civil discourse

Nashville high school students stage walkout to protest Trump’s visit

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students at Nashville's LEAD Academy High School protest President Trump's policies to coincide with his visit to the city later in the day.

About 100 students at a Nashville charter school organized a walkout Wednesday to protest the policies of President Donald Trump, less than two miles from the hall where the president was scheduled to speak later in the day.

Students at LEAD Academy High School stood along Lafayette Street, a busy thoroughfare into downtown Nashville. Some waved flags of their native countries to declare their pride about being immigrants. Others held signs supporting immigration rights and the Black Lives Matter movement. Several teachers accompanied the students to ensure their safety near the traffic.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
LEAD Academy senior Jerchelle Chaney leads a chant.

Students were most motivated by Trump’s January executive order, which barred entrance into the United States by immigrants and refugees from seven countries. LEAD serves many students who are immigrants or have family members who immigrated to the United States.

“It’s a very diverse school, and the majority of our students feel like they are very affected by the ban,” said senior Malik Phipps. “We just want to show our school loves each other.”

During his first major policy address outside of Washington, D.C., Trump is expected to talk about school choice, as well as his proposed repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

Here are 5 things to know about school choice in Tennessee.

Senior Jerchelle Chaney, who was leading protest chants, wasn’t familiar with Trump’s school choice agenda, but had some advice for his administration.

“I hope that whatever he chooses (to do with education) is smarter than the immigration ban,” Chaney said. “I hope it has a positive impact on us, and I hope that he consults with us before he makes an executive decision.”

Though they were skipping class, several students said protesting was an educational experience.

“We’re exercising our first amendment rights,” sophomore Chandler Davis said. “If you don’t like something, you’ve got the power to change it, so that’s what we’re doing.”

The school’s charter operator later issued a statement on the protest.  “While LEAD Public Schools does not make political statements, we respect the rights of our students to find their voice through exercising their First Amendment rights,” a spokesman wrote. “And we are proud of our students for engaging in a peaceful and non-violent protest as future leaders of our city and country. In this instance, we worked with our students to ensure that the protest was peaceful and the safety of all was upheld. Thank you to the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department for working with us during the duration of the protest.”

Not over yet

A firm reprimand — but no penalty yet — for two Tennessee districts that defy deadline to share student data

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

So what will be the consequences for the two Tennessee school districts that missed a state-imposed deadline to share contact information for their students with charter schools? For now, disappointment from the state’s top education official.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen had promised to issue consequences if the two districts, Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Public Schools, did not meet the Monday deadline.

But when the end of the day passed — as expected — without any data-sharing, McQueen declined to penalize the districts. Instead, she issued a stern statement.

“We are disappointed that these districts are choosing to withhold information from parents about the options that are available to their students while routinely saying they desire more parental engagement,” she said. “Allowing parents to be informed of their educational options is the epitome of family engagement and should be embraced by every school official.”

McQueen seemed to indicate that firmer consequences could lie ahead. “We must consider all options available in situations where a district actively chooses to ignore the law,” she said in the statement. McQueen told lawmakers in a conference call last month that she was not discussing withholding state funds as a penalty at the time, according to Rep. John Clemmons, who was on the call.

The anticlimactic decision comes after weeks of back-and-forth between the state and its two largest school districts over student contact information — the latest front in the districts’ ongoing enrollment war with charter schools.

Charter schools are pressing the districts to share information about their students, arguing that they need to be able to contact local families to inform them about their school options. District leaders argue that a federal rule about student privacy lets local districts decide who gets that information. (The districts have chosen to distribute student contact information to other entities, including yearbook companies.)

The state’s attorney general sided with charter schools, saying that marketing to families is an acceptable use of student contact information and districts were required to hand it over to charter schools that requested it. Both school boards cite a committee discussion in February when state lawmakers sought to make sure the information could not be used as a “recruiting tool” as evidence that the intent of the law runs counter to the state’s application of it.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

Now, the conflict has potential to head to court. Shelby County Schools already committed last month to writing a letter outlining its arguments to support the Nashville district if it decides to file a lawsuit against the state.

As the deadline drew near, the two school boards teamed up to flesh out their positions and preview what that legal battle might look like. Over the weekend, board chairs Anna Shepherd in Nashville and Chris Caldwell in Memphis penned a letter to USA Today’s Tennessee papers arguing the districts should not be required to hand over student information to a state-run district facing deep financial, operational and academic woes.

They also pointed to a recent $2.2 million settlement between a parents and a Nashville charter network over spam text messages promoting enrollment at its schools as evidence the transaction could lead to invasion of privacy.

Clarification (Sept. 25, 2017): This story has been updated to clarify the source of McQueen’s early comments on penalties she was discussing at the time. 

deja vu

For second straight year, two charter schools denied by Memphis board appeal to the state

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Sara Heyburn Morrison, executive director of the Tennessee State Board of Education, listens last May to charter appeals by three operators in Memphis.

For the second year in a row, charter schools seeking to open in Memphis are appealing to the state after being rejected by the local board.

Two proposed all-girls schools, The Academy All Girls Charter School and Rich ED Academy of Leaders, went before the Tennessee Board of Education last week to plead for the right to open. Citing weaknesses in the schools’ planning, the Shelby County Schools board had rejected them, along with nine other charter applicants, last month. It approved three schools, many fewer than in previous years.

After state officials and charter operators complained last year that the Memphis school board didn’t have clear reasons for rejecting schools, the district revamped its charter oversight to make the review process more transparent. Now, five independent evaluators help scrutinize schools’ lengthy applications — a job that until this year had been done by three district officials with many other responsibilities. (The district also doubled the size of its charter schools office.)

The new appeals suggest that at least some charter operators aren’t satisfied by the changes.

District officials said the schools did not have clear goals for their academic programs and relied too heavily on grant funding. The board for Rich Ed Academy of Learners said in its appeal letter the district’s concerns were ambiguous and that the school would provide a unique project-based learning model for girls of color from low-income families.

The other school’s board said in its letter that the district’s decision was not in the best interest of students. A school official declined to elaborate.

The state board blasted Shelby County Schools’ charter revocation and approval processes last year, ultimately approving one appeal. That cleared the way for the first charter school in Memphis overseen by the panel.

The state board will vote on the new appeals at its quarterly meeting Friday, Oct. 20. If the state board approves the appeals, the local board would have 30 days to decide whether to authorize the school or relinquish oversight to the state board.