Nope

Tennessee sides with Memphis and Nashville boards in rejecting four new charter schools

Members of Tennessee's State Board of Education listen to recommendations on charter school appeals during their two-day meeting in Cookeville.

Pitches by four charter groups to open new schools in Memphis and Nashville fell short on Friday as Tennessee’s State Board of Education affirmed the decisions of local school boards to reject their applications.

Voting with recommendations from its staff, the State Board unanimously denied the appeals based on shortcomings in the groups’ plans for academics, operations, or finances.

Among those denied were appeals involving two out-of-state networks. California-based Aspire was seeking to open a middle school in Memphis, and ReThink Forward had hoped to launch a K-8 school in Nashville through a partnership between Florida-based Noble Education Initiative and Trevecca Nazarene University, which is in Nashville.

The other appeals were filed by Memphis-based Capstone Education Group, which already runs three local schools under the state-run Achievement School District, and Avodah International, a new Memphis group seeking to open a high school in the city’s south side.

Tennessee has sought to raise the bar for its charter sector under a recently revised state law and a new school improvement plan in compliance with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. In Memphis next spring, seven charter schools are set to close for landing in the bottom 5 percent on the state’s newest list of priority schools.

“We do care deeply about having the best schools in front of our children. … We believe charter schools can be a great option,” said Chairwoman Lillian Hartgrove after the board’s vote. “But by the same token, we have our process, and it’s a very thorough process to ensure that we’re approving charters that should be approved, and not approving charters that should not.”

The appeals were filed after school boards in Shelby and Davidson counties voted down the groups’ applications in August.

Under Tennessee law, the state board can overrule a local body if it deems the decision contrary to the best interests of students, the school district, or the community — and can even oversee the school itself if the local district still declines to work with the charter operator.

But the state board’s staff found all four appeals lacking based on their reviews and public hearings.

Memphis-based Capstone came closest to meeting all the criteria, but its glaring weakness was not identifying a neighborhood or location for its proposed school, said Tess Stovall, director of charter schools for the state board.

Capstone will heed that advice when it submits another application next year, said Executive Director Drew Sippel, whose organization was trying to place the school where it would be needed most based on the latest school closings within Shelby County Schools.

“I think our servant-hearted approach actually became an impediment to our approval as an operator. The next time, we’ll pick a neighborhood well in advance,” Sippel told Chalkbeat after the vote.

The application by ReThink Forward, a group chaired by Trevecca President Dan Boone, was the only one submitted this year to Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. While partnering network NEI already operates seven schools in Indiana, Georgia, and Florida, the state’s staff graded their proposal short in all criteria.

This was the fourth year that the Nashville district has shied away from charters. Since 2015, that school board has approved only one application.

By contrast, the charter sector has grown steadily in Memphis and Shelby County since Tennessee opened the door to nonprofit charter schools beginning in 2003. In August, Shelby County’s school board approved nine more charters for next fall, including the six Compass Community Schools that will replace the soon-to-close Jubilee Catholic Schools Network. Once those open, Shelby County Schools will have 63 charters — by far the most in the state.

Rethinking Discipline

Fits and starts: Inside KIPP’s school-by-school discipline transformation

PHOTO: Francisco Vara-Orta/Chalkbeat
KIPP Camino's Dean of Culture Curtis Bailey conducts a circle with ten fifth-grade students on a recent afternoon at a San Antonio campus.

It was the second meeting of a group meant to defuse conflicts at KIPP Camino, and there was plenty to defuse.

Whether a certain K-pop band was good or bad, who was friends with whom — it was all causing fights, sometimes with profanity thrown in. Students sitting in a circle took turns explaining what had gone wrong, and it quickly became obvious that one student was the common denominator.

“How did hearing that make you feel?” the school’s dean of culture, Curtis Bailey, asked her.

“Guilty,” she said.

“So what do you think can be done to repair the situation?” Bailey prompted.

“To say sorry and to never do it again,” she said.

Bailey surveyed the scene with a sense of pride: The previous week, all 10 students in the group were caught up in conflict, and it took nearly an hour to sort through the disagreements.  This time, they reached a conclusion in 30 minutes.

“We’re starting to whittle down what and who is at the heart of the conflicts,” Bailey said. It was a start.

