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If charter schools are the future of Nashville education, they deserve a closer look

The Charters are Coming

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Late last year, the Wednesday night before Christmas, architect Jim Hastings and his wife Stephanie hosted a cocktail party at their Belle Meade home. An open bar sat near the grand piano in their two-story living room, while guests snacked on finger food.

Those assembled, however, had more on their minds than Christmas cheer as the lights dimmed. The focus was a slide show that outlined the vision for something unprecedented in Nashville public education — a charter school located not beside low-income communities in East or North Nashville, but near a well-to-do neighborhood on the city's west side.

Guests marveled at the proposed curriculum, at the possibility of rigorous yet free schooling for their children. There was, however, one small but telling moment. The presentation displayed a slide containing the words, "Not everyone could afford a private school." Only the slide got stuck — leaving the guests to stand around awkwardly, holding their drinks.

It was perhaps the only glitch in an evening full of optimism. But it crystallized the unlimited hopes as well as the greatest concerns surrounding charter schools, the model likely to galvanize Nashville public education in the coming decade.

Over the next five years — and many years to come — charter schools will proliferate all across Nashville. Under the charter model, independent operators open their own schools and get funding from the local school district, pending approval of its school board.

This allows them a flexibility traditional public schools don't have, in everything from teacher qualifications t o fundraising. In another break with public education, parents choose to enroll their children, although their education is still free. Funded by public money but run by private boards with a high level of autonomy — and in some glaring cases, not a lot of accountability — charter schools presently have steadfast allies in every branch of government.

In the GOP-led General Assembly, lawmakers have been avidly rewriting state charter laws, creating ideal conditions for charters to thrive. Not long ago, charter schools could only accept students who failed certain standardized tests. After steamrolling opposition from the statewide teacher's union, however, lawmakers have opened up charter school enrollment to nearly all children — a prospect that intrigues middle-class parents as well as those considering a tuition check to Harpeth Hall or Ensworth.

Republicans are hardly the only ones to contract charter fever. No less a liberal than President Barack Obama has encouraged the charter school push with his administration's Race to the Top initiative. A funding competition designed to jump-start education reform, Race to the Top rewarded Tennessee with more than $500 million — at least partly thanks to the state's charter-friendly policies and laws.

These policies are also arriving on the local level. After nearly taking over the school district early in his first term, Mayor Karl Dean decided instead to help round up private donations for an initiative called the Tennessee Charter School Incubator. With a mission to support and fund up to 20 college-preparatory charter schools in Nashville and Memphis, the incubator has been busy incubating.

Last year, the incubator helped launch two new local charters, Nashville Prep and Liberty Collegiate. Then, in January, the relatively new organization hired Todd Dickson, a charter school superstar from California, to develop what it hopes is the first of many such public academies in Nashville.

Currently Nashville has 11 charters, with four new ones approved — two of which, Boys Prep and Knowledge Academy, are slated to open next year. In addition, several charter management organizations, including Great Hearts Academies, have announced plans to open as many as 10 charter schools each.     

Nashville legislators and now parents are starting to believe in charter schools as more than just an alternative. They see charters as a new model of education. Given as favorable a political climate as they will ever enjoy, charter schools now stand to propagate throughout the city, altering the DNA of the district like a heavy dose of gene therapy.

But as with any course of treatment, the options and outcomes need to be examined. Charter school advocates see a broken public-education system in need of flexible methods but increased academic rigor. They hope not only to serve low-income families, but also to re-engage upper-class parents who've opted for exclusive private academies — or bolted to the sprawling subdivisions of Williamson County.

Critics, however, worry that the sudden push for charters is coming at the cost of thorough scrutiny. They point to shaky early experiments in Nashville's school system, and voice the concern that future charters may find ways to distance themselves — literally and figuratively — from poor neighborhoods. The result, they argue, would be essentially to offer well-off kids a private-school education on the public's dime and resegregate the city into pockets of privilege — while leaving the rest of Middle Tennessee's students to languish in already struggling public schools.

But advocates and critics of charter schools agree on one thing: Whether you believe that teachers' unions are deliberately thwarting progress, as the 2010 advocacy doc Waiting for "Superman" argued — or that public school teachers face staggering obstacles of poverty and lack of parent involvement in their overcrowded classrooms, as the unions shot back — the status quo cannot continue.

