Second guessing

Despite significant TCAP gains, Nashville middle school starts charter conversion as part of state’s turnaround process

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Teachers at Neely's Bend College Prep School help incoming fifth-graders make slime at the new Nashville charter school's open house in August. Teachers from Neely's Bend Middle School, which is being phased out, were also on hand to help.

Less than six months after students, parents and teachers angrily argued that they could turn around Neely’s Bend Middle Prep School without a charter school conversion, the Nashville school posted some of its most significant gains ever on the state’s TCAP exams.

But less than two weeks ago, Neely’s Bend became a charter conversion school anyway, proceeding with the state Achievement School District’s plan to make Neely’s Bend its newest Nashville charter school and sending a message that the turnaround district’s conversion plans, once mapped out, don’t kick into reverse.

Last year’s improved scores at Neely’s Bend, a low-performing school targeted by the ASD in order to turn it around academically beginning this school year, prompts reflection about whether the state’s intervention was necessary in the first place. Or, was the mere prospect of state takeover sufficient to kickstart the school’s progress?

During TCAP tests in the spring, the school logged the state’s highest possible growth score, a 5.

Ironically, had the school posted such gains last year, it might not have been considered for state intervention beginning this school year.

But by the time school administrators, faculty and parents began to mobilize to help students lift their scores, the dye had been cast.

This month, the charter school known as Neely’s Bend Collegiate Prep, which is operated by the LEAD Public Schools network, took control of the school’s fifth-grade classes, while Neely’s Bend Middle Prep, which is operated by Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, continues to oversee grades 6-8. Each year, the state-authorized charter school will take over another grade, and Neely’s Bend Middle Prep will be phased out within three years. In the meantime, the two schools are co-existing in the same building, each with separate administrators and faculty.

Teachers at Neely’s Bend Middle Prep credit the 2015 score gains to then-principal Michelle Maultsby-Springer, who started at the school last fall.

“We had a massive change when Dr. Springer came in,” said Chelsea Elder, who taught fifth-grade English last year.

Elder, who will teach sixth-grade English this year, said Maultsby-Springer’s high expectations prompted fast improvements in teacher attitude, student behavior and other areas. “There was dedication and hard work like you wouldn’t believe,” she said.

Erick Huth, president of the local chapter of the Tennessee Education Association, said the progress under the principal’s brief tenure is a testament to the potential of traditional public schools. “Michelle Maultsby-Springer proved they can make a difference,” he said.

This school year, Maultsby-Springer was reassigned to Croft Middle School. She has been replaced by Michelle Demps, last year’s principal of Madison Middle School, which was the other Nashville middle school considered last fall for ASD intervention. Madison’s scores continued to fall this year, and it received the lowest growth rating possible.

During Maultsby-Springer’s watch, Neely’s Bend outpaced the state in math and science, gaining 8.9 and 8.7 percentage point respectively. Its reading scores dropped more than scores did statewide, but not enough to pull down the school’s growth score. It also outpaced LEAD’s other ASD-authorized Nashville school, Brick Church Middle School, which saw declines across the board, giving it a growth rating of 1. (LEAD’s three other middle schools, all authorized through the local Nashville district, received 5s.)

LEAD CEO Chris Reynolds said Neely’s Bend’s improved scores are a good sign, no matter who operates the school this year. “It may give the phase-out grades a little more confidence, which is a good thing,” he said.

But efforts to turn the longstanding neighborhood school into a new charter school still struck a nerve for many community members loyal to Neely’s Bend. Lisa Jones, the parent of an incoming fifth-grader, said most of her daughter’s classmates from Neely’s Bend Elementary School opted not to go to Neely’s Bend Middle this year because of the charter conversion.

“Parents wanted something more established,” she said.

Also because of the phase-out, only six MNPS teachers, including Elder, returned to the school this year.

The Achievement School District was created in 2010 to support turnaround efforts at the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools, known as priority schools. Even after ASD officials, citing parental feedback, chose Neely’s Bend last December for state intervention and charter conversion, confusion reigned in the community over whether the school could remove itself from ASD control and stay with the Nashville school district.

Last semester, students and teachers geared up in anticipation of spring TCAPs, with hopes that a significant score boost would propel them off the priority list. However, the priority list is released every three years and, until earlier this month when the state received a federal waiver, schools couldn’t come off the list of ASD-eligible schools in off years. Even if they could, the growth displayed at Neely’s Bend, though significant, was not enough. A new state law prohibiting the ASD from absorbing Level 5 schools came too late for Neely’s Bend, which had a score of 1 when the ASD chose it for charter conversion.

“We applaud the Level 5 growth earned by Neely’s Bend this year,” ASD officials said recently in response to the school’s gains, which were comparable to many of the ASD’s own schools. “We want students in the grades served by MNPS to do well.… The decision to partner LEAD with Neely’s Bend was made in December — long before this summer’s release of TVAAS scores — giving MNPS, LEAD, and the Neely’s Bend community ample time for planning and preparing for a successful school year.”

Elder said she, too, wants the school to do well, no matter who operates it. She’s making an effort to work with LEAD staff, and attended Neely’s Bend Collegiate Prep’s open house, even though it wasn’t required. But Elder, whose parents once attended Neely’s Bend, said she also hopes that the charter operator will maintain the school’s best traditions while also introducing new ones.

“I’m here because, as a teacher, I want to make sure all of our kids have a great experience,” she said during the open house.

“I hope it stays the same in some ways,” she added, gesturing to a painting of the school mascot on the gym wall. “I hope they keep the beaver.”

The ASD plans a charter conversion of at least one more middle school and elementary school in Nashville in the 2017-2018 school year, state officials announced last week.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”