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Five things to know about Metro Nashville’s charter chief, Carol Swann

Students help each other in the learning lab at Rocketship Nashville Education.
Students help each other in the learning lab of a Nashville charter school operated by Rocketship. The charter network announced plans this week to close another Nashville school operated under Tennessee's Achievement School District.
Grace Tatter
Carol Swann
Carol Swann
provided by Carol Swann

The relationship between traditional public school systems and charter schools is complicated: Charter schools compete for students with the districts that ultimately control their fate.

For more than a decade after Tennessee’s first charter school law passed in 2002, Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Schools were the only districts in the state navigating the charter world; the state’s law only allowed charter schools to serve students attending the state’s lowest-performing schools, all of which were concentrated in those districts.

Leaders in Metro Nashville Public Schools and charter school leaders in the district have had some high-profile hiccups in their relationship. The state once fined Metro Nashville $3 million dollars for rejecting a charter school application. This summer, Metro Schools director Jesse Register made an emotional appeal for a ceasefire between board members and charter school advocates.

More so than in Memphis, there has been concern from Nashville school board members about the financial implications of charters for the district (charter schools are given per-pupil dollars with every student they recruit away from traditional school districts). Still, today, Nashville district leaders and charter leaders alike speak of “co-opetition” in improving low-performing schools. Like Memphis, Nashville is considered to be a desirable location for national charter management organizations.

Carol Swann is the person in charge of the relationship between charter schools and the district — a job increasingly important in districts across the state as many districts developing their own charter policies and authorization role look toward Nashville for guidance. The director of charter schools for Metro Schools, Swann is also a founding member of the Tennessee Association of Charter School Authorizers.

Here’s five things to know about Swann:

1) She’s worked all over the Metro school system. Swann started out as a classroom teacher in Metro Schools, teaching special education and computer classes. Her next stop was in the district’s information technology department. As a technology resource manager, she oversaw the technology and data collection in the districts’ first charter schools. “That’s how I became interested in charters,” she said. “I went home and started researching them (and) what are they for.” She had a brief stint as the Chief Operating Officer at Smithson Craighead Academy, and then wrote policy for the district. After that, she managed education grants at the United Way of Middle Tennessee before landing in the newly-formed Office of Innovation, her current position.

2) She’s a founding member of Tennessee Association of Charter School Authorizers. What’s that? An organization of representatives from districts in Tennessee that authorize charter schools, who work together to find the best practices for authorizing good schools and making sure those schools hold up their end of the deal such as boosting test scores after they’re authorized.

Swann points out that when the district first began authorizing charter schools after the legislature passed a law allowing charters in 2002, it wasn’t always strict enough in who it approved, and authorized some schools that later had to be closed.

“MNPS is the one who did everything wrong,” Swann said. “We want to help others not repeat our mistakes. It’s painful for everybody– parents, families, and the district itself, to close a school. The best way to not have to close a charter school is to never open it.”

Since then, MNPS has worked with the National Association of Charter School Authorizers to tighten both the approval process and the oversight process, once schools have been approved. While the Tennessee Association of Charter School Authorizers does not lobby, Swann said she and other members hope that during the next legislative session lawmakers allow authorizers to charge an application fee for the work they do. Authorizing requires a lot of time and resources from districts to both vet applications and regulate charter schools that have been authorized, she said.

3) Her job is to make sure there’s collaboration between charter schools and the district schools. “I try really hard to build relationships with principals,” she said. An example of the positive relationships the district has been able to build with charter schools, she said, is the recent unveiling of KIPP Nashville’s renovated building. “They leased a building from us that was old and crumbling and was just a horrible building, but they persevered there for a few years before they moved,” Swann said. “We just went yesterday to a brand new, beautiful renovated facility. That is a result of the collaborative process, where the charters do invite us to things, they welcome us into their schools. That wouldn’t happen if they didn’t think we had their interests at heart, as well as the interest of our district schools.”

4) She picks the teams that review charter applications in Nashville. Swann establishes review teams that are made up of seven to 10 people. Each team gets three charter school applications to review (she doesn’t like to do more, as to ensure each application gets a thorough read-through). The teams are trained to know what to look through while reading an application, which includes everything from a proposed board to an itemized budget. After training, the teams meet three or four times and fill out a rubric for Swann. She makes sure she agrees with their assessment, then does — or doesn’t — recommend the school to the board.

5) Her favorite part of her job is visiting schools. “One of my favorite parts is walking into charter schools and seeing what a fabulous job our very good charters do, how joyful the atmospheres are,” she said.

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