Charter appeals

State Board of Education rejects Omni’s appeal for Memphis expansion, considers Nashville appeals from Rocketship, KIPP

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Shaka Mitchell, director of Rocketship's Tennessee Schools, appeals to the State Board of Education on Wednesday to allow the national network to expand further in Nashville.

The State Board of Education has rejected an appeal from Omni Schools to open a new high school in Memphis, continuing its record of upholding local school board decisions on charter school applications to expand.

But its decisions on appeals by national networks KIPP and Rocketship are being watched more closely. The board heard appeals Tuesday and Wednesday in Nashville from the two established networks, in addition to two others seeking state reversal of local board decisions.

Sara Heyburn, executive director of the board, says the longer track records of KIPP and Rocketship aren’t enough on their own to change the board’s course.

“If the charter school, regardless of (whether) it’s established or new to the scene, is able to meet or exceed these standards, then we can recommend it,” she told Chalkbeat on Wednesday. “We feel it is a nuanced decision, but it is also pretty clear what our standards are.”

The board’s standards are outlined for academics, finances and operation.

Omni Schools was established in 2010 and operates two schools in Memphis authorized by Shelby County Schools.

At a hearing in September, Omni leaders argued that the local district unfairly rejected their application to expand based on ambiguous and inconsistent guidelines, while district leaders held that Omni Prep’s existing schools had performed too low to justify expansion.

The board voted Sept. 24 to uphold the decision by Shelby County Schools.

“We are disappointed with the state’s decision,” Omni founder Cary Booker said Wednesday. “We understand the concerns that they have raised, will review our application, and review our plan going forward.”

The State Board of Education’s tough stances on appeals to date suggest that the board is taking its new role as a charter authorizer seriously and maintaining high standards for charter schools in Tennessee.

Before 2014, the board could reverse an appeal and require the local board to authorize the school — and fine them if they didn’t. However, in 2014, the state legislature passed a law allowing the State Board of Education to authorize charter schools itself in school districts with at least one school performing in the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state.

Since the board became an authorizer, it’s heard mostly appeals from relatively new operators. But KIPP and Rocketship represent a departure. KIPP was established in 1994 with schools in New York City and Houston. California-based Rocketship launched in 2006.

Metro Nashville Public Schools 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. Rocketship, known for incorporating computers into daily instruction, has two schools in Nashville, the second of which opened this fall.

The Nashville board rejected KIPP’s application to open two more schools because KIPP leaders asked to open the schools anytime within the next five years, which officials said was too far in the future to reasonably decide. District attorney Corey Harkey said at Wednesday’s hearing that Metro officials and board members also are wary of KIPP’s strict disciplinary practices and the potential financial burden of charter schools to the district.

The State Board of Education will hear another appeal on Oct. 6 — from Connections Preparatory Academy in Jackson.

The board will announce its decisions about the rest of the schools on Oct. 23.

Kayleigh Skinner contributed to this report.

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.”