And so all eyes face the front of the room, where charters have moved to the head of the class.

The enthusiasm for charter schools is a relatively recent development. The old way of thinking about charters was that they had only a small role to play in public education. Maybe they could enroll a few kids who weren't served by local public schools. Maybe charters could even serve as role models — "exemplars" in education parlance — by showing district administrators which reforms work and which ones don't.

Those limited expectations now seem a thing of the past.

"Nashville is poised to develop and attract several charter management organizations that could each operate five to 10 high-performing public charter schools within the next several years," says Nashville private investor Bill DeLoache, who serves on the board of the Tennessee Charter School Incubator and is part of a group pursuing the possibility of a charter school on Nashville's affluent west side. (Full disclosure: Aiding that effort is Townes Duncan, the managing partner for Solidus Co. and president of the board of SouthComm, the parent company of the Nashville Scene. Both Duncan and DeLoache attended the Hastings' charter school get-together, as did SouthComm CEO and former Metro Councilman Chris Ferrell.) 

"Taken together, they could deliver a high-quality education to a very significant percentage of Nashville's students. Charter schools can serve as far more than just exemplars."

Under open enrollment, some hope a free market for education will evolve, prompting public schools to keep up or go the way of Lehman Brothers. The district's own traditional schools consistently settle among the worst in Tennessee, which itself ranks 46th in math proficiency and 41st in reading, according to the state's own reports.

But even though the state's low education rankings just happen to correlate neatly with how much money it sends to the classroom — 46th in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — charter school supporters say that their movement, not more money, is what can spur traditional schools to improve.

"What you want with choice is for the good schools to thrive and the bad schools to go away," says former Nashville Scene editor and publisher Bruce Dobie, who is now active in the charter school movement. "Let the parents decide which schools stay in business — and if that sounds like a Republican thing to say, then so be it."

Metro Nashville Public Schools board member Mark North adopts a more limited view of charters, saying that a free market approach could devolve into a free-for-all system segregated along race and class lines.

"If they're done right, charter schools will fill a niche — and it may be a niche that is perpetually needed — but there is a finite number for the need," North says. "The plan can't be for charter schools to replace public schools. That's not going to work."

Meanwhile, embattled teachers' unions point to studies such as Mathematica Policy Research's 2010 findings, which show that charter schools as a whole have not demonstrated better results educating kids than the much-derided public school system. They also point to Nashville's decidedly mixed charter school track record to date, which varies school to school from dramatic improvements to sub-par test scores and outright closings.

"The whole charter school movement seems to be a political one — that charter schools are good, public schools are bad — and that is not the case," says Stephen Henry, president of the Metropolitan Nashville Education Association. "Despite success that some charter schools have reported, we have found that when those students come back to the public schools — for whatever reason — they are not any more advanced, and in some cases there is some remediation that needs to happen."

With both sides citing evidence of charter school success and failure within the same city limits, it's worth examining how the charter school model is being put into practice across the system, its possible impact on public schools, and what may lie in store for the future. In some cases, the results are even more inspiring than supporters claim. In others, they show why critics have reason to worry.

On a clear, cold winter day, in a building on the downtown TSU campus named for Nashville civil rights attorney Avon Williams, rows of students sit at attention in matching navy-blue sweatshirts. They listen raptly — so much so that when one girl answers a question, the other students owl their heads toward her, giving her their undivided attention. She speaks, as taught, in a professional "college voice," not a middle-schooler's confidence-impaired mumble.

When students deliver the correct answer, their peers respond with staccato finger-snapping, as if judging a poetry slam. It lasts just long enough for the teacher to yell, "Track to me!" With lightning speed, their heads snap (or "track") forward, facing the teacher (or, if directed, their workbooks).

At Nashville Prep — the school that embodies, in some ways, the city's hopes for the coming wave of charter schools — learning can be a bizarre, fast-paced spectacle. And yet it seems to work. Students, for the most part, are engaged and attentive — their minds aren't allowed to wander.

"They don't have kids jumping up and running out of class," says Nashville Prep parent Tyese Hunter, whose daughter attends the school. "That's been a huge part of their success."

