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.”

showdown

McQueen’s deadline looms for Memphis and Nashville to share student info with charter schools — and no one is budging

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A request for student contact information from Green Dot Public Schools to help with enrollment efforts sparked a fight between the state and Shelby County Schools.

As Tennessee’s two largest school districts fought an order to share student information with charter schools, the state education commissioner set a deadline last week.

Candice McQueen told the superintendents of Shelby County Schools and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools they had to provide the data to charter schools that asked for it by Sept. 25 — or the state would “be forced to consider actions to enforce the law.”

But with just three days until the deadline, neither district has said it will budge. The consequences “will be determined Monday,” McQueen told Chalkbeat on Friday.

McQueen has not offered more information about what those consequences could be, though some lawmakers have worried it could mean funding cuts. There is some precedent for such a move: The Nashville district lost $3.4 million in state funding in 2012 when it refused to approve a controversial charter school, according to The Tennessean.

The clash comes after the Nashville and Memphis districts refused to turn over student contact information to charter networks, who argue that information is vital to their operation. Many Memphis schools, including those in the state-run school district, have been struggling with under-enrollment.

An amendment to an untested U.S. Department of Education rule suggests local districts can withhold information like phone numbers, addresses and email addresses — but a new state law requires Tennessee districts to hand it over to charter schools within 30 days.

The state department of education asked the attorney general’s office to weigh in. Last week, the attorney general said the districts had to turn the information over, but also that districts could take a “reasonable period of time” to notify parents about their right to opt out.

Shelby County Schools posted opt-out forms for parents on its website the next day, and gave parents until Oct. 22 to fill them out. The form allows parents to keep their information from charter schools specifically or from outside entities more broadly, including companies like yearbook providers, for example.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

The school boards for the two districts have been in lockstep in defying the state’s order, with the Memphis board even offering to write a legal opinion if Nashville were to go to court over the issue.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said his legal team is still reviewing the attorney general’s opinion.

“We still want to make sure parents know what their options are,” Hopson told Chalkbeat on Tuesday. “When we [McQueen and I] talked, she understood that our opt-out forms were out there.”

Anna Shepherd, board chair for the Nashville district, said the board met with its attorney this week to discuss the issue but took no action.

“We have not had any further conversation with the state concerning the release of data for MNPS students,” Shepherd said by email. “I’m not anticipating any action [before Monday].”

Reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.

what's public?

Private managers of public schools, charter leaders enjoy extra buffer from public-records laws

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Eva Moskowitz, Success Academy Charter Schools CEO.

When Success Academy officials read the news last month that board chair Daniel Loeb had made a racially charged comment about a New York State senator, what did they do next?

Did Success CEO Eva Moskowitz frantically email confidantes about the incident? Did her team craft a new policy on board member conduct?

It turns out, we may never know.

That’s in part because emails sent by Moskowitz and other leaders of New York City’s largest charter network which oversees 46 public schools and 15,500 students are not subject to the same public-records laws as district school officials, such as Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

Moskowitz and officials at other charter school networks are generally exempt from the law because they don’t work for individual schools or city agencies, both of which are required to hand over certain records to members of the public who request them. Instead, they are employed by nonprofit groups called charter management organizations, or CMOs, which aren’t covered by the state records law.

“Success Academy Charter Schools, Inc. (SACS) is a private nonprofit organization that provides services to charter schools, but it is not itself a charter school or a government agency under FOIL,” wrote Success Academy lawyer Robert Dunn in response to an appeal of a Chalkbeat request for Moskowitz’s emails under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, which the network had denied. “Thus, it is not in and of itself subject to FOIL or required to have an appeal process.”

In addition, Success officials said the emails would not need to be released because they qualify as internal communications that are exempt from the public-records law.

The city’s most prominent charter school networks — including KIPP and Uncommon — have similar CMO structures, which appears to shield their leaders from at least some FOIL requests. While “the KIPP NYC public charter schools themselves are subject to the New York Freedom of Information Law,” KIPP spokesperson Steve Mancini said in an email, the “CMOs are not.”

