School Choice

Four years later, Tennessee’s first-ever charter ‘turnaround school’ celebrates gains

PHOTO: LEAD Public Schools
Students at Cameron College Prep, a Nashville middle school for grades 5-8

Before the state’s Achievement School District, before Innovation Zones in Memphis and Nashville, before “turnaround” and “charter schools” became part of the educational lexicon in Tennessee, there was Cameron College Prep.

On Tuesday, LEAD Public Schools will welcome state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and Nashville Mayor Megan Barry to the middle school to celebrate Tennessee’s first district-charter partnership to turn around a low-performing school. Since its conversion, Cameron College Prep has consistently posted test score gains, even garnering a state “reward” status for being one of the most improved schools in 2013-14.

“Cameron College Prep is an important success story showing how [Metro Nashville Public Schools] and charter operators can work together in a cooperative partnership to achieve better results for students,” Barry said Monday in an email thanking teachers and faculty for their work.

Bellwether for change

In many ways, Cameron was a bellwether for the future of low-performing schools in Tennessee, although its road to transformation generated less outcry than state- and district-ordered charter takeovers that would follow.

The school opened in 1924 as a black high school and was considered the pride of Nashville’s black community for decades. But by 2010, the school was known as Cameron Middle School and was labeled one of the state’s lowest-performing schools. Nashville’s district leaders — buoyed by Tennessee’s nearly $68 million of federal School Improvement Grants — sought an innovative improvement strategy and, in 2010, put out a call for operators interested in turning Cameron into a charter.

Though districts had explored various school turnaround measures since at least the 1970s, using charter organizations was a relatively new idea in Tennessee at the time. The year before, the Obama administration had highlighted them as a possible way to use School Improvement Grants. Complete school turnarounds — in which school leadership and most of its staff is replaced — also would be a way to get millions in federal dollars from the Race to the Top competition announced in 2009.

When Metro Nashville suggested its plan for converting Cameron, no other district in Tennessee had attempted to turn around an existing school by handing it over to a charter organization. Charter schools themselves were few: Nashville only had four.

LEAD Public Schools won the bid to convert Cameron, and the Nashville school board voted unanimously in favor of the project.

The setup would be different from most existing charter schools, however. A common complaint against charter schools is that they don’t serve the same students as traditional public schools and can take their pick of the highest achievers with the most involved parents.

LEAD CEO Chris Reynolds wanted to see the Nashville charter serve low-income neighborhoods and, and just as with traditional public schools, be restricted to serving students from those neighborhoods.

“I thought it would allow us to render this argument about charter schools versus district schools moot,” said Reynolds, who left another charter organization in Michigan to return to his native Tennessee for the challenge.

The conversion road

Despite smooth relations between the district and LEAD, the conversion beginning in 2011 wasn’t without challenges. LEAD’s school was phased in year-by-year, meaning that it shared its historic building with Cameron Middle Prep — operated entirely by the district  — until the 2013-14 school year.

Founding principal Tait Danhausen hopes that charter school conversions since Cameron’s — including two more Nashville LEAD schools under the state’s Achievement School District — have worked better together with their district school partner.

“I think we could’ve done a much better job of letting the Cameron Middle teachers know we’re here to support you,” he said, noting that Cameron Middle also was named a reward school the year before it was phased out completely. “I wish they had realized we thought they were doing a phenemonal job. We just thought we had a way of doing school which is more effective.”

Another challenge was working with a zoned population. However, like Reynolds, Danhausen believes that’s the point of turnaround work.

“Charter schools, in their original inception, were supposed to be models for public schools,” he said. “Most public schools serve neighborhoods.”

Cameron tudents play during recess.
Cameron students play during recess.

Danhausen says drawing students from the same neighborhood — and being in the same school building that siblings and parents once attended — builds a tight-knit culture. It also reflects the diversity of the surrounding neighborhood, which is nearly evenly split among black, Arabic and Hispanic populations.

