Future of Schools

As Nashville charter school conversion begins, administrators must overcome confusion

PHOTO: G. Tatter
Eighth-grade students graduate May 26 from Neely's Bend Middle Prep School, which eventually will become Neely's Bend Collegiate Academy.

While eighth-graders graduated last week from Neely’s Bend Middle Prep School and began transitioning to high school, students in the Nashville school’s lower grades prepared to transition to a new kind of school as well.

But the path to become Nashville’s second state-authorized charter school has been anything but smooth as Neely’s Bend Middle Prep, a traditional school operated by Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, begins its four-year conversion to Neely’s Bend College Prep, operated by the LEAD Public Schools charter network.

The changeover officially begins this August and was set in motion last year when Neely’s Bend, a school for grades 5-8 in the blue-collar suburb of Madison, landed on the priority list of the state’s 5 percent of worst-performing schools, opening the door to intervention by the state-run Achievement School District (ASD). After a period of contentious public feedback from communities at Neely’s Bend and Madison Middle, another school on the list, ASD leaders announced last December their selection of Neely’s Bend for charter conversion.

The die was cast. But confusion and miscommunication reigned this spring among school administrators, faculty, parents and even one school board member hopeful for a reversal.

In March, outgoing Neely’s Bend principal Michelle Springer told students and teachers that if they achieved a proficiency rate of 40 percent on state tests this year, the school would not be converted to a charter, and would remain with the Nashville district, according to this email distributed to faculty returning from spring break:

“Good evening! Today was a very productive first day back. Our students met with administration as a grade level to reset and refocus on 40% goal. We also shared that if we meet our goals, Neely’s Bend will remain a neighborhood school. Our teachers and students are excited about the progress that we have made.”

The email subsequently was posted on Facebook by Jill Speering, who represents Neely’s Bend on the Metro Nashville school board.

The school also sent a robo-call to parents announcing that the school might avoid charter conversion and remain with the local district. Brittney Garland, an active member of the PTA at Neely’s Bend Elementary, which feeds into the middle school, even organized a letter-writing campaign to encourage the middle school students to do their best on the pivotal tests. “We’re all just trying to band together and keep that little band of hope,” she explained at the time.

But contacted soon afterward by Chalkbeat, representatives from the Nashville district, the ASD, the Tennessee Department of Education and LEAD confirmed that Neely’s Bend would become a charter school, no matter what this spring’s test scores showed.

ASD officials said recently they were unaware of the confusion, although a Chalkbeat reporter called ASD officials in April to ask about the rumors. “If somebody had any questions about eligibility, no one reached out to the ASD, to the best of my knowledge,” ASD chief of staff Elliot Smalley said last Thursday.

Even so, during the school’s graduation week, teachers still wondered if high scores might save their school from a charter conversion. The scores will be released later this summer.

Amy Frogge, a Nashville school board member and vocal critic of charter schools, noted that, even with unequivocal communication, transitioning a school to state control can be traumatic for teachers, students and their families. “I think it’s vitally important that the ASD provides clearer guidelines for that transition and communicates effectively with the school community,” she told Chalkbeat.

The confusion has laid a rocky foundation for Neely’s Bend administrators, faculty and students who will work, teach and learn in the building when school returns under their new model known as co-location.

The conversion will begin with the fifth-grade class, while grades 6-8 will continue to operate as a traditional school under the purview of Metro Nashville. A new grade will join the charter ranks each year until the entire school is operated by LEAD beginning with the 2018-19 school year.

Michelle Demps, who was tapped from nearby Madison Middle Prep to lead Neely’s Bend Middle Prep in its final years, and Shawn Jackson, the incoming principal of the charter school, say teamwork can make co-location work for both schools. They plan to partner on everything from the necessity of sharing school facilities to protocols of choice such as school discipline policy, daily schedules, and a “fun calendar” of activities to reward students. They also will share a school newsletter.

