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.”

Walk it out

NYC mayor encourages school walkouts in wake of Florida shooting: ‘If I was a high school student today, I’d be walking out’

PHOTO: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio

In the wake of a school shooting in Florida that left 17 dead, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said students won’t face serious disciplinary action if they choose to participate in a national school walkout planned for next month to protest gun violence.

“If I was a high school student today, I’d be walking out,” de Blasio said Thursday. “This is too important a moment in history to try to hold back the desire of our young people to see fundamental change and to protect themselves.”

Students across the country are planning to walk out of class at 10 a.m. on March 14 “to protest Congress’ inaction to do more than tweet thoughts and prayers in response to the gun violence plaguing our schools and neighborhoods,” according to a Facebook description of the event.  The protest is scheduled to last 17 minutes, one for each person who died at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

And unlike one Texas school district, which threatened to slap students with suspensions if they walked out, de Blasio said students would not face serious discipline. “There’s no negative, lasting impact if they do this,” the mayor said.

De Blasio’s tacit endorsement of the walkout comes just days after he announced that schools across the city would deploy more “rapid-response lesson plans” about current events. On Friday, de Blasio told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer that the protests are a “teachable moment.”

We are going to do lesson plans around this issue leading up to that day,” de Blasio said. “We are going to make sure that there’s a real educational impact.”

The city also announced this week that every New York City school will hold a lockdown drill by March 15, and every middle and high school will be subject to at least one random screening with metal detectors this year.

Here’s more on what de Blasio told Lehrer this morning:

For high school students – we are going to be very clear, we want parents to weigh in, to let us know if they are comfortable with a young person walking out. It is supposed to be for 17 minutes. We expect the school day before and after to proceed. For younger folks – middle school, elementary school — the model I’m interested in, we are still working on this, is to have it be within the context of the building, you know to gather in the building for the memorial to the 17 young people lost, 17 people lost I should say. And again that may be silent, that may be with young people speaking, that’s all being worked through.

Speaking Out

Students at Denver’s George Washington High say their voices were unheard in principal selection

PHOTO: Denver Post file

When Shahad Mohieldin learned that students, parents, and teachers at George Washington High School in Denver would have a say in who was named the next principal, the high school senior spent days recruiting representatives from all three groups to participate.

Mohieldin, a member of the school’s advisory board, said she and others worked hard to ensure the group vetting the principal candidates would be diverse. It was important to include students of color and white students, parents who speak English and those who don’t, and teachers of both International Baccalaureate and traditional classes, she said, especially since the high school has been working to heal years-long racial and academic divides.

The students particularly liked one candidate who they said seemed to understand the school’s struggles. He would have also been a leader of color at a school where 70 percent are students of color. Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg ultimately chose a different candidate, a more experienced principal with whom he’d worked closely before.

It was a whirlwind process that took just seven weeks from when the current principal announced his retirement. In the end, Mohieldin and other students said they were left feeling like their voices were ignored.

“We were often told that, ‘Hey, your voice really matters in this. Please, we want your input,’” Mohieldin said. “It really hurts. Now we don’t trust the district as much, which is really sad.”

District leaders said the process was quick but thorough. Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova said that while it was clear the students preferred one candidate, the input collected from parents, teachers, and community members was more mixed. The slate of three finalists was unusually strong, she said, and it was not an easy decision.

Kristin Waters, the candidate who was hired, is a former district administrator with years of experience leading a comprehensive Denver high school similar in size to George Washington. The students’ top choice was an assistant principal at East High School named Jason Maclin.

Cordova said she wants to assure students that although district leaders didn’t choose students’ favored candidate, they did consider their opinions.

“It is important to use your voice,” Cordova said. “Sometimes your voice isn’t the only piece of information we look at, but in no way does that mean to stop speaking out.”

Not listening to community feedback is a perennial criticism of Denver Public Schools, and one district leaders are continually trying to address. Recently, several major decisions have been based on recommendations from committees of parents and community members. While the process hasn’t always gone smoothly, the district has followed the community’s advice.