Equal parts grateful and overwhelmed, parents say they've never seen anything like Nashville Prep. Clarissa Jones, whose son attends the school, says she'd had three meetings before school even started, letting her and her son know what to expect.

"They call us each week to let us know how our kids are doing," Jones says. "They are a little bit strict, but I think that's good."

Funded by Mayor Dean's incubator initiative, the school reflects the fearsome intensity of its director, Ravi Gupta. A 28-year-old Yale Law graduate who worked with David Axelrod on President Obama's 2008 campaign — he also served as a speechwriter for Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations — Gupta has no experience in public education.

But he claims that lack of experience is an advantage — one that makes him more willing to try new (or unfashionable) methods that traditional administrators might reject. He's found himself relying more on the qualities he honed on the campaign trail, especially as he faces the challenges of instilling academic rigor in at-risk kids.

For example, when a mother decided to take her child out of the school, Gupta visited her home in the J.C. Napier public housing complex, hoping to change her mind. She wasn't home, though, so he camped outside her place. Hours went by. Eventually he tracked down a family member, who told him the mother and child were out of town.

Finally, the mother returned, and Gupta pleaded with her to keep her son at Nashville Prep. But she wasn't happy with the school's heavy emphasis on discipline. Gupta sympathized — but he didn't offer to let up, either. He wants his school to remain a strict and serious place.

"She wasn't a mission fit for the school," Gupta says. "And that's painful. Our rule is at least one of two things has to be true — either the kid has to want to be there, or the parent wants the kid to be there. If that's the case, we try everything we can to keep you."

If Gupta and his new charter look more like a search-and-rescue team than a traditional public school, that's by design. He went door to door through some of the city's toughest neighborhoods to sign up kids for Nashville Prep. As a result, 90 percent of his students hail from low-income households.

"We're very, very intense," Gupta says. "We look at the achievement gap as a crisis, and we respond with a strong sense of urgency. It's jarring to some parents and students."

Possibly to everyone. The school day runs from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., and not a second seems wasted. Take math instruction. In the summer, Nashville Prep offered three hours of math instruction daily to its lowest-performing students — those who were testing far below grade level. When summer vacation concluded, and Nashville Prep officially opened its doors, all students were expected to spend at least two hours adding fractions, decimals and percentages — with an extra hour of instruction for those struggling. On any given day, students might receive yet another hour of one-on-one tutoring.

Gupta says that extra time is already paying dividends. Throughout the school year, the students undergo interim assessments in the subjects the state tests. So far, they've made sharp progress, leading Gupta to predict that they're quickly catching up with their more affluent peers down I-65 South.

"We're on pace to achieve incredible gains," says Gupta, talking at sportscaster speed. "And I think we have a shot at closing the math gap with Williamson County."

If that happens, Gupta and his hard-working teachers will have earned a key to the city. But as he readily admits, a dozen or so students have already left Nashville Prep. At some charters, this mini-exodus would raise a few red flags. Critics accuse charter schools of purging low-performing students to post higher success rates on standardized tests.

Gupta insists Nashville Prep is not gaming the system. Of the students who've left, he says, none was expelled, and a kid on the waiting list replaced each one. According to Gupta, those who decided to leave either wanted to go or had parents who simply couldn't handle the commitment.

When a charter school succeeds — as Nashville Prep seems poised to do — detractors often accuse the academies of having unfair advantages over traditional public schools. Many of these charges have merit. Ordinary public schools have to educate disadvantaged children as well, without getting to decide who is or isn't a "mission fit."

But what if the playing field were leveled, so that charters had to educate the exact same children as public schools — not just those whose parents sought them out. What then?

That is the experiment under way at one of Metro's most troubled public schools, Cameron Middle School. In 2007, an affable Stanford grad named Jeremy Kane started LEAD Academy, a charter middle school in North Nashville. Even with more than 95 percent of its students qualifying for free or reduced lunch, LEAD posted strong test scores, then opened a high school, which quickly posted some of the best math scores in the city.

