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Nashville and Memphis Move Ahead/Behind with Charters

Ohanian Comment: Here are two articles about the huge increase in the number of charter schools in Nashville and Memphis.

If you haven't seen 6 Minutes With Ms. McDonald's 5th Grade Social Studies Class, you should. I don't know if the kids pictured had their shoes on or not (see discipline technique mention in New York Times story below. Every mention of teachers in the Times story speaks of inexperience and ignorance about how children learn.

And here is a look at the Achievement School District leaders.

The model for improving schools in Nashville and Memphis is to bring in Teach for America and KIPP executives, dismiss all veteran teachers, and start new with Teach for America and other inexperienced teachers.

Could charters break MNPS bank?
The City Paper
Sunday, March 31, 2013
By Andrea Zelinski

As the charter school movement gains steam in Nashville, local school board members are worried there's not enough room in the budget to afford a windfall of the novel schools in years to come.

Too many charter schools too fast could force the district "off the fiscal cliff" unless there are proper "guardrails" in place, school officials say. Otherwise, the city may need to consider a property tax increase to offset the costs, some warn.

Buzzwords about the financial impact of too many charter schools are piling up. But the school district is using them in reaction to growing tension between MNPS and the state over who should have the final say in approving charter schools.

Charter schools are privately run, publicly funded institutions meant to give parents choice about where to educate their children. They operate without the strings typically attached to public schools, allowing them flexibility for decisions like policies on teacher pay and retention, running longer school days and hiring their own transportation. In exchange for the added freedom, the schools can easily be closed for failing to meet academic benchmarks or for mismanaging their finances.

Charter schools were originally written into law to focus on low-income students, but charter schools now accept children from any income level.

Since the state began to allow charter schools in 2002, Nashville has become home to 13 such schools, with five in line to open next year and one to close at the school year̢۪s end. Another 10 charter school groups are expected to turn in applications by April 1 to open schools their own.

Next year's proposed school district budget spends $40 million to fund charter schools next school year, a $15 million increase over last year and a number giving school officials sticker shock.

"There is a lot of pressure on us because everyone wants to come here and open a charter school. How many schools the community can afford to go to scale is a real question," said Jesse Register, MNPS director of schools who said he doesn̢۪t know where the tipping point is.

Although the total district budget proposal adds up to some $764 million, the 5 percent dedicated to charter schools is scaring district officials who are already reticent to fully embrace the charter school movement.

But their biggest worry is about a proposal on Capitol Hill by House Speaker Beth Harwell and Nashville Mayor Karl Dean to let a state-level group approve charter schools that local districts like MNPS have already passed on.

The legislative move is an outgrowth of MNPS' high-profile rejection of Great Hearts Academies' charter school application, which had been strongly favored by Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman and Dean. The decision is one the board is forced to constantly relive, said member Will Pinkston, an MNPS board member chairman of its Budget Committee.

"I've been on the school board for seven months now, and it has felt like the movie "Groundhog Day." Every day we wake up hearing the same song over and over and over again, and it is time to move on to other issues," said Pinkston.

While details of how the state panel would work are still being hammered out in the General Assembly, the latest version doesn't include any limit on how many charter schools the state could approve in the local school district, although funding for the schools would come out of the district's budget.

Whether any type of "guardrails" will make it into the bill is unknown as Gov. Bill Haslam took the opportunity his first year to erase the cap on charter schools throughout the state. He is unlikely to support anything that resembles putting a cap back in.

While the point behind the push is to make sure charters like Great Hearts have a second chance of making Nashville their home, Tennessee is already an attractive place for charter schools, said Kevin Hall, CEO of the Charter School Growth Fund, a Colorado-based nonprofit investing millions in promising charter schools, including LEAD Public Schools. But he said a statewide authorizer would make charter operators applying here more comfortable.

"This is often a new world for districts," said Hall. "In Nashville, four or five years ago, there were only two or three charter schools. So it's a new world for the districts for itself to be a partner with others running great schools. It's definitely a shift in mentality. They could ignore it when it was less than 1,000 students."

MNPS officials fear the result of the state group Harwell is trying to create could foist rejected charter schools on Davidson County, leaving a "destabilizing effect" on the budget, said Pinkston.

"If a child leaves a traditional school, then that's $9,000 that follows that child into another school, and that's good for that family," said Pinkston. "But we're not necessarily able then to reduce by $9,000 the budget in that school. If a large group of students leave, then you can look at start changing staffing patterns, start reducing bus routes and doing other things. But in the short term, the costs remain pretty much fixed, and that's the issue."

