KIPP Memphis leader discusses his vision for the city’s oldest charter network

By Samantha West
KIPP Memphis CEO Antonio Burt chats with students in a hallway.

KIPP, a national nonprofit network of tuition-free, public charter schools, opened its first Memphis school in 2002, promising families a new, “joyful, academically excellent” educational option.

KIPP Memphis now serves nearly 1,800 students across five North Memphis area schools — and has become known as the city’s oldest and longest-standing charter network.

But in recent years, it has faced numerous challenges, from school closures and low academic performance to high turnover among leadership and teaching staff.

KIPP Memphis grew to seven schools by the beginning of 2020, only to close two schools in South Memphis later that year, citing financial hardships and unsatisfactory academic progress.

Earlier this year, the network narrowly avoided having to shutter two other schools due to low academic performance. Memphis-Shelby County Schools board members said they wanted to give the network “an opportunity to prove themselves” under new leadership.

For 2021-22, three of five KIPP Memphis schools received the state’s highest rating for academic growth as measured by year-end testing under the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System.

As KIPP Memphis celebrates its 20th anniversary, CEO Antonio Burt thinks the charter network is on its way to “finding our sweet spot” in Memphis’ changing educational landscape after the pandemic.

“I think it’s a time of great opportunity for us — a time for us to say, 20 years later, we’re now stronger than ever,” said Burt, who is beginning his first full school year after becoming CEO in November. “We look forward to taking that momentum and furthering and continuing to bolster our plan.”

Burt came to KIPP after serving as Memphis-Shelby County Schools’ chief of schools. Before that, he oversaw all the district’s lowest performing and struggling schools as an assistant superintendent, and earned national acclaim for turning two low-performing Memphis schools into models of student achievement.

He sat down with Chalkbeat for a one-on-one interview earlier this summer to reflect on his first partial year heading KIPP Memphis, share the network’s new “Back to Basics” theme, and discuss his vision for this school year and beyond.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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