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.
PHOTO: Jon Zlock, LEAD Public Schools
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.”

Show me the money

Colorado Senate Republicans push charter school funding in annual school spending bill

Students at University Prep, a Denver Public Schools charter school, worked on classwork last winter. (Photo by Marc Piscoty)

An ongoing dispute over charter school funding in Colorado stole the spotlight Thursday as the Senate Education Committee deliberated a routine bill that divides state money among public schools.

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, backed by his GOP colleagues, amended this year’s school finance legislation to include language that would require school districts to share revenue from locally-approved tax increases with charter schools.

The annual school finance bill takes how much money the state’s budget dedicates to education and sets an average amount per student. That money is then bundled for each of the state’s 178 school districts and state-authorized charter schools based on student enrollment and other factors.

Thursday’s charter school funding amendment is a carbon copy of Senate Bill 61, one of the most controversial education bills this session. The Senate previously approved the bill with bipartisan support. But House Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat, has not assigned the bill to a committee yet.

“I do want to continue to pressure and keep the narrative up,” Hill said as he introduced amendment.

Democrats on the committee, who also vigorously opposed the charter school bill, objected.

“I consider it a hijacking move,” said Colorado Springs state Sen. Mike Merrifield.

A bipartisan group of senators last year attempted a similar tactic. While requiring that charters get a cut of local tax increase revenue did not go through, smaller items on the charter school community’s wish list were incorporated into the overall funding bill.

House Democrats this year will likely strip away the language when they debate the bill.

State Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, was not immediately available for comment. She’s the House sponsor of this year’s school finance bill. Pettersen voted to kill similar charter school funding legislation last year at the sponsors’ request. But this year she has been working on a compromise that Republicans have said they’re open to discussing.

Senate Republicans on Thursday also approved an amendment that would prevent the state’s education funding shortfall from growing this year.

The amendment takes $9.6 million from a school health professionals grant program, $16.3 million from an affordable housing program and about $22.8 million from the state education fund and gives it to schools.

Democrats on the Senate committee opposed the changes. They said the money, especially for school health professionals was important.

“Counseling, health programs, are all essentials,” said state Sen. Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat. “It’s not icing on the cake.”

The governor’s office also is likely to push back on that amendment. The governor’s office lobbied heavily during the budget debate for the $16.3 million for affordable housing.

Hill said that he tried to identify sources of revenue that were increases to current programs or new programs so that no department would face cuts.

No one will be fired with these changes, he said.

“I want to send a message that we’ll do everything in our power to prioritize school funding and not increase the negative factor,” he said referring to the state’s school funding shortfall.

Hill’s amendment means schools will receive an additional $57 per student, according to a legislative analyst.

While Thursday’s hearing was a crucial step in finalizing funding for schools, the conversation is far from over. Some observers don’t expect resolution until the last days of the session.

The state’s budget is not yet complete, although budget writers took a critical final step as the education committee was meeting. The death of a transportation bill died would allow lawmakers to some money away from schools and spend it on roads, but that is unlikely. Negotiations on a compromise on a bill to save rural hospitals, which also includes money for roads and schools, are ongoing.

And late Thursday, the state budget committee approved a technical change to the budget that could free up even more money for schools after learning cuts to personal property taxes that help pay for schools were not as severe.

Correction: An earlier version of this article reported that Rep. Brittany Pettersen voted against a bill to equalize charter school funding. She has not voted on the bill yet. She voted against a similar measure last year. 

charter law 2.0

Sweeping charter school bill passes Tennessee legislature

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Students learn at Memphis Delta Preparatory, one of more than 100 charter schools in Tennessee.

Tennessee is close to overhauling the way it oversees charter schools.

The state Senate voted 25-1 on Wednesday to approve the so-called High Quality Charter Act, which now heads to Gov. Bill Haslam for his signature. The proposal overwhelmingly passed the House last week.

The bill would replace Tennessee’s 2002 charter school law.

“This law will ensure Tennessee authorizes high-quality charter schools for years to come,” said Sen. Brian Kelsey, one of the sponsors.

The measure was developed by the State Department of Education in an effort to address the often rocky relationships between Tennessee’s 105 charter schools and the districts that oversee them. The overhaul clarifies rules on everything from applications to closure.

Local districts will be able to charge an authorizer fee to cover the cost of charter oversight — something that school systems have sought since the first charter schools opened in the state in 2003.

The bill also establishes a fund of up to $6 million for facilities. That’s a boon to charter organizations that are too cash-strapped to pay rent and maintain their school buildings, said Maya Bugg, CEO of the Tennessee Charter School Center.

“It’s really an equity issue,” Bugg said of the facilities issue. “You have charter schools serving a majority of students of color, low-income, and for them to have this gap in funding, it takes dollars away from those students.”

The proposal had widespread support from the charter sector and from officials with Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest authorizer of charter schools, which has been sorting out many of the issues addressed in the revisions.

“Future school board decisions on whether to authorize a charter school will be based on best practices, and charter schools that fail to meet performance standards will be shut down,” said Kelsey, a Germantown Republican. “I am glad that the governor reached agreement between local school districts and charter school operators over how much charter schools should pay for an administration fee.”