But some government-transparency advocates argue that the law is not so clear cut.

Because CMOs are so heavily involved in the operation of public schools, it could be argued that the vast majority of their records are kept on behalf of public schools and should be public, said Bob Freeman, executive director of the Committee on Open Government and an expert on public-records laws.

Even though nonprofits aren’t covered by FOIL, he said, “Everything you do for an entity that is subject to FOIL — everything you prepare, transmit, and receive — falls within the scope of FOIL.”

Success Academy officials emphasized that the network does not categorically deny public-records requests involving its management organization. For instance, it may hand over CMO records related to the daily operation of its schools, the officials said. The network decides on a case-by-case basis which CMO records are public and which are not, they added.

“We follow the same policies as all other charter management organizations,” said Nicole Sizemore, a Success Academy spokeswoman.

Uncommon Schools spokeswoman Barbara Martinez said that their individual schools are subject to public-records requests and the nonprofit CMO releases budget information on its public tax forms.

“Uncommon Schools is a non-profit organization that follows all local, state and federal laws regarding disclosure,” she said in a statement.

However, because public-records laws mainly apply to government agencies and institutions, it is likely that some important communications related to charter schools — such as charter officials’ emails to real-estate companies, for example and detailed financial records related to their CMOs would be off limits to the public.

The issue of charter management transparency flared up in Connecticut a few years ago.

After the state accused a CMO of nepotism and financial mismanagement of its charter schools, the Hartford Courant requested CMO records under the state’s Freedom of Information law. The CMO refused to hand them over, saying, “We are not a public agency.”

In response, state lawmakers proposed a law to increase CMO transparency and subject them to public-records laws. After charter advocates decried the law as overly broad, lawmakers amended it and the law was passed. (A similar bill was recently introduced in the California legislature but did not pass.)

Similar scandals involving CMOs could happen elsewhere, said Wendy Lecker, an attorney at the Education Law Center. During the debate in Connecticut, she called for making all CMO records public.

“Something done on behalf of a school should be subject to transparency and Freedom of Information laws,” she said. “I don’t see why they’d want to shield the public from that.”

A large number of charter schools are run by charter management organizations. In 2015, about 55 percent of New York City charter schools were managed by CMOs, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

The nonprofits help their schools hire, pay, and train staff; analyze data; and handle advertising and public relations, according to a report by the NAPCS. The report notes that these organizations are distinct from textbook companies or other vendors that schools contract with because CMOs “have considerable influence over the instructional design and operations of their affiliated charter schools.”

The nonprofit structure has enabled networks to open new schools more easily, including ones in multiple districts and states, said James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center.

Even if New York’s public-records laws applied to CMOs, that would not guarantee that all their records would be accessible or easy to obtain.

New York City’s education department, for instance, is notorious for dragging its feet on FOIL requests. And some information is also exempt from the public-records law.

For instance, opinions or recommendations from within an agency or from outside consultants are exempt from public disclosure. Success’ lawyer argued that even if the network’s executives were subject to public information requests, Moskowitz’s emails to or about Loeb would fall under this “inter-agency” communication exception.

However, government agencies would still have to supply the requested emails, just with the exempted information redacted, said Allan Blutstein, the public-records advisor for the political opposition research group America Rising. Even redacted emails can provide a wealth of information, Blutstein said, since simply seeing when the emails were sent, who they were sent to, and how many were exchanged provides insights into how the organization responded.

“You may not get his or her personal opinion back and forth, but there’s value in knowing how soon they reacted, how soon they’re responding to other people,” Blutstein said. “You can make these types of inferences and learn a lot.”

In addition, institutions that are subject to FOIL must hand over more detailed budget information than nonprofits typically disclose, Blutstein said. While nonprofits are required to release general information, like how much they spend on supplies or training, public institutions must hand over almost every record, he said.