That early success has made Kane the city's most visible charter emissary. Experienced with the media — he was once trailed by paparazzi as a paramour of Chelsea Clinton — he hasn't done much to stop talk that he's a future mayoral candidate. But for now his ambitions are focused on the classroom. So when MNPS tapped LEAD Academy in 2010 to run Cameron — which was failing to reach No Child Left Behind benchmarks and was on the verge of being taken over by the state — Kane accepted.

For Kane, the appeal of the Cameron takeover — "conversion," he dutifully corrects — was impossible to ignore. Beyond the opportunity to turn around one of the city's worst schools, Kane could also show that his approach works. If he succeeded in educating the same kids who languished at Cameron, what could detractors say then?

"We heard from a lot of people in the charter school movement that we should not do this," Kane says. "If the results are not there immediately, people will use this to bludgeon charter schools."

So far, Kane is trying to keep expectations manageable. Instead, he talks about "changing the culture" of the school — taking on one grade level of students at a time, starting this school year with the fifth grade.

Cameron College Prep, the LEAD division of the school, is located in the second floor's west wing, spanning about a half-dozen classrooms. It connects with the rest of the school via the library, which it shares with Cameron Middle. CCP also commands two computer labs on the third floor, one of which serves as a kind of data collating/processing room for CCP staff.

It's an overcast morning, and about half of CCP's student body is on a field trip to Kentucky's Mammoth Cave, rendering the hallways more quiet than usual. The remaining students are taking their interim assessment tests — "1As," as they're called. 

According to Edon Katz, director of CCP students, 68 of their 151 kids qualified for the trip by earning merits known as "school bucks." Although that ratio seems fairly low, Edon insists that the students had to meet steep criteria to earn the necessary points. The chief requirement was that they not miss any homework.

The school asks a lot of parents as well. Like many charters, Cameron College Prep compels moms and dads to take a serious interest. Parents must sign an 11-point contract that spells out what's expected.

"This is something that everybody signs: Parents, students, teachers, I sign it, our board signs it. It's real simple stuff," explains Kane. "Everybody commits to completing their homework. You commit to coming [to school], you're going to commit to the dress code."

Reflecting the school's diversity, CCP issues its agreement in several different languages, including Spanish and formal Arabic. Although the contract may seem gimmicky — so what happens if there's a breach? — Kane thinks it helps his new team establish credibility with parents who might be skeptical about a 30-something stranger taking over their school.

"When we talk to parents about what we do at this school, we say, 'These are the commitments we make, which means you can hold us to it,' " Kane says. "If you call us and we don't call you back, you have a right to tell us, 'You're not holding up your end of the bargain.' So these are the kind of conversations that get us this cultural buy-in from the very beginning."

Like many charters, including Nashville Prep, Cameron College Prep is very data-driven. Think Moneyball, in which the small-market Oakland A's rebuild their roster by relying on timely and objective statistics, not ill-considered hunches. Similarly, why guess how kids might do on a standardized test when you have the means to actually measure their progress?

Cameron College Prep does three rounds of interim assessments throughout the school year. Instead of finding out how their kids did on TCAP in the summer, when it's too late to do anything about it, teachers develop interim assessments on how their kids are progressing in the tested subject areas.

"The kids will take it, we'll punch the data, review it," says Kane. "So [the assessments] are essentially over what's been taught, so we can guide our instruction during the year instead of waiting for this one big test and kinda [saying], 'Oh, well, they either learned it or they didn't, what can you do?' "

Although the strict discipline, signed contracts and data crunching may sound a little grim, Kane says he's learning that at some point kids like to assert their individuality. That sentiment could make him an outcast among some peers in the charter movement, who approach educating kids with the disposition of a Romanian gymnastics coach.

"If you go to our high school, they spray-painted the walls," Kane says. "Again, it has a frame around it, but it's something that they designed in class. They came to us and said, 'Look, we feel like this is school being done to us. Can we paint the walls? Can we express ourselves?' And we said absolutely."

If the feel-good stories of Nashville Prep and LEAD could compete for Hollywood treatment, the sagas of some other Nashville charters are more A Dangerous Method than Dangerous Minds. Take the dire example of Nashville Global Academy. In its first and only year last year, the school mismanaged funds and owed money to teachers before the MNPS board padlocked its doors.