The activity was part of the San Antonio KIPP school’s efforts to reduce suspensions by adopting “restorative justice” practices that aim to help students rethink and ultimately change their behavior. Inspired by changes in Bay Area KIPP schools nearly a decade ago, changes are underway at dozens of KIPP schools across the country. The initiatives are reshaping schools across the country’s largest nonprofit charter network, which was an early emblem of the “no excuses” movement that called for strict discipline to achieve academic gains.

KIPP is far from alone in reconsidering punitive discipline practices. Amid a growing awareness that harsh discipline can alienate students and could push them off track to graduate, many districts and networks have charged schools with reducing suspensions.

But unlike places where that charge has come via a top-down decree, KIPP is allowing each of its 32 local networks to decide how to make the shift. In some places, the transition happened quickly, while others have plans that will take years to roll out; a few places aren’t prioritizing restorative justice, choosing a different strategy altogether.

Network officials say patience is necessary if the changes are to gain the support they need to make a difference for students. But the strategy comes with costs: Some KIPP schools continue to suspend students at a high rate, while other school leaders say they’re no longer able to solely prioritize academics.

“We’re in the middle of a conversation as a network,” said Rich Buery, KIPP’s chief of policy and public affairs. “Some folks are far along in the process, and others are just starting, so we are still learning. … But we as a network are committed to examining our practices and that is what we are doing. This is not going to start in the national office. This one is going to have to start in the schools.”

In San Antonio, schools are making gains, but with tradeoffs

Bailey’s school offers one example of how KIPP’s evolution is playing out locally.

The school began reconsidering its approach to discipline in 2013, in part because it wasn’t getting the academic results it wanted. The school — where 96 percent of students are Latino and 89 percent are from low-income families — was on the brink of being labeled by the state as failing academically.

Then-assistant principal Juan Juarez said he thought suspensions were helping students learn about the consequences of their actions. When he analyzed discipline data at the end of that year, though, he realized that he was suspending the same students over and over.

“It was not acceptable that these dozen or so students were missing school and jeopardizing their academic potential due to behavior issues,” he said. “I knew we could do better.”

The school started small, introducing the new policies in fifth grade. When Juarez became the principal in 2015, he restructured the staff, building a team to help supplement the school’s restorative justice efforts that included Bailey and a social worker. That social worker represented a tradeoff: the alternative, he recalled, was another math specialist.

“Sometimes you have to prioritize the school culture over academics,” Juarez said. And they’re obviously intertwined, he said, with discipline issues getting in the way of students’ academic goals.

It took two years for the whole school to use restorative discipline. Suspensions fell from 731 two years ago to 451, a 38 percent drop; the campus also earned what would be a B+ under the state’s new accountability system.

Juarez is now helping train others at the six other KIPP schools in San Antonio, which are introducing the policies now. Bailey, who started at KIPP Camino as a math teacher before moving to his behavioral specialist position, says he sees the results at that school daily.

At the end of the recent circle he oversaw with the 10 students, two students agreed to sign contracts agreeing to corrective behavior. Another two students, the nucleus of the group’s conflict, signed up for a more intimate circle.

PHOTO: Francisco Vara-Orta/Chalkbeat
Abril Garcia and Fernando Rivera Rodriguez, both in the eighth grade, are conducting a “circle” in the hallway with one another as part of KIPP Camino Academy’s push toward restorative justice. The campus is in San Antonio.

In Denver, using local donations to build staff

Time helps, but so does money when it comes to introducing restorative techniques.

Kimberlee Sia, CEO of KIPP Colorado Schools, said a $100,000 grant from area donors has been crucial. The local network used that money to hire restorative justice coordinators to expand the work beyond a pilot at one middle school to all six area campuses. The network now includes those positions in annual campus budgets.

At KIPP Northeast Denver Middle School, the first campus to use the techniques across all grades, suspensions fell from 99 to 31 over the past two school years. Meanwhile, another middle school in the network, KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy, saw them increase from 30 to 50 in the same time period, and is just beginning to introduce new policies.

At Northeast Denver Middle School, the school has tried to normalize the kind of circle used after a discipline incident by holding discussion circles for students during their morning advisory period.

