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.
PHOTO CREDIT: Jon Zlock, LEAD Public Schools

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.”