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.”

Charter Churn

New York City charters burn through principals faster than district schools, report finds

PHOTO: Getty Images / Spencer Platt
A charter school rally in New York City

As the principal at Renaissance Charter School, Stacey Gauthier’s job extends well beyond supervising teachers. She manages fundraising, lobbies elected officials to support charter schools, and even responds to issues raised by the teachers union.

“We are basically our own district,” she said, noting that the work of running an independent charter school can be a challenge without the infrastructure that comes with a school system or even a large charter network.

Despite that heavy workload, Gauthier has stayed in her role for 11 years, making her an outlier among charter principals. According to a first-of-its-kind report released earlier this month by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank, the city’s charter schools generally churn through principals at a much higher rate than traditional district schools.

Last school year, 25 percent of the city’s charter school principals were new, more than double the turnover rate at district schools. That level of turnover represents something of a paradox: Studies show principal turnover can hurt student achievement, but research has also shown the city’s charter schools generally have higher state test scores than district schools do.

“If the research is right” about the consequences of principal turnover, said Marcus Winters, a Manhattan Institute fellow and the report’s author, “by addressing it, [charter schools] could improve even more.”

But it’s not clear why turnover is so much higher at charter schools, which also often churn through teachers at a higher rate.

One reason could be differences in student demographics. Since charter schools enroll a greater share of low-income students and students of color than district schools on average, that could make for a more challenging environment that contributes to churn. But controlling for differences in student demographics — including proportions of English learners, students with disabilities, those coming from poor families, and race — the report found no meaningful effect on turnover.

Another possible reason: Charter principals are easier to fire than district principals who typically have more union protections. A charter principal who runs a school that is seen as low performing is easier to replace, the theory goes, explaining higher levels of turnover. But the data don’t back up that theory. Even after taking into account differences in school performance as measured by school quality reports, higher turnover “was not driven by overall school performance,” Winters found.

It’s also possible charter schools are just more difficult work environments in ways that are difficult to measure, including some schools’ adoption of a “no excuses” ethos that tells educators that a student’s life circumstances should never excuse performance issues at school. (The report does not include breakdowns of individual charter schools or networks.)

James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, said there could be some truth to the idea that charter schools are tougher work environments, but added that some of the turnover could be related to fierce competition for leadership talent.

“There’s such a huge supply-demand imbalance for high-quality principals,” he said.

The report includes another puzzling trend — turnover in district and charter schools fluctuates significantly over time. Over the past 10 years, turnover at district schools ranged from 8.7 to 14 percent each year. At charters, turnover ranged from 7 to nearly 34 percent. Those swings meant that in two of the last 10 years, district turnover was slightly higher than it was at charters.

Winters, the report’s author, didn’t come to a firm conclusion about why the turnover rates seemed to shift significantly from year to year.

“I left this paper with more questions than answers,” he said.

Speaking Up

Letters to J.B.: Here’s what 10 Illinois educators said governor-elect Pritzker should prioritize

PHOTO: Keri Wiginton/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images

As governor-elect and national early childhood education advocate J.B. Pritzker assembles his transition team and builds out his early agenda, we asked educators to weigh in with items he should consider.

Here are 10 of their responses, which range from pleas for more staffing to more counseling and mental health services. Letters have been edited only for clarity and length. Got something to add? Use the comment section below or tell us on Twitter using #PritzkerEdu.

From: A non-profit employee who works with schools in the city and suburbs

Letter to J.B.: I work with a number of students from the City of Chicago and sadly most of them lack basic skills. Most of the students lack the ability to read and write properly, and perform below grade level. It is alarming how many students don’t have critical-thinking and analytical skills. The lack of education in low-income and minority population will hurt our city and state in years to come.

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From: A youth organizer at Morrill Elementary, a K-8 school on Chicago’s Southwest Side

Letter to J.B.: Morrill School has suffered from constant turnover due to an unstable Chicago Public Schools environment that cares more about upholding its own self-interest than the people it should be serving. We need representatives that will advocate for what communities say they need!

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From: A music teacher at a Chicago charter school

Letter to J.B.: I work at a charter school and I don’t think we are doing the best we can for our kids. Our school’s policies are too harsh and dehumanizing.

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From: A Chicago charter school social worker

Letter to J.B.: We’ve cut mental health services throughout the city and that has crippled us. Parents have a hard time getting jobs and having enough money to supply basic needs.

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From: A Chicago principal

Letter to J.B.: My school is 100 percent free- and reduced-price lunch-eligible, or low-income population. We are a middle years International Baccalaureate school. Our children were once were the lowest performing in the area and now we are a Level 1-plus school. Our school was on the closing list back in 2005 when I took over.

But now we are an investment school. Teachers are dedicated and work hard. We need funding for a new teacher to keep classes small and additional funds to purchase multiple resources to continue and strengthen overall academics. We have a vested interest in educating all of our children!

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From: A teacher at A.N. Pritzker Elementary in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood

Letter to J.B.: Great kids. Great staff. No librarian. Extremely poor special education services. No substitute teachers. No time for planning. No time for anyone to provide mental health services for those in need.

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From: A teacher at Whitney Young High School on Chicago’s Near West Side

Letter to J.B.: Every teacher knows that well over 90 percent of the students with academic problems have serious problems at home and in their neighborhoods. In the suburbs, social worker and psychologist staffing levels are often five to 10 times what they are here in the city, where kids are dealing with way more challenges, not less. If you’re looking for bang for your buck, fund psychologists and social workers!

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From: A teacher in the Galesburg CUSD 205

Letter to J.B.: Our school is diverse in all definitions of the word. We have a diverse population in terms of race, money, and ability. We currently don’t have the money to keep all of the schools in our district open and are in the process of closing some of the buildings in order to get the others up to code and comfortable; many of our schools don’t even have air conditioning.

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From: A teacher at Kiefer School, a Peoria school that educates children with severe behavioral and learning challenges

Letter to J.B.: We work with students with behavioral and mental challenges who need more help getting mental health services. We’ve had children deflected from being hospitalized due to no beds being available.

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From: A teacher at Unity Junior High School in Cicero

Letter to J.B.: People often think that our school is “bad,” but the truth is, we have so many staff and students that work hard every day to bring positive change.