Future of Schools

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.”

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

These are the 13 education bills poised to become law in Indiana in 2018

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
House Speaker Brian Bosma talks with Democrats shortly before the session adjourned without passing several bills.

Despite a chaotic end to this year’s legislative session, lawmakers managed to push through several education bills that could bring changes for teachers, students and schools.

And it’s not quite over either.

Lawmakers ran out of time before their midnight deadline last week, leaving behind several major bills, including a bill that would expand state takeover in Gary and Muncie school districts. On Monday, Gov. Eric Holcomb announced he’d be calling for a special session so they could revisit that issue and others.

In non-budget year, it can be hard to make significant change because money is generally not available to fund new programs or increase existing ones. This year, the biggest education issue lawmakers passed was a bill to make up an unexpected shortfall in school funding.

Below is a summary of education bills that passed this session, which next head to Holcomb, where he can decide whether to sign them into law. You can find the status of all the bills introduced this year here, and Chalkbeat’s 2018 legislative coverage here.

Graduation and workforce

Senate Bill 50 establishes the governor’s workforce cabinet, which would oversee job training efforts across the state. The cabinet would create a “career navigation and coaching system,” which all Indiana high schools would be required to participate in. State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick would be a cabinet member.

House Bill 1426 would combine Indiana’s four diplomas into a single diploma with four “designations” that mirror current diploma tracks. In addition, it would change rules for getting a graduation waiver and create an “alternate diploma” for students with severe special needs.The bill would also allow the Indiana State Board of Education to consider alternatives to Algebra 2 as a graduation requirement. It makes several changes to state tests, replacing the state high school exam with a national college-entrance exam and eliminating the requirement that schools give the Accuplacer remediation test. The final version of the bill also changes the timing of testing from earlier version. Students wouldn’t begin the new graduation pathways plan until 2021, so the same deadline was applied to switching to a college entrance exam for state accountability. Until then, state education officials will have to decide what annual test high schoolers take when students in grades 3-8 switch to the new ILEARN test next year.


House Bill 1001 would close the gap in school funding that resulted from miscalculations in the number of students attending public schools. The bills would let the state transfer up to $25 million this year and up to $75 million next year from a reserve fund to the state general fund, where it could then be distributed to districts. The bill also calls for a study of virtual education programs within school districts.


Senate Bill 172 would require public schools to offer computer science classes as an elective in high schools, as well as a part of the science curriculum for all K-12 students, by 2021. The bill also sets up a grant program to help pay for teacher training in computer science.

Senate Bill 297 would require schools to include “employability skills,” also known as “soft skills,” in their curriculums. The idea for the bill came from David Freitas, a member of the state board of education.

Senate Bill 65 would require school districts to let parents examine any instructional materials dealing with sex education. It would also require schools to send out consent forms for sex ed classes, where parents could then opt students out of the class. If they do not, the students would still receive instruction.

House Bill 1399 would require the state board to create elementary teacher licenses in math and science. It would also require the state education department to create an incentive program to reward teachers who earn the content area licenses.

Senate Bill 387 would allow districts to pay teachers different amounts and give special education and science teachers extra stipends in an effort to fill jobs. A previous measure that would let districts hire up to 10 percent of unlicensed teachers has been added and removed several times this year, and was killed for good in conference committee. The bill also makes changes to the state’s career specialist permit. Career specialists would have to pass an exam showing they understand how students learn and the practice of teaching, in addition to content exams. The bill also removes a provision from the current version of the permit that says a career specialist must have a bachelor’s degree in the area they wish to teach in.


House Bill 1420, among several other measures, would not let a student who has been expelled from a virtual charter school for non-attendance re-enroll in that same school during the same school year.

House Bill 1421 would ask the state education department to develop a school discipline model that reduces suspensions and expulsions, especially among students of color. It also requires the department to provide guidance and information to districts, beginning in 2019, that want to use that model. It encourages the legislative council to study positive student discipline and restorative justice and asks the education department to survey districts on those practices.

House Bill 1398 would allow a group of charter schools and districts to form a “coalition” to pursue innovative academic strategies. Coalition members could also waive certain state requirements, such as the requirement that students pass Algebra 2 to graduate.

Senate Bill 217 would require districts and charter schools to screen students for dyslexia and by 2019, to employ at least one reading specialist trained in dyslexia, among other provisions.

House Bill 1314 would set up data sharing between the state’s education and child services departments. It would also require that the Indiana State Board of Education release an annual report about foster and homeless youth education.

'A Significant Change'

Done doing ‘more with less,’ Brighton district will move to a four-day school week

PHOTO: Seth McConnell/The Denver Post
Students in Alicia Marquez's 6th grade science class at Overland Trail Middle School in Brighton watch a video and work on home work in August 2017. (Photo by Seth McConnell/The Denver Post)

Students in the Brighton school district will attend school just four days a week starting next school year.

Officials with the fast-growing district north of Denver announced they were considering the change earlier this year after voters turned down a request in November for more local taxes, the latest in a string of defeats for District 27J. This week, they made it official.

There are already 87 school districts in Colorado that use a four-day week at all their schools, but until recently, the phenomenon was largely limited to rural districts. Brighton will be the largest school district in the state on a four-day week

In response to the concerns of working parents, the district will offer paid child care for elementary-aged children every Monday, when school is closed, officials said. Teachers will work some Mondays on planning and professional development.

The change is expected to save the district about $1 million a year, but Brighton Superintendent Chris Fiedler previously told Chalkbeat that the biggest benefit will be “to attract and retain teachers” in a district whose salaries are among the lowest in the metro area.

“I realize this will be a significant change for our students, their families, and the communities we are so fortunate to serve, but our district can no longer be expected to do more with less financial resources,” Fiedler said in a press release.

A mill levy override, a type of property tax increase, hasn’t been approved in District 27J since 2000. A 16th request for more revenue failed in November.

“We are 100 percent committed to providing our students with the necessary skills and competencies that will enable a future far beyond graduation,” Fiedler said. “To that end, I believe it is in our students’ best interest to provide high-quality, engaged teachers using 21st Century tools for learning four days a week rather than not have them five days a week.”

Local union president Kathey Ruybal told Chalkbeat that teachers showed “overwhelming support” for the change.