“The circles can revolve around a challenge in the community, like a tragedy involving death, or that a house burned down, as way of creating a space for students to discuss what that means to them, in a social-emotional learning capacity,” Sia said. “We’ve learned it’s best to not have students’ initial interaction with restorative justice to be when they have been told they did something wrong.”

In Baltimore, change inspired by local tragedy

At KIPP Harmony Academy, principal Natalia Walter Adamson said her school’s change began as teachers looked for ways to help their elementary schoolers after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in 2015.

“We could see the trauma in our students’ faces and hear it from what they said they were seeing on TV, or in their neighborhoods, and started to reexamine what are we doing when it comes to supporting them, especially through a racial equity lens,” Walter Adamson said.

Unlike Camino, where educators focus on intervening in conflicts between parties, Harmony’s teachers use classroom-wide circles to get students talking.

In Baltimore, suspensions at the Harmony campus have fallen by over 50 percent over the last two school years, from 229 to 103. KIPP’s other school in the Baltimore area, the neighboring middle school, has yet to adopt new policies, though network officials say it has shown interest.

In the Bay Area, phasing in change

In the Bay Area, which pioneered using restorative justice techniques, new KIPP schools use them from the get-go. Older campuses get a a four-year implementation plan, said Alexei Greig, the region’s head of school culture. Year one focuses on studying the data, then a year is spent training teachers. In the third year, an entire school adopts the practices, which are finessed in year four.

“We actually think this is now the best approach,” Greig said. “You can try to go by grade level, but if it’s not integrated well enough, then you wind up with pockets of success here and there that can lead to inconsistencies.”

KIPP officials credit the changes with helping cut down suspension rates, which have fallen from 8 percent of all students being suspended in 2013 to about 4 percent last school year.

Across the country, moving ahead

Research about restorative justice techniques is limited. There isn’t a critical mass of conclusive research showing that their use leads to better academic or other outcomes for students.

The scattershot approach that KIPP is using — four specialized staffers in some schools, none in others, for example — is helpful for understanding why, according to James Sadler, a research fellow at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill studying restorative practices at no-excuses charter schools. The practices can look really different from place to place.

What does exist, Sadler said, “Is enough qualitative research studying teacher voice that says it does seem to work, in at least lowering suspension rates, when there is buy-in from them.”

“The one concern I’ve heard is that teachers do feel at times they are losing control of their classrooms when this directive may come from a principal down,” he said, pointing to the problems Los Angeles faced after the district pushed schools to change. “Even if not from central office — it’s enough to dim some of the buy-in needed in the long run.”

Still, as KIPP’s evolution proceeds, some common practices are emerging.

In San Antonio, Colorado, Baltimore, and the Bay Area, officials said they have revamped the hiring process to screen out applicants who don’t agree with restorative practices or might not be prepared to carry them out. They now ask questions designed to determine whether educators believe that implicit bias exists and influences schools, for example.

“That helps weed out some people for us,” Juarez said.

Buery said the national leadership is working to put more formal support behind the efforts to change KIPP’s discipline, trying to strike a balance of being supportive but not micromanaging. So far, that’s taken the form of training sessions at the last three of the network’s annual summits, and encouraging school leaders to travel to see or train their peers elsewhere.

“I don’t think any school is averse to this, but it’s best executed from what we’ve seen when teachers and school leaders take the initiative,” Buery said. “That’s the benefit and challenge of being a network such as KIPP — the flexibility and autonomy.”

Open record

The Denver teachers union requested the names and salaries of all charter school teachers

The Denver teachers union used state law to make a public records request for the names, email addresses, and salaries of every charter school teacher in the school district — and Denver Public Schools complied and turned over the information.

The request could signal that the union plans to try to get charter school teachers to join. Currently, only teachers at district-run schools belong to the Denver union. Given that more than a quarter of Denver’s 200 schools are charters, recruiting charter school teachers could significantly swell the union’s ranks and increase its political power.

Some charter leaders, though, see unions — and the teacher contracts they negotiate — as a threat to the flexibility they say makes charter schools successful.

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association declined to say how it plans to use the charter teachers’ contact and salary information. Denver Public Schools officials recently sent an email to charter school leaders in the district giving them a heads-up about the request.

Colorado doesn’t have unionized charter schools, though they do exist in other states. In Chicago, teachers at two charter networks recently voted to authorize strikes if negotiations break down; these strikes would be the first of their kind in the nation.