That’s a lot more overlap than occurred at LEAD’s other two Nashville conversions — Cameron College Prep, which was authorized by the local district and now operates all four middle-school grades, and Brick Church College Prep, also an ASD school, where conversion will be complete beginning next school year.

In Memphis, where the ASD has authorized 22 charter schools, co-locations have been challenging, prompting Shelby County Superintendent Dorsey Hopson to announce earlier this year that the district no longer would allow them. Hopson said co-locations are awkward for district employees who operate in the same building as charter employees but know their jobs eventually will end. He complained that teacher morale and retention is low and that services such as clerical work and professional development often are duplicated.

"We’re not thinking about who’s charter, who’s public."

Demps is attempting to tear down potentially contentious walls before they go up between the two school models. She is incorporating parts of LEAD’s structure into her traditional school, such as “crew,” a type of homeroom where students meet in single-sex groups to talk about matters ranging from academics to personal lives in order to help build relationships. She’s also assigning advisers to students, another idea borrowed from LEAD.

At the start of the school year, all students — both the fifth-graders in the charter school and older students in the traditional setting — will undergo an orientation about the common school culture. “We know you have to build a strong foundation,” Jackson said.

Working and planning together has made community outreach easier for both principals. LEAD has conducted heavy neighborhood canvassing because, while enrollment to ASD charters is mostly restricted to neighborhood residential zones, students in those zones don’t have to attend there.

Jackson recalls one woman asking what the conversion will mean for her two grandsons — one a rising fifth-grader who will attend the charter school, and the other a rising eighth-grader who will continue at the traditional public school, especially because the state has declared Neely’s Bend Middle Prep a failing school. “In that moment, I was really glad that I know what we both stand for; I know the work we’re putting into this,” Jackson said.

Demps said she’s not focusing on her traditional school inevitably being absorbed by the charter school. She tells the parents: “This is about your child. This has very little to do with the politics of education. We just want to have your child have the best education possible.”

“The reality is these are the same kids, coming from the same homes. We’re not thinking about who’s charter, who’s public,” she said. “We’re thinking about what programs and what resources will be best for the kids we serve.”

The right stuff

Who will be Tennessee’s next education chief? Gov.-elect Bill Lee is getting lots of advice

PHOTO: TN.gov
As outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam looks on, Gov.-elect Bill Lee speaks at the state Capitol the day after being elected the 50th governor of Tennessee. His 75-day transition will end with his inauguration on Jan. 19.

The changing of the guard that’s coming to the Tennessee governor’s office will now definitely come also to the department overseeing state education policy.

Candice McQueen took herself out of the running to continue as education commissioner with last week’s announcement that she’ll transition in January to a new job as CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.

While it was unlikely she would have stayed on permanently given the challenges with testing during her four-year tenure, McQueen’s planned departure cleans the slate for Gov.-elect Bill Lee to start fresh in finding the right fit to lead his vision for Tennessee schools.

The Republican businessman faces lots of choices in making one of the most important picks of his 23-member cabinet: Homegrown talent or a national search? Classroom teaching experience or workforce expertise? A quick hire or an extended search?

And he’s been getting a lot of advice.

From advocacy and philanthropic groups to the higher education and business communities, Tennessee has a large number of partners and stakeholders who care deeply about continuing the state’s momentum to improve student achievement.

“We believe that decisions made around talent and who is going to be working on education — either in the governor’s office or state Department of Education — are some of the most important decisions that the next governor will make,” said David Mansouri, president of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, or SCORE, a nonprofit group that works closely with the education department.

“We’re looking for someone who’s going to hold the line on the school accountability framework that the state has worked so hard to build,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, a leader with Conexión Américas, which advocates for Latino families in Nashville. “We want to keep up the urgency around improving performance of different student groups and making sure that we are bringing up all kids.”

Transition period

Since winning the election on Nov. 6, Lee has huddled with a small team of advisers in a windowless office at the state Capitol to plan the transition to a new administration, including sorting through about 600 resumes submitted for various jobs in all departments.