According to state law, charter schools must be given the full per-student allotment of education funds rationed out for each student, which means the district can̢۪t take any of the state, local or federal money off the top to help cover the district̢۪s overhead costs.

For example, Intrepid College Preparatory School is opening this fall with 120 fifth-graders. That will mean $1.09 million -- which before helped fund district costs like transportation, salaries and central office staff -- will move to the charter school.

Area charter schools next year expect to take on 4,400 students for $40.04 million, plus another $1.9 million to fund parts of Brick Church College Prep, which has 220 students taught by a state-approved charter.

"Metro would be spending those dollars on these students regardless," said Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Charter School Association. "I totally respect their concern. I don't share it. The number one guardrail, if you will, really should be quality authorizing."

Not only have several of Nashville's charter schools outperformed most traditional schools in the district, but charters have also helped to absorb the 15 percent student population growth over the last decade, advocates say.

Ten years ago, the district was home to almost 70,700 students. Since then, the district has grown to some 81,000 students. The district is now beginning to brainstorm where to find more classroom space and answers on how to adjust.

Both Pinkston and Register said they're looking at charters to be a factor to help fill those needs, but insist those decisions be made by the district and not an outside body that can sprinkle a limitless number of charter schools in MNPS̢۪ backyard.

How to achieve better schools is where the rubber meets the road. Harwell and others say that means an investment in charter schools to create competition and give parents choices. Voices from the district insist making better schools means turning around struggling traditional ones.

"It's a philosophical difference, in that the money is not the school board's money," said Harwell "It belongs to the taxpayers of this state."

Crucible of Change in Memphis as State Takes On Failing Schools

New York Times
April 3, 2013
by Motoko Rich

MEMPHIS -- Not far off a scruffy boulevard lined with dollar stores and payday loan shops in a neighborhood of run-down brick bungalows, Corning Achievement Elementary School here is a pristine refuge, with gleaming tile floors and signs in classrooms proclaiming "Whatever it takes."

In this Mississippi River town marked by pockets of entrenched poverty, some of the worst schools in the state are in the midst of a radical experiment in reinventing public education.

Last fall, Tennessee began removing schools with the lowest student test scores and graduation rates from the oversight of local school boards and pooling them in a special state-run district. Memphis, where the vast majority of public school students are black and from poor families, is ground zero: 80 percent of the bottom-ranked schools in the state are here.

Tennessee's Achievement School District, founded as part of the state's effort to qualify for the Obama administration's Race to the Top grant, is one of a small handful of state-run districts intended to rejuvenate chronically struggling schools. Louisiana̢۪s Recovery School District, created in 2003, is the best-known forerunner, and this year Michigan also set up a state district for failing schools. In February, Virginia legislators passed a measure to set up a similar statewide district.

The achievement district is a veritable petri dish of practices favored by data-driven reformers across the country and fiercely criticized by teachers' unions and some parent groups.

Most of the schools will be run by charter operators. All will emphasize frequent testing and data analysis. Many are instituting performance pay for teachers and longer school days, and about a fifth of the new district̢۪s recruits come from Teach for America, a program in which high-achieving college graduates work in low-income neighborhood schools. And the achievement district will not offer teachers tenure.

While some parents, teachers, administrators and community leaders hail signs of progress in the seven months the achievement district has been in existence, others have complained about a lack of racial sensitivity and have accused the new district of sidelining experienced teachers, many of whom are black. About 97 percent of the students in the achievement district schools are black, compared with fewer than half the teachers.

"We're not just asking people to do something incrementally different in a system that is fundamentally broken and the same," said Chris Barbic, the achievement district's superintendent and a Teach for America alumnus who went on to found the Yes Prep chain of 11 charter schools in Houston.

Mr. Barbic, who combines the kinetic energy of an entrepreneur with a politician's gift for listening, hopes to take over 35 schools in Tennessee over the next three years. "I want to create a system where we have great schools of all types," he said, "and fewer lousy ones of all types."

Last fall, the achievement district took over six schools, five of them in Memphis. It is running three of those schools directly, while nonprofit charter management organizations run the other two. This fall, the district will take over nine more schools, with charter operators -- including well-known names like KIPP and Aspire Public Schools — running six of them.