A study by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools found that 781 charter schools nationwide participated in collective bargaining agreements with teachers unions in 2016-17, which represented about 11 percent of charter schools nationwide. However, a majority of those were required by state law or district policy to be part of the contract.

The country’s two largest teachers unions — the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers — have welcomed charter school educators.

The Denver union is affiliated with the National Education Association, which did not respond to requests for comment for this story. On its website, the NEA says charter school educators “face many of the same issues public school teachers face, and they know the strength in having a unified voice to advocate for their students’ needs.” (Charter schools are public schools. The difference in Colorado is that they are run by nonprofit organizations instead of school districts.)

But many charter leaders suspect an ulterior motive, given that teachers unions are often the loudest opponents of efforts to open new charter schools or provide them with more funding.

“The unionization thing is within a broader set of strategies to destroy charter schools,” said Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Teacher contracts often dictate how many days per year and hours per day teachers can work, an approach Ziebarth disparages as “one-size-fits-all.” One of the key tenets of charter schools is that they’re free from such requirements, and thus able to innovate in ways they believe will benefit students. Having to abide by a contract “doesn’t allow schools to make nimble decisions to improve learning for kids,” Ziebarth said.

The Colorado League of Charter Schools, a nonprofit membership organization for charter schools in the state, echoed some of the same sentiments in a statement that says, in part:

“It would be interesting that an organization that has historically worked so actively against the interests of charter schools, their teachers and their students — being one of the most outspoken voices at the State Capitol each year in opposition to more fair and equal funding for charter public schools and their students — would now be trying to position themselves as a partner.”

Last year, the Colorado Education Association — the statewide union to which the Denver teachers union belongs — opposed a bill in the state legislature that would have required school districts to share with charters a portion of locally approved tax increases.

When the bill was killed, the statewide union sent out a celebratory press release.

“Our state representatives made the correct move in rejecting this piece of legislation that blatantly favored unfettered charter schools at the expense of the vast majority of students attending public schools all across the state,” the union president said in the release.

Lawmakers eventually adopted a compromise that included the revenue sharing, plus new requirements that charters post more financial and operational information online. This time, the union’s press release only briefly mentioned the revenue sharing, while lauding the new rules.

“Parents at Rocky Mountain Prep, where (the bill) was signed, will finally be able to go to the school’s website and easily see the school’s 22 statutory waivers, including the school’s waiver from the requirement that classrooms have licensed, certified teachers,” it said.

Rocky Mountain Prep is one of several homegrown charter networks in Denver. Founder James Cryan said he was aware that the Denver teachers union had made the public records request, but he didn’t have any more information. Other charter networks said the same.

Ahmed White, a University of Colorado Law School professor who specializes in labor and employment law, said getting employee lists is a common practice in union organizing.

“That’s a logical thing for them to do,” he said of the Denver teachers union’s public records request. “If I were them, I would have done that too because you’ve got a lot of employees and no other reasonable way to get a hold of their information.”

Chalkbeat used the state public records law to get a copy of the information the union received in its request. It is a spreadsheet with the names of 1,668 charter school teachers, social workers, counselors, and psychologists. It lists where each of them works, how many days per year they’re contracted to work, and their hourly salary.

Charter school teachers are often paid less than district teachers. A 2016 report by the Colorado Department of Education found that the average charter school teacher salary in the previous year was $39,052, whereas the average salary at a district-run school was $54,455.

It was not immediately clear based on the information in the spreadsheet how Denver charter teacher salaries compare to the salaries of teachers at district-run schools. The average teacher at a district-run school in Denver made $57,753 last year, according to the district.

A spokesperson for one Denver charter network said the hourly salaries listed in the spreadsheet for at least some of its teachers were not accurate or up to date.

The spreadsheet also includes an email address for each teacher. But it is a Denver Public Schools email address, not the address given to them by their charter school. A district spokesperson said charter school teachers have district email addresses so they can access the online systems the district uses to record things like grades and attendance.

A spokesperson for the Colorado Education Association said the Denver union acted on its own in making the request, and it is not part of a statewide strategy to unionize charter teachers.

The Denver union had about 3,000 members last year. It is currently in negotiations with the district to revise the district’s pay-for-performance system.