Transition spokeswoman Laine Arnold said the plan is to have the full cabinet in place by Lee’s Jan. 19 inauguration. But, she added, “we will be open to extending this process if needed.”

Lee’s pick for schools chief is considered key — and not just because the governor-elect made education a priority on the campaign trail, including a frequent call for stronger career and technical education.

The new commissioner eventually will manage a department of more than 600 employees overseeing a public school system for about a million students, 78,000 certified educators, and $6 billion in school funding.

And because Congress voted to cede much control over K-12 policy to state officials under a 2015 federal law, the commissioner plays an even larger role than in decades past.

Homegrown vs. national

Because of the high stakes, groups like SCORE are urging Lee to cast a wide net in his search for a successor to McQueen.

“We should aspire to have best-in-class and best-in-the-nation talent, just like we’ve had the last 10 years,” said Mansouri. “That may mean the person is from Tennessee, or from somewhere else.”

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen was one of Gov. Bill Haslam’s most visible cabinet members.

Other groups emphasize the value of being familiar with Tennessee schools.

“As an organization comprised of school district leaders, we believe it would be an advantage for a state commissioner of education to have experience both in the classroom and as a public school system leader in Tennessee,” said Dale Lynch, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

Adds Beth Brown, president of the Tennessee Education Association: “The next commissioner should have a practical understanding of what goes on in our public schools. Having that kind of leader in place will go a long way to restoring teachers’ confidence in our Department of Education.”

Last handoff

When Republican Bill Haslam took the baton from Democrat Phil Bredesen in 2011 in the last gubernatorial handoff, he conducted a national search before plucking Kevin Huffman from the ranks of the education reform movement as his point person on schools.

A lawyer who was an executive with Teach For America in Washington, D.C., Huffman was tasked with managing Tennessee’s just-approved overhaul of K-12 schools as part of its $500 million federal Race to the Top award. The Obama-era competition had incentivized states to adopt shared academic standards, improve its lowest-performing schools, measure students’ growth over time, and design policies to reward and retain top teachers.

State education commissioner Kevin Huffman.
PHOTO: TN.gov
Kevin Huffman was Tennessee’s education commissioner from 2011 to 2014.

A polarizing leader, Huffman left after three years of clashing with teacher groups, district leaders, and state lawmakers over policies ranging from teacher licensing and evaluations to charter schools and Common Core.

Haslam then turned to McQueen, a native of Clarksville, Tenn., former teacher, and respected dean of education at Nashville’s Lipscomb University.

“She was a kinder, gentler Kevin Huffman,” said Dan Lawson, long-time school superintendent in Tullahoma. “They shared the same political agenda and underpinning, but Candice was able to deliver it in a smoother, less abrasive fashion.”

McQueen held the rudder steady on the state’s new roadmap, plus bolstered supports for teachers and launched a major reading initiative. But ongoing fumbles delivering a state test took their toll.

Interim or not

The complexities of education policy, including Tennessee’s pioneering changes over the last decade, are why SCORE leaders hope that Lee doesn’t rush to make a hire.

“We think that having a thoughtful approach that looks for the best in the nation is the right one,” said Mansouri. “If that takes time, that’s OK. It’s about getting the right person.”

There’s precedent here.

Before Haslam hired Huffman several months after taking office, he leaned on acting commissioner Patrick Smith, who had led the state’s Race to the Top oversight team under Bredesen.

Other groups agree that a thorough search is in order.

“My sense is that the Lee administration will look for top talent and let quality drive their hiring decisions. But having some ties to Tennessee will be a huge bonus,” said Shaka Miller, state director of the American Federation for Children, a group that Lee has supported and that backs a “school choice” agenda, including charter schools and voucher-like programs.

Qualities and qualifications

On the campaign trail, Lee pledged to hire the most talented and qualified people for his administration.

Arnold adds: “He’s looking for those who share his vision in making Tennessee a national leader, while also ensuring geographic and individual diversity.”

