Charter appeals

State Board of Education overrules Nashville district board on KIPP charter expansion

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Members and leaders of the Tennessee Board of Education meet Friday on the campus of Rhodes College in Memphis.

The State Board of Education on Friday approved an appeal from national charter operator KIPP to open two new schools in Nashville, overruling the local district board after determining that KIPP “meets or exceeds the standard” in all criteria.

However, the state board voted to uphold the Nashville district’s denial for Rocketship, another established charter network that already has two schools in Nashville, one of which opened this fall.

The unanimous vote on KIPP represents the first time that the State Board of Education has overturned a district board’s decision on charter school expansion in Tennessee since a 2014 state law granted the state board with authority to authorize charters in districts with at least one low-performing school.

Sara Heyburn, executive director of the state board, recommended this week that the body approve both KIPP schools.

“It’s clear in the law that it’s a high bar by which we have to judge appeals at the state board level, and so again we’ve done our due diligence and gone through all the objective evidence … looking at network data across the United States and other KIPP schools. And in all instances, we found they meet or exceed standard in academics, operations, financial plans and in the portfolio network,” Heyburn told the board Thursday during a work session in Memphis.

In a split vote, the Nashville board rejected KIPP’s application in August. KIPP leaders had asked to open the schools anytime within the next five years, which local officials said was too far in the future to reasonably decide.

The state board’s decision to overrule the local district drew immediate criticism from several members of the district board for Metro Nashville Public Schools.

“The [Department of Education] and State Board of Education, over the last few years, have shown an increasing desire to get into the business of local school systems,” said Will Pinkston, a vocal critic of Nashville’s growing charter sector. “They’re frankly just not qualified to make decisions about what’s going on in cities and counties.”

Amy Frogge, another Nashville board member, said she believes Friday’s decision in favor of KIPP comes at the expense of traditional Nashville public schools by directing more money and resources to charter operators.

“I am gravely disappointed that an appointed state board is considering removing local control of schools and overturning a well-reasoned, thoughtful decision by democratically elected representatives,” Frogge said. “This is not about the best interests of our students or about parent ‘choice.’ It is a radical agenda aimed at privatizing public schools, catering to the needs of corporate charter school chains, and dismantling public education.”

Heyburn, presenting staff recommendations to the board on Thursday, said the expansion of KIPP would not impact the local district financially.

“The state board staff reviewed all documentation submitted with regard to the fiscal impact of the school and ultimately concluded that there was insufficient evidence to prove that KIPP Nashville Middle and KIPP Nashville Primary School would have substantially negative fiscal impact on the school district,” she said.

The Nashville board and KIPP now have 30 days to decide whether the new KIPP schools will be authorized by the district board. If there is no mutual agreement, the state board will become the authorizer.

Pinkston said Metro Nashville’s board also might consider taking the matter to court. “When you’ve got a recalcitrant board, legislature, that passes that law, sometimes the only place to go is the third branch of government — the courts,” he said.

Since the State Board of Education became an authorizer last year, it has heard 11 appeals, mostly from younger, less established operators. The appeals from KIPP and Rocketship represented a departure. KIPP was established in 1994 with schools in New York City and Houston. California-based Rocketship launched in 2006.

Concurring with its staff recommendation, the state board voted 8-1 Friday to deny Rocketship’s appeal.

“This one was hard,” Heyburn told the board on Thursday. “This one met the standard in all areas except the portfolio review section, and in that case again there are a number of reasons to be very optimistic about this school they’re currently operating in Nashville.”

The Nashville board had rejected Rocketship’s application because, despite high growth scores at its first Nashville school, its overall academic performance this year was poor, according to board members.

“They did have a level 5 TVAAS composite, which is the highest score overall you can get in growth,” Heyburn said. “But their achievement scores are really low, some of the lowest in their cluster and in the district.”

Board member Wendy Tucker cast the lone dissenting vote. “My struggle is with the fact that Rocketship’s current school — the school we have data from — while their achievement levels are not where we need want them to be, their growth is some of the highest in the city,” said Tucker, who is a co-CEO of Project Renaissance, a Nashville nonprofit organization aimed at improving educational outcomes for Nashville schoolchildren.

Rocketship regional director Shaka Mitchell said he was disappointed with the board’s decision but respected the process.

“One of the things that the district made it’s biggest case around is that we didn’t have a track record of success,” Mitchell said. “I’m confident that if we’re sitting here this time next year, it’s going to be a different outcome. Our schools are going to keep growing; our students are going to keep showing results.”

The board also voted to uphold district denials of charter applications for International Academy of Excellence in Nashville and for Connections Preparatory Academy in Jackson.

beyond high school

Tennessee leads nation in FAFSA filings for third straight year

PHOTO: TN.gov
Bill Haslam has been Tennessee's governor since 2011.

Equipping more Tennesseans with the tools to succeed after high school has been a hallmark of Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration. And the efforts seem to be paying off as the governor heads into his final 18 months in office.

Haslam announced on Thursday that the state has set another new record for the number of high school seniors filing their Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as FAFSA.

With 73.5 percent completing the form for the upcoming academic year — an increase of 3.2 percent from last year — Tennessee led the nation in FAFSA filings for the third straight year, according to the governor’s office.

The increase isn’t surprising, given that students had a longer period to fill out the form last year. In order to make the process more user-friendly, the FAFSA window opened on Oct. 1 instead of Jan. 1.

But the increase remains significant. The FAFSA filing rate is one indicator that more students are pursuing educational opportunities beyond a high school diploma.

Getting students ready for college and career has been a major focus under Haslam, a businessman and former Knoxville mayor who became governor in 2011. He launched his Drive to 55 initiative in 2013 with the goal that at least 55 percent of Tennesseans will have postsecondary degrees or other high-skill job certifications by 2025.

“The continued surge in FAFSA filing rates shows the Drive to 55 is changing the college-going culture in Tennessee,” Haslam said in a news release. “First-time freshman enrollment in Tennessee has grown 13 percent in the past two years and more students than ever are going to college. As a state, we have invested in making college accessible and open to everyone and students are hearing the message.”

According to calculations from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, Tennessee led all states by a large margin this year. The closest states or districts were Washington D.C., 64.8 percent; Delaware, 61.6 percent; New Jersey, 61 percent; and Massachusetts, 60.4 percent.

The commission calculated the filing rates using data provided through June 30 from the U.S. Department of Education.

Filing the FAFSA is a requirement to qualify for both state and federal financial aid and is part of the application process for most colleges and universities across the nation.

To get more students to complete the form, state and local FAFSA drives have been organized in recent years to connect Tennessee students with resources, guidance and encouragement.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander has championed bipartisan efforts to simplify the FAFSA process. The Tennessee Republican and former governor introduced legislation in 2015 that would reduce the FAFSA paperwork from a hefty 108 questions down to two pertaining to family size and household income.

You can read more information about the FAFSA in Tennessee here.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”