After a troubled Memphis charter school shut down last week, the burden of finding a new school before the fall semester is left to 150 students and their families.
Gateway University High School, open for just two years, finished its last semester of operation on Thursday. Seven Tennessee Board of Education members voted in April to uphold the Shelby County school board’s decision to close the charter school after a Chalkbeat investigation found the administration falsified grades, improperly employed uncertified teachers, and awarded credits for a geometry class that did not exist.
Following Chalkbeat’s reporting, Shelby County Schools launched its own seven-month investigation and voted in late January to close Gateway. The district investigation found that the school’s leaders mismanaged the school and intentionally misled the district.
Now that Gateway is officially closed, parents and students are left to find a new high school. Many are headed to their zoned neighborhood schools, but others are continuing to search for other options. Some are still upset that the school closed at all.
Sheris Richmond is the aunt and stepmother of four students who attended Gateway University for two years, and she said she still supports the vision of the school’s founders but acknowledges some change may have been needed.
“[The school board] should have sent in a new team to make Gateway what it should have been instead of closing it down,” said Richmond, who works as a youth minister in Orange Mound. “If they see what these kids go through in their neighborhoods, they wouldn’t be so quick to shut schools like this one down. It’s like throwing the kids back into the lion’s den of these neighborhoods.”
Gateway University was originally housed in the suburb of Bartlett before the district forced school leaders to relocate within district boundaries last summer. Richmond said she encouraged children she knew to go to Gateway because the school provided transportation and offered an option outside of students’ neighborhood schools, which Richmond said can be unsafe and too big.
Now, Richmond said, her four students are planning on attending the traditional schools that they are zoned to within Shelby County Schools, instead of seeking out different charter school options. These schools include Central High School, Melrose High School, and Manassas High School.
These students’ choices are indicative of a larger trend, said Renee Smith, the director of choice counseling for Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy group that offers support to families looking for school options.
“When schools close, especially newer charters, we see students going back to the schools within the neighborhood,” said Smith, adding that she tried to visit Gateway before the year ended to offer support, but school leaders didn’t make time. She said that she has been in contact with a few Gateway families who were already connected to Memphis Lift.
During the April state Board of Education meeting, board member Lillian Hartgrove said that it was unfortunate Memphis students and parents had to endure another school closure. In February, the board affirmed the Memphis district’s closure of City Boys University Preparatory charter school at the end of the school year.
“This affects those children who have been taken out of their previous environment and put in this one; every time this happens we’re putting children in the middle of all this,” Hartgrove said. “Everyone has to do their due diligence, but charter schools should be ready and prepared so we’re not put in this position.”
Maquete Jones is also a former Gateway student likely headed back to a neighborhood school. He said he was at Gateway for his ninth and tenth grade year, and felt his teachers “were cool and honest.”
“I’m not sure where I’ll go yet,” Maquete said. “Probably Craigmont or Kingsbury [high schools] because they’re close to where I live.”
Regardless of where students land, Gateway’s trajectory and eventual closure has created disruption in their lives. Both Maquete and Richmond said the school year became somber after the announcement was made in April that the school would officially close.
“The passion for the school changed because it was closing down,” Richmond said. “Everyone could feel that.”
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