Charter Schools, MNPS Kick Off Pre-Season Charter Spat

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More than a month before their applications are due, eight groups went to bat against Metro School officials explaining why they want to open a new charter school in the district come 2015.

Charter schools went 5-for-8 Monday, with school officials considering five applications close to complying with their new policy narrowing the types of charters it wants, two applicants disregarding the policy and a third looking questionable.

“I think on balance, this is a really positive day and we’re seeing the fruits of what have been some really, really difficult conversations,” said school board member Will Pinkston, a vocal critic of the charter school community who spearheaded the new policy.

One of the two proposals not falling within the district’s new policy is STRIVE Collegiate Academy, a proposed middle school in the McGavock cluster meant to address growing population needs in an area where school population is beginning to bubble up. It’s a school backed by the Tennessee Charter School Center, which runs an incubator program helping future school leaders craft applications.

Pinkston called the proposal “wildly out of line” with the new policy and a direct move by the center to butt heads with the district.

“On the one hand, we’ve basically got an overcrowding crisis brewing in South Nashville,” said Pinkston. “On the other hand, you’ve got the Tennessee Charter School Center that just flat out doesn’t care about helping address the situation and instead wants to keep adding cost and capacity in areas where it’s not needed. Textbook case of a bad actor.”

STRIVE Collegiate Academy would give families more options in an area of town with its own academic struggles, said Greg Thompson, the center’s chief executive officer who defended the application.

“At the end of the day, students and parents are the people we’re trying to serve, not the school board. We respect them and we want to collaborate with them,” said Thompson, “but I just think at the end of the day we have to make student achievement the top priority for us in where to put a school.”

In the ongoing rivalry over the role of charter schools in Metro Nashville, the rules are changing. This year, the school board is requiring charter school hopefuls to focus their applications on new schools addressing overpopulation in South Nashville or taking over schools the district considers persistently failing. The district is also entertaining applications by proven existing charters wanting to continue their programs, like by opening up corresponding high schools.

This meeting to preview applications included charter school leaders with some of the highest batting averages, like KIPP director Randy Dowell who wants to convert a struggling elementary school in East or North Nashville — an area charter school critics argue is oversaturated with charters. They also threw in Kristin McGraner who wants to set up a high school for her STEM Prep. The line-up also included the International Academy of Excellence, Knowledge Academies High School, plus two more schools for Rocketship, a charter group about to open its first school next school year. District officials consider these five applications close to complying to their new policy.

The final questionable school proposal is for Valor Collegiate Academy Southeast, another school backed by the Center. The proposal is led by Todd Dickson with with Pinkston’s former Bredesen administration commissioner and colleague David Goetz as head of the charter’s school board.

While the hearings featured questions from several school board members and district officials, full applications aren’t due until April 1 and district recommendations to the school board won’t come until the summer, said Alan Coverstone who oversees the district’s charter schools.

“It’s way too early for red flags, they’ve got a couple months,” said Coverstone.

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