A more frustrating case may be Smithson Craighead Middle School on Brick Church Pike, where students have posted the lowest TCAP math scores among local schools with an 80 percent poverty rate or higher. Reading scores are only nominally better. According to Stanford's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), Smithson Craighead ranks among the worst charter schools in Tennessee and has a statistically significant effect on student scores — for the worse.

The school's struggles are particularly painful, as its founder, Sister Sandra Smithson — a celebrated black educator who has taught in Latin America and run a school in Costa Rica — cuts a folksy, inspirational figure. She's had success with charter schools too. Her lower school, Smithson Craighead Academy, has posted solid scores and was one of the groundbreaking charters in Nashville.

So what happened with the middle school? Simultaneously candid and grandiose, Sister Sandra (as she refers to herself) takes full responsibility for her school's failures. In hindsight, she says, she should have started one grade at a time, not opened up the entire middle school at once.

"It is my own fault that the middle school has not been what I've wanted it to be," Smithson says. "I had so much pressure from parents to please take their kids, please take their kids — and it was kind of hard for me to say no.

"I know how hard those kids were suffering, and I know what I need to do to bring them forward, but I needed more time."

Another struggling charter school, Drexel Preparatory Academy, is on probation in its first year. Alan Coverstone, who oversees charter schools for the district, recommended that the school board close down Drexel, citing a laundry list of problems including its failure to hire properly licensed teachers. Coverstone also told the board the school failed to adhere to federal guidelines governing the education of English as a Second Language learners and special needs students — two major lapses that constituted violations of the Civil Rights Act.

"Whether or not services are now being provided, the charter was violated, and the damage to the children has been done," Coverstone said, quoted in The City Paper.

But the primarily African-American leadership of the school seemingly mobilized every black politician in Nashville, including state Sen. Thelma Harper and state Rep. Brenda Gilmore. Joined by several prominent black pastors, they showed up with an overflow crowd at the critical board meeting and exerted enough pressure to keep Drexel open — for now.

After the board's decision, the school's website heralded the good news with a message that didn't exactly inspire confidence:

"Drexel Preparatory Academy is ok. We have no plans to close.

We wish a happy holiday season to everyone.

If you want to attend drexel register in January.

After which you must sign up through the lottery.

There is no guarantee afterwards."

Even the brightest lights among the established charter schools suggest Nashville has room for improvement. While LEAD Academy and East Nashville's KIPP Academy rank as the top two charters in Nashville, according to the CREDO study, there are 10 charter schools in Memphis posting higher results.

Here in Nashville, traditional public schools Antioch and Apollo Middle School rival if not outperform the charters, even as they also serve predominantly low-income students. Among the 20 Metro middle schools with an 80 percent poverty rate or higher, LEAD's TCAP math scores ranked third and KIPP's seventh. In reading, each fared slighter lower — fourth for KIPP and eighth for LEAD — though it bears saying the two charters are still a vast improvement over the schools their students used to attend.

"These schools are doing a good job," school board member North says of KIPP and LEAD. "But they haven't done such a good job that they're deserving of worship."

Claire Smrekar, associate professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt, says that charter schools vary wildly in how students fare.

"The most consistent finding in charter school research is a set of inconsistent or mixed outcomes in terms of student achievement and sustainability and teaching environments," Smrekar says.

The charters that tend to thrive, she says, are those that place high expectations on their teachers and constantly monitor their progress. Successful charters also require competent leaders, she adds, who know how to handle complex operating budgets.

"This is like starting a new business," Smrekar says. "Starting a new school depends heavily on experience and expertise."

Although the debate over charters is unlikely to ease anytime soon, some people are searching for middle ground that acknowledges their potential as well as their limits. One is Coverstone, who oversees charter schools for the district and has considerable power to influence which ones open and which ones return their dry-erase boards unwrapped. That makes him one of the more influential people in Nashville, though the plain-spoken administrator might cringe to hear it.

A longtime believer in charters, Coverstone says the objective can't be merely to add more of them. Instead, he explains, the ultimate goal should be to increase the number of high-performing schools, no matter what their type. Charters can be a means to that end.

As an example, Coverstone says that Metro's traditional public schools will soon try to emulate some of the more successful charters, while still retaining their traditional character. This could mean more autonomy and flexibility for school principals or longer school days, key components of the charter concept.

