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.”

Changing course

After pressure from school board members, University of Memphis middle school drops its academic requirement

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
University of Memphis' elementary, Campus School, is one of the highest achieving schools in the state.

Leaders of a popular elementary school known for its high academic performance are changing the entrance requirements at a proposed middle school in hopes of creating a more diverse student body.

After the Shelby County Schools board raised concerns that the University of Memphis’ plans would continue a pattern of student enrollment from its elementary school, Campus School, that is mostly white, university leaders said last week they would drop the academic requirement for the middle school.

Most Memphis students do not meet state standards for learning. Under the revised proposal, students would need satisfactory behavior records and fewer than 15 unexcused absences, tardies, or early dismissals.

In addition, the school is meant to be a learning lab for teachers earning their degrees. School leaders hope these teachers will eventually return to the Memphis school system to work with children who live in poverty. But currently, the student body doesn’t reflect the population school leaders want to serve.

“We need to make sure that new teachers are getting everything they need. That way you then can learn how to be successful in a diverse community,” board member Miska Clay Bibbs said.

White students made up two-thirds of the elementary school in 2017, the highest percentage in the district. Only 8 percent of the students lived in poverty — the lowest in the district. By comparison, more than half of students in Shelby County Schools live in poverty while only 8 percent are white.

The Memphis district has added more speciality schools in recent years to attract and retain high-achieving students, including white students, who might otherwise choose a private school or schools in the surrounding suburbs. Campus School is one that attracts a lot of white families.

It wasn’t always like that, board member Michelle Robinson McKissack said. She and other board members urged university leaders to do more intentional outreach to the surrounding neighborhood that would have priority in admissions.

“It’s surprising to me that it did seem to be more diverse when I was a child going to Campus in the mid-70s than today,” she said. “And I want to ensure that University Middle looks like Campus looked when I was going to school there.”

Until recently, Campus School was the only school with a contract in the district. Compared to charter schools, contract schools have more say in how they choose students. That allows the University of Memphis to give priority to children of faculty and staff.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
University Middle would be housed in the former St. Anne Catholic School near Highland Street and Spottswood Avenue.

Paul Little and his wife chose their house because of its proximity to Campus School. If the university’s middle school had been open, he would have enrolled his oldest daughter there. He considered other public options, but ultimately decided on an all-girls private school.

“For a long time, I was against private schools in general because if people with high academic achievers pull their kids out of public school, you’ve left a vacuum,” he said.

Little, a White Station High School graduate, disagrees with the assertion that Campus School is not diverse, citing several international students who are children of University of Memphis faculty.

At a recent school meeting, “when I looked out over the cafeteria, I saw a lot of diversity there… That’s never been a concern for me,” he said. He said he was encouraged by the university’s outreach plans “to make the school as diverse as possible.”

Board members are expected to discuss the contract with University of Memphis on Tuesday night, vote the following week, and then open online applications to the school Jan. 30. The school would open in August with sixth-graders with plans to add one grade each year after that.

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned picking a fight now because of the limited scope of the negotiations. That would be the current agreement governing ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers.

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.