More than 40 percent of Cameron’s student population are English language learners, and informational materials in multiple languages are posted on bulletin boards and prominently displayed in the front office.

“It shows us the diversity of opinion and diversity of students who actually attend Metro Schools,” Danhausen said. “We have students who are brilliant, and students who have been passed over for five or six years, and that’s the reality of teachers in most urban schools.”

On the other hand, the school must cope with a high mobility rate, meaning students often come to the school, or abruptly leave it, in the middle of the year.

“It’s not like these kids are usually moving because mom and dad bought a new house,” Danhausen said, noting that two homeless shelters feed into the school. ‘They’re coming from areas of trauma and high levels of stress, and we’re putting them in an environment where we’re saying, ‘You can go to college. You can be successful.'”

Lessons learned

Reynolds says a key to Cameron’s success was the leeway and time provided by Metro Nashville Schools to get the community on board with the changes to come.

In contrast, LEAD only had three months of community engagement before beginning its takeover of Brick Church Middle Prep and six months for Neely’s Bend Middle Prep, both Nashville charters operated through the state-run Achievement School District, or ASD.

Also, because the Nashville district is a larger, more established school system, it is able to help with logistics such as food and transportation and services for special education students and English language learners. In contrast, the ASD focuses more on data and supporting instruction.

Though LEAD’s takeover of Cameron  has been relatively successful — test scores and enrollment are on the rise — local district-led takeovers have taken a backseat in Tennessee with the growth of the ASD. Since Cameron, the Nashville district has tried the tactic only once more, allowing charter network KIPP to begin converting Kirkpatrick Elementary in East Nashville this fall — a move that generated more debate and acrimony among school board members and Nashville parents.

This spring, LEAD applied to take over more schools through the local district, but its application was denied.

“We wanted them to know that LEAD is standing by, ready to help,” said Reynolds, who said he opted not to appeal the decision in the spirit of working with the district.

Today, Cameron College Prep is a complete charter school, having officially phased out Cameron Middle Prep. Test scores are up, and Reynolds says the school “has arrived.”

But the turnaround work is constant, says Danhausen.

“For me, we are always turning things around at this school,” he said. “When you look at the mobility rate of our students, if you lose the urgency that comes with turning around a school, you will fall back.”

Voucher roundup

Gearing up for Tennessee’s voucher fight? Here are eight stories to read.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
A group of Jubilee School students work on a craft during a summer reading program at La Salle School, one of the Memphis schools expected to accept tuition vouchers if the state legislature approves a program.

When the General Assembly kicks off in earnest next week, one education issue is sure to come up: vouchers.

This will mark Tennessee’s seventh year of legislative debate over vouchers, which are taxpayer-backed scholarships that parents could use to send their kids to private school. In Tennessee, recent legislative proposals would have applied only to students attending the state’s lowest-performing schools.

Whether you’ve followed the debate in years past, or are just tuning in, here’s our list of stories to get informed for this year’s showdown:

Once considered a sure thing, vouchers fizzle in Tennessee legislature.

Let’s pick up where the legislature left off last year — with Rep. Bill Dunn pulling the bill right before it reached the House floor for the first time. The Knoxville Republican, who has championed voucher legislation for years, said he was two votes short.

Chalkbeat explains what vouchers might mean for Tennessee.

Here’s what voucher legislation has looked like in the past — and its potential to shake up public education.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
State Rep. Bill Dunn looks straight ahead Thursday after tabling his voucher bill, likely for the year, in the Tennessee House of Representatives.

Tennessee shows why vouchers can be a hard sell, even in red states.

Vouchers are in the national spotlight thanks to President Trump’s pick for U.S. education secretary, school-choice advocate Betsy DeVos. Vouchers are typically considered a cause of the Republican Party, which holds a supermajority in Tennessee. The fact that vouchers have been kept at bay in the state shows how the debate goes beyond partisan politics.

