Dozens of students have left the school. Parents have accused the executive director of assaulting two students. And although the year-end test scores have yet to be released, school leaders say they won’t be pretty.
That’s just a taste of what leaders at Boys Prep Nashville are dealing with in what has become a crash course in everything that can go wrong with a first-year charter school.
The idea was simple: to become a public school version of the private Montgomery Bell Academy, advancing student achievement and teaching Nashville boys to become capable men.
But at every turn, the school has faced nothing but uphill battles.
Rivalries within the leadership at the school shifted attention from the kids in the building to the adults in the boardroom. Meanwhile, handling the school’s 100 seventh-grade boys — a third of whom have some form of learning disability — proved tougher than the founders fathomed.
The experiment of running an all-boys school has so far come at a cost of nearly $1 million of taxpayers’ money, but leadership and parents at the school say the investment is worth it, and the school is finally at a place where it can move forward.
As the Metropolitan Board of Public Education prepares to approve another batch of charter school applications this summer, what lessons — if any — will they learn from Boys Prep?
Statistically speaking, this story is unlikely to have a happy ending.
The city school district knows it. Boys Prep Nashville’s board president knows it. And deep down, so do some of the parents.
But the all-boys charter school housed in an office park off Murfreesboro Pike is trying to reclaim its destiny after a first year so tumultuous that statistics say failure is very likely over the next five years.
Boys Prep is fragile. While charter schools are ideas built from scratch, they depend heavily on building a solid school infrastructure, including strong leadership and a sturdy board within the school. Challenges, both seen and unseen, come quickly during a first year and a school needs to have the strength to withstand them.
The plan to open the all-male school in Nashville came from Martin Kennedy, who taught at Middle Tennessee State University. Having grown up in a house full of brothers and as a graduate of an all-boys school himself, he downloaded a charter school application in 2009 wanting to create his own public version of the private Montgomery Bell Academy for boys.
“From my own experience, both as a student and as a teacher, I could see learning approaches vary by gender,” he said. “In every reasonably sized city in the private sector, there were boys and girls schools, and I thought that this should be an option for those who can’t afford those.”
But when it came to applying to start a school, “I had no idea what I was doing,” he said.
And MNPS knew it. The district denied the school’s first charter application in 2010, as did the Tennessee State Board of Education on appeal, finding the proposal “does not establish that the sponsor has adequately considered the challenges of executing the vision of the proposed school.”
In 2011, Kennedy and Boys Prep tried again. After another denial, the Boys Prep team revised its plan, and the Nashville school board voted 7-1 to OK the district’s first exclusively single-gender public school. It would begin with seventh grade and gradually work up to 12th.
MNPS board member Anna Shepherd was the lone vote against the charter, and she is not surprised the school has had such a “horrific” start.
“I just don’t think they had their ducks in a row to be successful when they opened,” she said of the school’s leadership. But she stopped short of saying the district made the wrong choice approving the school when it did.
“Hindsight is 20-20, you know that. You can second-guess yourself forever,” said Shepherd. “Unfortunately, we don’t always make the best decisions, and our students pay for it.”
Shortly after MNPS gave Boys Prep the OK to open the district’s 15th charter, the school’s infrastructure began to splinter into factions — one group supported Kennedy as the school’s executive director and founder, and another wanted him out.
The Boys Prep board also began hemorrhaging members. In the charter’s short history, 18 people have left the board, some of whom said they felt forced out or were exhausted from dealing with the school’s internal politics.
While The City Paper reached out to current and former members of the Boys Prep board, many never responded, and almost all who did reply refused to talk about their experience on the record, if at all. That includes Monica Davis, an instructor at MTSU who resigned from the board this month after finishing two-thirds of her three-year term. She, too, refused to comment.
“The turnover that they’ve had is primarily related to their inability to settle on strong leadership and consistent board leadership at the beginning,” said Alan Coverstone, MNPS’ charter school guru and the executive director of the district’s Office of Innovation, which oversees charters.
