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Teachers at Neely's Bend College Prep School help incoming fifth-graders make slime at the new Nashville charter school's open house in August. Teachers from Neely's Bend Middle School, which is being phased out, were also on hand to help.

Teachers at Neely’s Bend College Prep School help incoming fifth-graders make slime at the new Nashville charter school’s open house in August. Teachers from Neely’s Bend Middle School, which is being phased out, were also on hand to help.

Grace Tatter

Despite significant TCAP gains, Nashville middle school starts charter conversion as part of state’s turnaround process

Less than six months after students, parents and teachers angrily argued that they could turn around Neely’s Bend Middle Prep School without a charter school conversion, the Nashville school posted some of its most significant gains ever on the state’s TCAP exams.

But less than two weeks ago, Neely’s Bend became a charter conversion school anyway, proceeding with the state Achievement School District’s plan to make Neely’s Bend its newest Nashville charter school and sending a message that the turnaround district’s conversion plans, once mapped out, don’t kick into reverse.

Last year’s improved scores at Neely’s Bend, a low-performing school targeted by the ASD in order to turn it around academically beginning this school year, prompts reflection about whether the state’s intervention was necessary in the first place. Or, was the mere prospect of state takeover sufficient to kickstart the school’s progress?

During TCAP tests in the spring, the school logged the state’s highest possible growth score, a 5.

Ironically, had the school posted such gains last year, it might not have been considered for state intervention beginning this school year.

But by the time school administrators, faculty and parents began to mobilize to help students lift their scores, the dye had been cast.

This month, the charter school known as Neely’s Bend Collegiate Prep, which is operated by the LEAD Public Schools network, took control of the school’s fifth-grade classes, while Neely’s Bend Middle Prep, which is operated by Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, continues to oversee grades 6-8. Each year, the state-authorized charter school will take over another grade, and Neely’s Bend Middle Prep will be phased out within three years. In the meantime, the two schools are co-existing in the same building, each with separate administrators and faculty.

Teachers at Neely’s Bend Middle Prep credit the 2015 score gains to then-principal Michelle Maultsby-Springer, who started at the school last fall.

“We had a massive change when Dr. Springer came in,” said Chelsea Elder, who taught fifth-grade English last year.

Elder, who will teach sixth-grade English this year, said Maultsby-Springer’s high expectations prompted fast improvements in teacher attitude, student behavior and other areas. “There was dedication and hard work like you wouldn’t believe,” she said.

Erick Huth, president of the local chapter of the Tennessee Education Association, said the progress under the principal’s brief tenure is a testament to the potential of traditional public schools. “Michelle Maultsby-Springer proved they can make a difference,” he said.

This school year, Maultsby-Springer was reassigned to Croft Middle School. She has been replaced by Michelle Demps, last year’s principal of Madison Middle School, which was the other Nashville middle school considered last fall for ASD intervention. Madison’s scores continued to fall this year, and it received the lowest growth rating possible.

During Maultsby-Springer’s watch, Neely’s Bend outpaced the state in math and science, gaining 8.9 and 8.7 percentage point respectively. Its reading scores dropped more than scores did statewide, but not enough to pull down the school’s growth score. It also outpaced LEAD’s other ASD-authorized Nashville school, Brick Church Middle School, which saw declines across the board, giving it a growth rating of 1. (LEAD’s three other middle schools, all authorized through the local Nashville district, received 5s.)

LEAD CEO Chris Reynolds said Neely’s Bend’s improved scores are a good sign, no matter who operates the school this year. “It may give the phase-out grades a little more confidence, which is a good thing,” he said.

But efforts to turn the longstanding neighborhood school into a new charter school still struck a nerve for many community members loyal to Neely’s Bend. Lisa Jones, the parent of an incoming fifth-grader, said most of her daughter’s classmates from Neely’s Bend Elementary School opted not to go to Neely’s Bend Middle this year because of the charter conversion.

“Parents wanted something more established,” she said.

Also because of the phase-out, only six MNPS teachers, including Elder, returned to the school this year.

The Achievement School District was created in 2010 to support turnaround efforts at the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools, known as priority schools. Even after ASD officials, citing parental feedback, chose Neely’s Bend last December for state intervention and charter conversion, confusion reigned in the community over whether the school could remove itself from ASD control and stay with the Nashville school district.

Last semester, students and teachers geared up in anticipation of spring TCAPs, with hopes that a significant score boost would propel them off the priority list. However, the priority list is released every three years and, until earlier this month when the state received a federal waiver, schools couldn’t come off the list of ASD-eligible schools in off years. Even if they could, the growth displayed at Neely’s Bend, though significant, was not enough. A new state law prohibiting the ASD from absorbing Level 5 schools came too late for Neely’s Bend, which had a score of 1 when the ASD chose it for charter conversion.

“We applaud the Level 5 growth earned by Neely’s Bend this year,” ASD officials said recently in response to the school’s gains, which were comparable to many of the ASD’s own schools. “We want students in the grades served by MNPS to do well.… The decision to partner LEAD with Neely’s Bend was made in December — long before this summer’s release of TVAAS scores — giving MNPS, LEAD, and the Neely’s Bend community ample time for planning and preparing for a successful school year.”

Elder said she, too, wants the school to do well, no matter who operates it. She’s making an effort to work with LEAD staff, and attended Neely’s Bend Collegiate Prep’s open house, even though it wasn’t required. But Elder, whose parents once attended Neely’s Bend, said she also hopes that the charter operator will maintain the school’s best traditions while also introducing new ones.

“I’m here because, as a teacher, I want to make sure all of our kids have a great experience,” she said during the open house.

“I hope it stays the same in some ways,” she added, gesturing to a painting of the school mascot on the gym wall. “I hope they keep the beaver.”

The ASD plans a charter conversion of at least one more middle school and elementary school in Nashville in the 2017-2018 school year, state officials announced last week.