Trump’s nominee for education chief already has influenced Tennessee’s voucher debate.

From the helm of education advocacy groups including the American Federation for Children and the Alliance for School Choice, DeVos, a staunch Republican, has contributed millions of dollars to state legislative candidates in favor of vouchers, including several in Tennessee.

Want to keep school vouchers out of Tennessee? You’re too late.

The state actually already has one voucher law in place. This month, eight private schools began accepting public money to educate special education students, giving the State Department of Education its first taste of overseeing a voucher program.

Vouchers could transform Memphis and one network of schools.

Leaders of Jubilee Catholic Schools are lobbying for vouchers. They say the program would boost enrollment in their network of elementary and middle schools established in 1999 by the Dioceses of Memphis to serve low-income students.

But most Memphis private schools are on the fence about accepting vouchers.

While Memphis would be most impacted by a voucher law, leaders of many of the city’s private schools aren’t necessarily interested in participating in the program.

Here’s the lowdown on how vouchers have played out in other states.

Indiana has the nation’s largest voucher program, although the original proposal, like Dunn’s bill in Tennessee, focused primarily on low-income students. Now, Indiana’s program serves middle-class students as well, from families that likely would have opted for private school with or without public money. Student achievement in Indiana has largely been unaffected by vouchers. One study found that students who switched to private schools through the program might actually be doing worse in math.

perks of being a charter school

Cuomo’s budget proposal includes perks for New York City charter schools, including lifting the city’s cap

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Thousands of parents and students attended a charter school rally hosted by Families for Excellent Schools in September

When Gov. Andrew Cuomo released his executive budget proposal last week, New York’s charter school advocates were quick to offer support.

The pro-charter group StudentsFirstNY said the plan reaffirms Cuomo’s belief in the “critical role” of charter schools. New York City’s Charter Center said it sets the stage for “continued growth.”

Why are they excited? The budget proposal includes a few significant perks for charter schools — particularly those in New York City, where more schools would be allowed to open in the coming years.

Here is a breakdown of the changes:

New York City’s charter-school cap eliminated

State law currently allows for just 30 more charter schools to open in New York City — but that number may soon skyrocket.

New York state currently has a statewide charter school cap and a cap specific to New York City. Under Cuomo’s proposal, New York City’s charter cap would be eliminated, leaving just one overall cap on charter schools across the state.

That’s significant because New York City only had those 30 charter slots remaining by November 2016, according to the Charter Center, though there were 126 charters left to issue throughout the state.

The legislature last adjusted the cap in 2015, when it gave the city another 50 slots.

More help paying for private space

As New York City’s charter schools expanded rapidly under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, many were given space in the city’s public school buildings. Some, though, were told they would have to find and pay for space themselves.

Charter advocates won a big victory in 2014 when the state passed a law requiring New York City to help charter schools pay for private space. Under Cuomo’s new proposal, those schools would get a little more help.

Under the 2014 law, new and expanding charter schools that don’t get public space are entitled to either 20 percent of their per-pupil tuition rate or their total rent, whichever is less. Cuomo’s proposal would increase that to 30 percent of per-pupil tuition rate or the school’s “total facility rental cost.”

The problem for charter schools is that moving into a private space often costs more than the the rent or the 20 percent figure, said David Umansky, the CEO of Civic Builders, an organization that helps charter schools find and build spaces. When that happens, schools face tough budgetary choices, he said.

“It’s not about building the Taj Mahal. It’s about just finding a space to teach kids,” Umansky said. “It’s a real stress on schools.”

Under the law, the city is on the hook for up to $40 million in rent. Once it hits that figure — which the Charter Center estimates will happen sometime this year — the costs will be split with the state.

More public space all at once

Another change requires charter schools to be given enough room for a chunk of grades in the space they are offered. For instance, the city could not give a new charter school one year of co-located space for just a first grade when the charter school has approved plans to expand up to fourth grade.