Even with drastic overhauls, turnaround is difficult. "Sometimes people confuse big organizational shifts with new teachers and managements as magic," said Deborah Ball, dean of the school of education at University of Michigan. "But there is no magic."

The leadership turnover has been bumpiest at Cornerstone Prep, a nonprofit charter group that took over the prekindergarten through third grade at a public school in one of the poorest Memphis neighborhoods last fall.

No teachers remain from the previous year, and more than a quarter of the new staff was hired through the Memphis Teacher Residency, a program for young college graduates, and Teach for America.

Outside the school, signs celebrate rising scores on interim tests the students took in August and January. "Second and 3rd grade Prepsters scored higher than 98% of the norm!" one banner read.

Many parents say these scores have come at a cost. At one explosive community meeting in December, parents complained that children had suffered repeated bathroom accidents under strict new disciplinary policies. Others fumed that teachers were taking shoes from students caught fiddling with them.

"What are the sacrifices we're making in order to educate them?" said LaShanna Rogers, whose 7-year-old daughter, Rokaria, is in second grade at Cornerstone.

On a recent school day, teachers in classrooms named after colleges (Wake Forest One; Columbia Two) repeatedly reminded students to sit with their hands folded, eyes tracking the teacher. Whenever a teacher asked a question, wiggling hands shot into the air. The class rewarded correct answers by bellowing cheers of "Good job!" or "Right on!"

Community leaders say that in the rush to raise test scores, Cornerstone's leaders lack cultural competence.

"They don't understand black folk," said Sara L. Lewis, a member of the merged Memphis and Shelby County School Board. "They don't understand our values or events in our history." Ms. Lewis said taking away students' shoes, for example, evoked connotations of masters who did the same to punish slaves.

Drew Sippel, a former corporate executive and church administrator who founded Cornerstone as a private religion-based academy three years ago, said teachers no longer touch students' shoes. He acknowledged that his team could have gone further with community outreach. "We didn't speak to as many people as we could have," he said.

Some community members say parents and students are still adjusting. "I think sometime where I come from, people don't know that change is good," said Sarah Carpenter, a Memphis mother and grandmother who is serving on an advisory council to the achievement district. On visits to schools, she said, she saw students "engaged and learning."

"The expectations are higher and the kids are not used to that," Ms. Carpenter said. "But they can live up to these expectations."

Still, mindful of tensions, officials at other schools in the achievement district are diligently reaching out to parents and community leaders.

On a recent Saturday morning, a group of achievement district staff members went door-to-door in neighborhoods where schools are entering the new district this fall. (Achievement district schools, including those run by charters, must accept any student who lives in their zones.) "I would love to be your child's principal," Debra Broughton, who will take over as principal at an elementary school in the Frayser community, told one mother.

The same morning, officials from Aspire, a California-based charter management group that will start operating Hanley Elementary School in the Orange Mound neighborhood this fall, held an open house to woo parents with massages and manicures.

Malia Oliver, a mother of a current kindergartner, was impressed. When Allison Leslie, executive director of Aspire's Memphis operations, asked to sit in on a special-education consultation for Ms. Oliver's autistic son, "that just meant so much to me," Ms. Oliver said.

Suspicion remains about what the takeover means for experienced teachers. "A lot of our teachers are going to lose their jobs," said Charlie Moore III, pastor of the Life Changing Church of God in Christ in Orange Mound.

Although achievement district officials say they have encouraged current teachers to apply for jobs at the revamped schools, none are guaranteed a slot. Just five teachers and three administrators previously with the schools remain.

"We did not want to come into town and lose all the current educators and ship in a bunch of new teachers," said Ash Solar, chief talent officer for the achievement district. "We want to show that if you build a new system where educators are supported, they can thrive."

Mr. Solar said the district had hired more than 50 teachers from other Memphis public schools.

Those teachers are expected to help ease the transition. On a recent afternoon, Deidra Holliday, a language arts teacher with 10 years of experience, was unfazed by the hints of chaotic home lives during a seventh-grade class at West Side Middle School.

"Tell me what your mama says at the house," said Ms. Holliday, inviting the students to write quotations on dry erase boards.

Echoing similar themes chosen by her classmates, one girl wrote: "'Shut up,' said my mom. 'You need to go clean up the room and wash the dishees too.'"

Ms. Holliday rolled with it. "We are going to start helping Mom more," she said, laughing. "So she can be more positive in her statements." She turned to a student and pointed out a missing comma.

— Andrea Zelinski & Motoko Rich
The City Paper & New York Times




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