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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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