In the case of the George Washington principal selection, the process worked like this: Current principal Scott Lessard announced in mid-December that he’d be retiring at the end of the school year. Lessard has helmed the school for two years, and students and teachers credit him with fostering a sense of unity and a culture of openness to new ideas.

But he said the daily challenges of being a school principal led to his decision.

“I was going to retire at some point,” he said. “It may not have been at the end of this year, but it was going to be soon. The school in such a good place, I thought it was a unique opportunity now to find somebody who would be a good principal.”

The district has a pool of pre-screened principal candidates who are invited to apply for openings as they come up, Cordova said. With every vacancy, the district convenes a committee of parents, teachers, and community members to interview the candidates. In the case of high school principal jobs, the district also asks students to participate.

For George Washington, the district assembled the committee and three separate focus groups, which Mohieldin helped organize: one of parents, one of teachers, and one of students. The groups and the committee interviewed five candidates selected by the district, and based partly on their feedback, district leaders whittled the field to three finalists, Cordova said.

The three finalists then participated in a community forum. Forum attendees were asked to submit written comments on candidates’ strengths and weaknesses, and Cordova said she personally read every single one. She said district leaders also read emails students sent afterward urging the district to pick Maclin. Students said they never received responses to those emails – one reason they felt unheard.

A week after the forum, on Feb. 6, the district announced its decision to hire Waters.

Cordova said she has every confidence that Waters will be “an amazing school leader.” Waters has been principal of three Denver schools: Morey Middle School; Bruce Randolph School, which serves grades six through 12; and South High School, whose demographics are similar to George Washington. More than 300 of the 1,239 students at George Washington are black and more than 400 are Hispanic.

“She has a strong track record working in similar communities,” Cordova said.

Students had some concerns about Waters’ approachability and her seemingly close ties with district leadership; Boasberg was listed as the first reference on her resumé. They said they liked Maclin’s presence, and that he seemed knowledgeable about the school’s past struggles and had concrete ideas for its future. Maclin submitted a proposed plan for his first 100 days as principal that included conducting a listening tour of the school community.

But students said their main complaint is not the outcome but the way the process unfolded.

“The district goes through this whole act of putting on these focus groups and interviews at the school and it’s like, ‘What really came out of that?’” said sophomore Andrew Schwartz. “At this point, it seems like the answer to that question is very little. I think that’s upsetting.”

Schwartz was part of the student focus group that interviewed all five candidates. So was junior Henry Waldstreicher, who noted that students missed an entire day of school to participate.

Waldstreicher said he was also left feeling disillusioned. “Why should we even try to talk to the district if they’re not going to listen to what we’re going to say?” he said.

The perception that the selection process was top-down wasn’t just among the students. Some teachers and community members said they felt the same way.

“We were given the opportunity to give our feedback and then it went into a black box and a decision was made,” said Vincent Bowen, a community member who participates in a student mentoring program at George Washington and was on the selection committee.

Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver teachers union, shared those concerns, adding that what happened at George Washington has happened at other schools, too: Candidates, she said, “go through this process, this rigamarole, but the district already knows who they’re going to pick.”

Parent Elizabeth Sopher said she feels district leaders weren’t as transparent as they could have been about what they wanted in a new principal, which she suspects contributed to the disconnect between the students’ top pick and the district’s ultimate decision.

“When you say to a group, ‘You tell us what the most important thing about this new principal is to you,’” she said, but then don’t make a decision based on that, “that’s a mistake.”

For her part, Waters said she’s excited to step into her new role at George Washington. She’s slated to start March 1 and finish out the school year alongside Lessard, a transition plan Cordova said was important to the district and the school community.

Waters said she wants to build a strong relationship with students. To that end, she has already met with a group of them to talk about their concerns.

“Once I get on board, they will see me out and about and hopefully feel comfortable coming up to me and letting me know what they’re thinking,” Waters said. “I want their input.”

Junior Cora Galpern said rebuilding that trust will be crucial. In the future, Galpern said the district should give students and others more of a say in principal selection by seeking a consensus on a candidate rather than simply soliciting feedback.

“Because at the end of the day,” she said, “our next principal has a huge effect on our day-to-day lives.”