatically but have not been given more time to get 100 percent of students to proficiency.
Under NCLB, states have until 2014 to get all students to proficiency.
"We all know we are living in a very, very uncertain environment," Bares said. "... You are going to see that lots of schools are going to miss AYP this year. And next year, you are going to have a lot more that are going to do it again. Are we going to close every one? I don't think so."
Last week, Gov. Bill Haslam said he was considering seeking a federal waiver, while Montana, Idaho and South Dakota have said they do not intend to follow the federal law's mandates.
Contact Commercial Appeal staff writer Jane Roberts at 901-529-2512.