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    New Memphis charter school leaders dedicated, savvy, supported

    Expansion of eligibility for new schools in Tennessee is an opening for experienced organizers

    PHOTO BY BRANDON DILL
    Omni Prep Academies co-founders Marc Willis (left) and Cary Booker will cap recruitment at 80 students per grade in their initial two charter schools, and plan to open more schools across the city.

    By Jane Roberts - The Commercial Appeal

    Saturday, March 6, 2010

    In the eight years since the first charter school was approved in Memphis, what it takes to get approved has changed dramatically.

    Church groups and neighborhood activists still apply, but increasingly the winning applications are from people who've spent years studying successful models, or who came up through the charter ranks.

    Cary Booker, a Jersey-speaking Amherst grad whose younger brother is Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker, defines the new breed.

    "A lot of what's driving education reform these days is really a resurgence of commitment to our kids," Booker says.

    Booker and Marc Willis, son of Memphis civil rights leader A.W. Willis, met a decade ago when Booker was assistant professor of education at LeMoyne-Owen College.

    He left Memphis in 2002 to become associate dean for academic affairs at Rutgers University-Newark.

    When the Soulsville Charter School opened in 2005, Willis recruited Booker for the school's board, telling him that their life's work was in Memphis, fighting poverty, one child at a time.

    "Marc and I have kept up a now-decadelong conversation on education and poverty and what they mean in juxtaposition to each other," says Booker, 42, who returned in 2007 to be Soulsville's chancellor.

    Last year, Booker and Willis left Soulsville to start Omni Schools, a charter company approved to open two schools in the fall -- a first in Memphis.

    And, for the first time, every charter applicant approved by the Memphis Board of Education to open this fall either has charter-school experience or is tied to a national group with the acumen and financial backing to produce strong applicants.

    Building Excellent Schools, backed by the Walton Family Foundation, offers 12-month paid fellowships to people who want to run inner-city charter schools.

    Michael Whaley, a 2006 Teach for America corpsman in Memphis, completed his fellowship a year ago and has been approved to open Memphis College Prep Elementary.

    Ditto for Tim Ware, set to open Veritas College Preparatory Charter School in Orange Mound.

    Texas-based Cosmos Foundation will open Memphis School of Excellence.

    Willis and Booker expect to open Omni Prep Academy South Pointe Lower School and Omni Prep Academy South Pointe Middle School in South Memphis.

    "I daresay applications that would have made it in 2002 wouldn't likely make it now," said Charisse Sales, coordinator of the charter office in Memphis City Schools.

    While she says churches and grassroots groups can still get approved (100 Black Men of Memphis runs Memphis Academy for Health Sciences), "sponsorship is more than saying 'we support you.' It's absolutely monetary."

    Between now and July, Willis and Booker need to find a building, hire staff, buy books and materials, and recruit their first students.

    They intend to cap recruitment at 80 students per grade, and plan to open more schools across the city.

    KIPP Diamond charter, which intends to expand next year, has the same idea.

    "We're not going to just grow single schools. We are trying to grow regions of schools," said Steven Mancini, KIPP's national spokesman.

    Memphis is now very attractive to KIPP and other national firms because of changes in eligibility laws that doubled the number of eligible students to 80,000, putting the city in the 25 fastest-growing charter school markets in the nation.

    If all 22 charters in Memphis open at full capacity in the fall, charter enrollment will jump 53 percent to 5,818.

    For Booker, the growth is a sign of maturing attitudes about charter schools.

    "The charter law in Tennessee has gone through the inaugural phase," he said.

    "Now the larger discussion is about quality educational options for regular folks who want public education."

    -- Jane Roberts: 529-2512