Monday, June 16, 2014

In Nashville, a different way to do charters

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Superintendent Heath Morrison often talks about charter schools authorized by school districts,  an arrangement that isn't allowed in North Carolina.  I recently got a chance to see that model in action at Cameron College Prep,  a charter authorized by Metro Nashville Public Schools to take over a failing district school.

The tour was part of the recent Education Writers Association national seminar,  and it gave us a chance to see something I hadn't heard of before:  A charter school with an attendance zone,  and one that's being phased in as the traditional public school phases out.

Cameron College Prep

Some background:  Cameron began life as an all-black high school in south Nashville in the 1930s.  In recent decades the neighborhood and the school changed.  Cameron Middle School  (that's grades 5-8 in Nashville)  had an international population and a history of low academic performance when the district's Office of Innovation asked for takeover proposals in 2010.  The district chose the plan presented by LEAD Academy, a charter school authorized by MNPS.

Charter leaders had a year to get to know the community and try to build support for the new approach,  which involves a heavy emphasis on getting all student ready for college.  College banners and motivational slogans line the halls  (a common approach with college-prep charters I've seen).

Cameron College Prep opened with fifth-graders only,  while grades 6-8 attended Cameron Middle.  By the time we visited in May, the third year of the phase-in,  grades 5-7 were in the charter school while only the eighth-graders remained in the MNPS school. Sharing the building can be awkward,  Shaka Mitchell of LEAD acknowledged:  "It works like you getting a roommate you didn't ask for."  But it also brought vital support for the fledgling charter.  Like N.C. charters,  those in Tennessee don't get money for busing or buildings.  But the district is providing both,  though LEAD will have to take over expenses for the aging school once the last district students leave.  "That's going to hit our books,  and that's pretty serious,"  Mitchell said.

Cameron Middle teacher had options as their grades phased out:  They could apply to stay as charter faculty or be given first crack at other jobs in the district.  As LEAD employees,  they lose tenure,  make a little more money and work more days during the school year.  Most opted to stay with the district,  but the handful who applied with LEAD were hired,  LEAD officials told us.  Because of the extra days and hours,  "they're getting paid less on an hourly basis,"  Chief Operating Officer Adrienne Useted said.

The original LEAD school,  which is also a middle school,  took students by application,  as most charters do.  Because of the unique partnership with the school district,  students who live in the Cameron zone automatically go to the charter school unless they apply for another district or charter option.  In other words,  it's a charter neighborhood school.

School officials say that's a mixed blessing.  Families associate Cameron College Prep with a system they don't trust,  said school director Tait Danhausen,  and motivating them to get involved has been a challenge.  He said his biggest surprise with the school has been the deep distrust of educators that seems to be a part of generational poverty in Nashville.

The school and its relationship with the district is still evolving.  LEAD now has six schools in Nashville,  including one that's part of the Tennessee Achievement School District,  which was created to take over the state's lowest-performing schools and come up with new strategies for them.

Cameron College Prep has  "done OK"  so far,  MNPS school board member Will Pinkston said during a separate session on authorizing charter schools  (see an 8-minute video of that panel here).

"They're not knocking it out of the park,"  Pinkston said.  "They're good people trying hard,  but it's not outperforming other charters or district schools."

Pinkston and MMPS spokesman Joe Bass steered me to this school rating chart,  which also strikes me as something that CMS and/or North Carolina might want to look at.  It provides an easy-to-scan comparison of test results  (growth and proficiency) and student and teacher survey results for Nashville district and charter schools.  It's not as simplistic as the letter grades North Carolina plans to assign all schools,  but easier to use as a comparison point than the state's detailed school report cards.

Morrison has talked about creating something along these lines for CMS since his arrival two years ago,  but with the data delays and glitches created by the conversion to PowerSchool,  nothing has appeared yet.  Presumably,  anything created by CMS would not include charter schools because they do not report to or have any formal relationship with the district.


Unknown said...


Since this story starts with Heath Morrison, let’s considered a line from later in Ann’s article that hits at one of the superintendent’s earliest efforts to improve student achievement.

A Nashville school official said, “… his biggest surprise with the school has been the deep distrust of educators that seems to be a part of generational poverty in Nashville.”

Our superintendent as made several attempts to improve student achievement by knocking down deep seated negative relationships between students of color and CMS teachers.

His first attempt would have brought-in a race baiter who wanted the mostly White teaching staff to take all the blame and asked them to publicly avow they were the problem. That never got off the ground. That process stalled what is a good idea.

If I had my choice, I’d rather see CMS work on those broken relationships rather than turn failed schools over to Charters…but in a kinder gentler way that massages both sides.

Bolyn McClung

Anonymous said...

And thanks to our legislature's recent adoption of labeling schools with a letter grade, when the majority of our schools get "graded" with "D's" and "F's" due to suspect assessments, an artificial demand for these charter schools will be created as duped parents look for "solutions" for their child. Cue the "charter revolution," where a building cloaked in a red cape operating on a for-profit model will miraculously save you and your child from the peril of public schools.

Mr. Bennett said...

Nashville is my hometown, and I taught 3 years there before moving to Charlotte, My advice is to do the opposite of whatever is going on in Nashville. Nashville has been rearranging the chairs on the Titanic for years now.

Anonymous said...

What do you think they are referring to when they say "distrust" of those in poverty towards educators?

Anonymous said...

The term "failed school" is a puzzle. Is the brick and mortar building with a name on it to blame? Why are these "failed schools" almost always in high poverty zones? The answer is that high poverty means less parental involvement, less student dedication, higher teacher turnover, etc, etc, etc. You can rearrange the furniture in the room but it is still the same room and the same furniture. That is the phase we are in nationally regarding the public schools.

Anonymous said...

