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Metro Nashville tries to reduce school hopping


Teacher Comment: I received three charter students early in the second semester this year. All had low test scores and two were discipline problems. One told me he was "kicked out" of the charter. My evaluation score as a teacher relies on their TCAP scores. That is the reality of charters.


KIPP Nashville Executive Director Randy Dowell told The Tennessean it was a "coincidence" that students left in large numbers during a nine-week stretch before TCAP testing.

by Joey Garrison

Metro officials are exploring ways to reduce the number of students who exit their schools midyear as a spat rages over the departure of kids from Nashville's charter schools prior to spring TCAP testing.

Though talks are early, one idea would be for students who enroll at "choice schools" to commit to an entire year of studies there, said Fred Carr, the district̢۪s chief operating officer. A key component: an appeals process for students who have personal or family situations.

"If you make a choice, there ought to be some commitment that goes with that choice," Carr said.

What the policy would look like is still unclear. Officials acknowledge an outright ban on transfers isn't practical.

The district could adopt new policies for its own choice schools, which include magnets. No changes would be in order until at least the 2014-15 school year. Extending it to existing charter schools is trickier because they have contracts to operate independently. Doing so would require individual agreements in their charters.

"It's not an us-and-them kind of thing," Carr said of charters. "We're not telling them what to do. We're looking at mobility together to try to reduce it."

Yet talks come as Metro officials have unloaded data that suggest fewer students remain at charter schools by the time end-of-year testing arrives, fueling the type of criticism commonly directed at charters nationally. The issue has deepened a schism between charters and the district, two groups that increasingly fail to see eye to eye, even on how they calculate attrition.

A report compiled by Metro Nashville Public Schools says the top eight Metro schools with the highest attrition -- which it calculates as the net reduction in student enrollment over the course of the 2012-13 year -- are all charters. Upon leaving, the majority landed at traditional, zoned public schools. Students who leave aren't being replaced.

KIPP Academy Nashville, routinely cited as one of Nashville̢۪s top-performing charters, started this past year with 337 students, and ended the year with 286, a reduction of 15 percent, the third-highest attrition rate according to Metro's statistics.

KIPP Nashville Executive Director Randy Dowell told The Tennessean it was a "coincidence" that students left in large numbers during a nine-week stretch before TCAP testing. Nineteen out of 20 had discipline issues. He rejected the notion that his school squeezed out lower-performing students, noting that half the students at issue were on track to pass math and 45 percent to pass reading.

"(Students who left) are on par with our average, but they're also significantly above the performance of the weighted average of the schools that they went to," he said. "We do zero academic screening at any point in the process."

Reasons for leaving

The district doesn't require exit interviews when students withdraw from charter schools. Isolated events might explain part of the story.

Smithson-Craighead Middle School, which leads the district in attrition by Metro's count, saw two-thirds of its 89 student departures occur after the board voted to shut the school down in November, effective this month. At Boys Prep, which ranks No. 2, six students left the day after parents learned about an alleged altercation when its headmaster broke up a student fight. Drexel Preparatory Academy, fourth on the list, experienced a loss of 12 students in the three days after a carbon monoxide scare at its building in January.

Frank Stevenson, Drexel Prep's dean of students, also gave a larger explanation for higher attrition at charters: "At charter schools, if you get upset with the teacher, you can just pull out and go. You don't have that same luxury in a Metro school."

Charters apply a market-based philosophy to education: Parents exercise their choice to attend one, and there̢۪s therefore a tendency to elect to leave, too, experts say.

"So, it would not be surprising that charter schools would have higher attrition given that theory of action of charter schools," said Ron Zimmer, associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University̢۪s Peabody College of Education and Human Development.

A look at mobility

Lauren Hayes, director of advocacy of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association, speculated that the impending release of state-mandated TCAP scores might have something to do with Metro̢۪s timing in compiling attrition data.

MNPS' Carr said pulling attrition numbers is part of an ongoing look at data. He added that some principals have expressed concern about the volume of kids entering traditional schools from charters before April TCAP testing.

He called student mobility across all schools a "real issue" facing the district. "When kids move, they tend to regress academically. We've been looking at mobility for quite a while."

The school board's Amy Frogge said Metro needs to adopt a "uniform student expulsion and retention policy" that applies to every school. She said a one-year commitment at choice schools would "ensure that low-performing students are not released prior to test time."

"We have to stop comparing charter schools that don̢۪t replace their departing students with traditional schools that have an open-door policy," Frogge said.

Board member Will Pinkston called the idea of requiring a one-year commitment at choice schools a "good aspiration" but said the district can't require students to stay at schools.

He cautioned against making broad interpretations from numbers.

"Every kid has a different story, and it's important to be extra careful when we're dealing with socially and economically disadvantaged populations," he said. "Jumping to conclusions based on a cursory read of a spreadsheet isn"t helpful."

— Joey Garrison
The Tennessean

2013-05-31

http://www.tennessean.com/article/20130531/NEWS04/305310097/1970?nclick_check=1

TN


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