"I think charter schools demonstrate some things that can work and that district schools can learn from," says Coverstone, a former MBA academic dean.

Chris Barbic, the superintendent of Tennessee's new Achievement School District, which runs some of the state's lower-performing schools, echoes Coverstone's sentiments. Instead of replacing traditional public schools, Barbic, the founder of the lauded YES Prep charter schools in Houston, says charters should pressure traditional schools to adapt and evolve.

"If you go back 20 to 25 years, there was a time when the post office swore they couldn't deliver packages overnight. Then FedEx, UPS and other companies came along and started doing it," Barbic says. "And they did it consistently well. While this was happening, the post office gave excuse after excuse as to why they couldn't. Then something happened. FedEx, UPS, and others grew and reached about 30 percent market share. It was at this time that the post office stopped making excuses and figured out how to do next-day air."

While no one thinks that public schools are facing a U.S. Postal Service-style crisis anytime soon, the charter management organizations that are coming to Nashville could provide for a parallel structure of options — much more so than what we have from the city's scattered collection of charters.

In late January, officials with Arizona-based Great Hearts Academies held a series of meetings in on the west side announcing plans to open five to 10 charter schools. (SouthComm board president Townes Duncan was among those who recruited the group to consider Nashville.) To put that number in perspective, the city currently has 11 charter schools.

The Great Hearts folks made quite an impression. Last month in the Cohn Adult Learning Center, 150 or so people attended a standing-room-only meeting. Just about everyone was white, making the one black couple and a solitary Latino man particularly noticeable.

The audience listened eagerly as Great Hearts officials outlined the approach they've taken with their successful schools in Arizona. Students learn Latin in high school. Fellow students address each other as "Mr." or "Ms." All are required to play sports, evoking an image that's equal parts Rushmore and Atlas Shrugged.

"Even if you're nerdy or gawky ... you gotta get out there and play!" exclaims Dan Scoggin, the chief executive officer of Great Hearts Academies. The audience chuckles.

After detailing the school's attributes, Scoggins turns to the stats. At its Arizona schools, Great Hearts Academies boasts an ACT average of 27.9, an SAT math average of 609, and SAT writing and reading averages of 622. It has also launched roughly a dozen kids into the stratosphere of National Merit Scholarships.

Interestingly, school officials said at the Nashville meetings that they would not be providing transportation to their charters, though they have since indicated the matter is still an open question.

"In Tennessee it seems like there was more of a focus of bringing diversity into each school," says Great Hearts board president Jay Heiler, among the dignitaries who met with Nashville parents, "whereas here we try to serve a diversity of communities."

That sounds good in theory. But in practice, by failing to provide transportation to students in the city's poorer neighborhoods, a charter school situated on Nashville's west side would likely draw primarily from private academies as well as the white students in the Hillsboro and Hillwood cluster of schools. This could lead to a new generation of white flight, only this time to public-funded schools in the same county. In general, the idea makes MNPS board member North uncomfortable.

"If the idea is, 'We want to go to school with our types of kids and avoid the other children and have government pay a big chunk of it' — that's troublesome," North says, referring not to Great Hearts specifically but to the implications of placing a charter school in a wealthy part of town.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Scene, Heiler tried to strike all the right chords. A prominent GOP operative in Phoenix, who recently served as a spokesman in Ben Quayle's successful congressional campaign, he downplayed his recent support for Arizona's widely denounced and potentially unconstitutional anti-immigration bill — saying only that he didn't think the measure was executed well. (See the related story "Hearts and Minds," Jan. 26.)

But the reception given Great Hearts in Nashville indicates how the city's attitude toward charter schools is changing. Just a few years ago, Heiler and Great Hearts probably couldn't have found anyone to take their calls, let alone recruit them. Now they're addressing standing-room-only public meetings with the mayor in attendance. That doesn't mean they can expect a free pass — or that Nashville shouldn't continue to ask hard questions of charter schools, as much promise as they show.

"We'll scrutinize very heavily schools that don't have an appreciation for the role that diversity plays in a school in the 21st century," Coverstone says. "We have to prepare kids for college and prepare them to achieve at a high level, but we also want them to do it in a diverse environment."


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