Thursday, April 8, 2010

This Isn't the Charter You're Looking For

Posted By on Thu, Apr 8, 2010 at 11:31 AM

The story's been building since yesterday morning that Nashville's LEAD Academy is presumably in the LEAD (OK, I'm done) in the bidding to take over Cameron Middle School and re-open it as a charter. The transition won't be immediate, but will happen grade-by-grade over three years. From Chris Echegaray at The Tennessean:

A charter school already operating in North Nashville is the front-runner to take over Cameron Middle, where students have struggled for years to meet state testing benchmarks.

The Metro school board will vote Tuesday on whether Cameron becomes Tennessee's first public school taken over at a school district's request. A school district committee charged with reviewing the three applicants is recommending LEAD Academy in Nashville over Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering and the William E. Doar Public Charter School for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

LEAD's high expectations, attention to detail and "whatever it takes" attitude set it apart, the committee wrote in its report to the board.

I completely respect what the folks over at LEAD are doing, and I think they've got an excellent plan for running a premier charter school. After all, the Gates Foundation certainly thought they were good enough. Why, then, am I a wee bit dissatisfied?

Take a look at the last sentence from The Tennessean excerpt above. We had three organizations apply. Three. Though this is technically a district attempt to avoid a state takeover under NCLB and Race to the Top, the rationale for such a charter conversion is the same.

What did our RTTT application [pdf] say about the "outside partners" we were going to bring in to fix our educational system?

To enable the best possible reform conditions, the state will create a collaborative for the ASD, an unprecedented partnership with carefully selected non-profit organizations that can demonstrate a track record of reform in recruiting highly effective teachers or principals, working with districts and states on revamping human capital systems, creating and expanding high-quality charter schools, and paving the way for dramatic improvement in student outcomes. (123)

Ah, yes. There's the key piece. The folks who are going to be converting, restarting, and turning around our worst schools are supposed to be "carefully selected" and, more importantly, be able to demonstrate a track record of reform (and, presumably, success). If there's one thing that is absolutely clear, it's that things can look very good on paper, but turn out not so well in the real world.

Here's the point: While I think very highly of LEAD Academy and the folks running it, the fact is, they've been around for less than 3 years. That's not enough time to get the kinks out, let alone demonstrate a sustained track record of success. Also, the current Academy was built from the ground up; it wasn't a conversion, as Cameron will be. That's two very different animals.

Far from having a mountain of potential applications from experienced operators that have demonstrated success around the country (problematic for several reasons, not the least among them being that there aren't many of these operators that can demonstrate such success in school turnaround, calling into question the very concept itself), we had three applications. And one of them — the favorite — hasn't had time to demonstrate its bona fides. I say it's time to go back to the drawing board, spend some money and time recruiting, and find someone more experienced to give this a try.

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