I was under the impression that Parent University, Strategic Staffing, and the continued smoke and mirrors of the Communications department had smoothed this situation when the Great Transformer took the helm. Seems like the only group accountable is teachers. The blame game continues while the new great migration of NC teachers revs up. Come August, all the departing who gave no notice will make for an interesting dynamic in start-up and the retirees will be getting the phone calls again.

Take back our schools said...

I still believe this "mistrust" thing of the urban side is just hype by the community organizers and race hustlers to keep themselves in the news and relevant. I belive most of the family units are happy to just have CMS "warehouse" the children for the day to keep them out of the house.

The "mistrust" exists more from the suburban society but they address it by leaving because they understand how us "locals" have lost control of the schools due to the feds and other ridiculous state edicts.

I do not understand how you can justify continual over spending on these students when 70% of it does down the drain.

Unknown said...

TO: ANON 9:08A

Subject: What was Nashville administrator meaning when he said “Distrust?”

In a nutshell:

First, there is the distrust that the school system isn’t sending qualified teachers to their schools

Second, that the teachers aren’t demonstrating that they believe poverty students can learn.

That second point, whether true or not, is the one that has to go away first. No, that doesn’t mean it is the teachers’ fault. It means that both sides have a lot to learn about the other.

I wish it were just a case of teacher or student xenophobia. No. More likely street smarts are the defensive emotions working overtime. I don’t see anything irrational here. Both sides, schools and students, are reacting to well-documented events.

Bolyn McClung

Unknown said...

TO: ANON 10:00A

Subject: Parent U, Strategic Staffing, Communications Department

Odd to see Parent U, Strategic Staffing and Communications grouped. Each has such a different way of trying to make CMS better.

Given the current reasons for teacher dissatisfaction, pay and workload, I’d say the three you mentioned support teachers. If only Parent U could reach more. And let’s remember it is privately funded.

Strategic Staffing is a good idea that is incorrectly funded and managed. Its biggest flaw, grouping the low performers with those who are good achievers, needs to be addressed immediately.

Communications Department is not a significant tool. The messages from teachers and principals are much more timely, instructive and accurate.

Bolyn McClung

Take back our schools said...

New York City schools have housed charter schools for a long time in the same buildings. However the new adminstration coddling the teachers union now is trying to kick them out or close them down. The charter schools have strong supporters in the city adminstration, the mayor's office is esentially the superintendent due to their success reaching some of these kids. Also, they are the schools offering the mroe innovative programs.

Shamash said...

They should use the same grading system for the charter schools.

Otherwise, what's the point of offering an "alternative"?

Shamash said...

"Second, that the teachers aren’t demonstrating that they believe poverty students can learn."

Bolyn, the entire educational bureaucracy is built around the "fact" that "poverty" prevents learning.

It's the assumption behind everything they do from funding to allocation of human resources.

If you're "poor", you simply need "more".

I've ranted and raved against the poverty excuse, but it is one of the MOST entrenched myths of modern education.

Anonymous said...



Leave the schools that day to the MARKET ADJUSTMENTS


Anonymous said...

It sounds like this is an article about counties being worried about the growth of charters and trying to create charters of their own. This is a cunning move. Slap the name "charter" on the school, but install the same county teachers and administrators to run the place. No wonder the enthusiasm and results appear to be lacking.

Anonymous said...

What a waste of time.. NC has gone nuts. Most the charter's aren't even ready.. NC is a hot mess. Charters should be used to compliment public. Leave it to NC to screw it up. My kids school has 18 teachers leaving this year. VA, SC and GA must love NC.

Anonymous said...

Lead academy in Nashville is nothing but good marketing on a bad system. Their school leader had zero education experience but had a political background. He copied Yes Prep's model in Houston and after a few years left to run for Mayor. They have had insane turnover and pretty disappointing results. They have some good results in their high school, but that comes from the students they inherit from KIPP middle, as LEAD middle is weak. But when the old leader used to date Chelsea Clinton, there is plenty of money and good marketing is easy to come by.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your explanation, I appreciate your feedback on the "distrust" factor.

Anonymous said...

also, I believe the term "failed school' is false, I say the community around that school is what has failed, not the school.

Wiley Coyote said...


I'm to the point where we give every child free breakfast, free lunch, free school supplies, free sports, free testing and anything else related to the school experience for free.

That takes care of one major excuse as to why poverty students can't learn.

Next, let's close every school within 5 miles of the epicenter of Charlotte and build new schools farther out. Students will be reassigned to all schools, thus more white/black interaction while not forcing anyone on a bus. We'll simply have to provide transportation for students to attend the new schools.

This eliminates the excuse kids can't learn because of their zipcode.

So now that we've eliinated 90% of the excuses, students will magically perform on grade level and the Jimmy Dean Sun will once again shine brightly on Charlotte and make everyone happy....

Anonymous said...

Right to Work


Only "market adjustment" salaries to run the schools and they have not been in the classroom for YEARS.

Shamash said...


"I'm to the point where we give every child free breakfast, free lunch, free school supplies, free sports, free testing and anything else related to the school experience for free."

Well, you need to expand that to free daycare, free afterschool care, free extracurricular activities, free tutoring, free parenting classes, free job counseling, free financial counseling, etc., etc. for the parents (or guardians).

And probably some subsidized or free housing as well.

Make EVERYONE middle class.

Except, even then, the middle-class (and above) blacks will perform worse than the formerly poor whites (just as they do now).

So what's do you do about THAT?

Again, it's why I say poverty isn't the problem.

But, heck, it's the problem EVERYONE wants to throw our money at.

Wiley Coyote said...


Perhaps you missed the rhetorical aspect of my comment.

We both know none of what I said would be approved by the groups you mentioned, as they would be out of jobs if "poverty and zipcodes" were eliminated from the equation.