While she declined to discuss names, Lee has sought advice from two superintendents from West Tennessee — Dorsey Hopson in Shelby County and Marlon King in Fayette County — both of whom were on a 72-person campaign list of Tennesseans who supported or advised him on education.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Dorsey Hopson is superintendent of Shelby County Schools, Tennessee’s largest district.

Hopson’s backing of the millionaire Republican candidate from affluent suburban Williamson County raised eyebrows — and some fury — among his mostly urban Democratic district in Memphis, which has the state’s highest share of impoverished students.

Hopson told Chalkbeat at the time that he was “not angling for a job,” but rather that he and Lee had developed a mutual respect while getting to know each during the last year and a half.

“We routinely discussed faith, family, government, and education issues,” said Hopson, a lawyer who has headed Tennessee’s largest district since 2013. “I appreciated the thoughtful and humble way that he sought my input.”

Asked last week about Hopson, Lee told Memphis TV station Local 24 News that he hadn’t spoken with the superintendent specifically about his administration but added: “He has a role. We talk. We’ve become friends. I have a great deal of respect for his expertise.”

Hopson would have to take a pay cut, however, if Lee offered and he accepted the commissioner’s job. As superintendent, he makes $285,000 a year. The salary for the state’s education chief is $200,000.

Follow the ratings

Illinois education officials laud their school ratings — but critics say they don’t go far enough

Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State education officials publicly lauded their new school rating system Friday, even as a new, nationwide analysis of school improvement plans criticized Illinois’ approach as too hands-off.  

While the state developed a clear rating system as the federal government requires, Illinois falls short in follow-through, according to the report from the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit advocacy group, and HCM Strategies, a policy analysis group.  

“The state is taking too limited a role in leading or supporting school improvement efforts,” said the report, which examined how 17 states are implementing school improvement plans under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which was passed in 2015 and replaced the No Child Left Behind Act.

Both those federal laws task states with identifying and helping improve underperforming schools and with creating criteria to judge which schools are doing well. Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State officials disagree with the criticism.

“Illinois is being held up as a model for other states to follow,” said Ralph Grimm, chief education officer of Illinois, speaking at the monthly state board of education meeting on Friday. “The entire (state) team has to be commended for providing useful information.”

Illinois’ rating system places every public school in the state into one of four categories based in part on scores on the annual PARCC standardized tests (click here to see how Chicago schools ranked).

Only about a third of Illinois students scored proficient or higher on PARCC tests administered last spring. In reading, 37 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 met that benchmark, while in math 31 percent did. Despite that, the state awarded 80 percent of its schools a “commendable” or “exemplary” rating. 

The state labeled 20 percent of schools “underperforming” or “low performing,” the only designations that could trigger state action. Intervention measures include improvement plans, visits from specialists, and additional funding.

The state released its ratings just days after Chicago released its own batch of school ratings, which take into account a different set of metrics and a different standardized test.

Grimm said the next step will be asking the state’s lowest-performing schools to draft improvement plans and then connecting them with experts to implement their changes.

The state ratings pay particular attention to how schools educate certain groups of students — such as children of color and English language learners. Improvement plans will focus on ways to raise their achievement levels.

Under the latest state rankings, nearly half of Chicago schools failed to meet the state’s threshold for performance, with a disproportionate number of high schools on the low-performance list. Nearly all of under- and low-performing Chicago high schools are on the South Side and sit in or border on the city’s poorest census tracts.

The state could grant underperforming schools $15,000, and  the lowest performers can apply for $100,000 under its IL-Empower program — which helped schools improve by funneling federal funds to them. Advocates have welcomed the change to a carrot to help schools pull themselves up, after years of sticks that overhauled and cut funding for low-performing schools.

Nationally, the Collaborative for Student Success report applauded Colorado for its streamlined application system, and Nevada for asking districts to directly address equity.

The collaborative criticized Illinois for failing to involve parents and community members in its plan. The group also said the state needs to give districts more guidance on putting together school improvement plans.