“Lots of groups have good ideas about what a school would look like, but actually running a school is a bigger challenge,” he said. “This is a startup organization. It’s a school. It’s a nonprofit. It’s a lot of things all at once. If you don’t have a pretty good board collegiality — and a pretty good board understanding of how organizations work — it’s a big red flag that we look for,” he said.
That red flag waved high shortly before Boys Prep opened its doors. Three months ahead of the first day of school, Kennedy narrowly survived a no-confidence vote from the Boys Prep school board.
“I’m still trying to figure that one out,” Kennedy said about that no-confidence vote against him, which he said involved curious testimony and questionable omissions in the meeting minutes, something he still takes issue with.
Though he won that vote, half the members of the board were unconvinced that Boys Prep could fulfill the school’s mission under Kennedy, and the adversarial partnership continued, beginning with decisions on the school’s location.
Despite desire by some on the board to occupy the shuttered Boys and Girls Club on Thompson Lane, Kennedy signed a lease for space in the Plus Park office complex off Murfreesboro Pike, east of the I-24/I-40 split.
But little more than a week before the school’s opening day, the office lacked the proper permits to let the school open there — leaving Boys Prep temporarily homeless.
“I was in full panic mode at that point,” said Kennedy, who secured space at Dalewood Middle School in East Nashville until fall break, when Boys Prep’s building suite was ready. “We had parents who didn’t even know where we were. ... It was just insane.”
In the meantime, two teachers provided by the Teach for America alternative teaching certification program left the school for more stable gigs elsewhere, leaving Boys Prep suddenly short on staff.
“If I’d enrolled my son at this school in August when it opened, I would have pulled him,” said Sean Braddock, the schools’ current executive director, who is trying to turn the school around although his children are already grown.
Now, he said, he’d keep him there.
Braddock wasn’t added to the workforce at Boys Prep until months after the opening, but staffers who preceded him said it quickly became apparent the school’s first student body was also more challenging than they expected.
Of the 100 seventh-graders, 90 percent of them qualify for free or reduced lunch, a sign the children face poverty and other challenges much more difficult than math or science homework when they go home. Many come to school hungry, have unstable family situations or spend the night doing homework in a motel room instead of sitting in their own home, said Braddock.
The need to reach beyond the boys’ academic challenges and “change the arch of their lives” is incredibly urgent, he said.
“If you will not think for yourself, others will think for you, and they will tell you where you can go, and what you can do and how you can learn. And short of being shackled, it’s no different from being a slave. None,” said Braddock, a solemn and deliberate man whose eyes welled up as he spoke. “And that’s the reality, and that’s why we’re here. And everyone can dance and pretend otherwise.”
The student body at Boys Prep looks much like Davidson County’s public school population as a whole. About half the students are African-American, which is similar to the district’s figures, although the rest of Boys Prep’s population is almost evenly split between Latino and Caucasian males. The Latino population is less prominent within MNPS as a whole.
About a third of the students are considered “exceptional,” boys who have special needs like learning deficiencies or behavioral needs, making them a tougher challenge to teach.
“That tells you that there are kids whose needs aren’t being met in Metro,” said Tracy Harris, whose 14-year-old son has a pervasive developmental disorder that leaves him several grade levels behind.
She took him out of his MNPS school wanting a place where he can get the attention he needs. He’ll never score high on standardized tests, Harris said. And scoring “basic” — the equivalent of a C or D — on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program is probably out of his reach, she said.
“For my son, it’s a day-to-day battle to read every night,” she said. Before Boys Prep, he would have meltdowns at home over reading Dr. Seuss books.
She’s considered all types of schools for her son — other charter schools, private school and even home schooling. She liked the idea of an all-boys school, but the first few months made her question whether Boys Prep had its act together.
“He was sitting there like a vegetable in class in the beginning of the year,” she said. “Now he’s engaging, wanting to raise his hand, able to follow and participate. The transformation was amazing.” He’s even volunteered to read passages from a novel about the Holocaust.
She is now a parent dedicated to the school and doesn’t want to send her son anywhere else. But that took time.
“I wish I could say it was growing pains. It wasn’t,” she said. And in December, problems at the school got worse before they got better. “It got pretty ugly there.”
Concerned with possible tinkering with test scores and other misconduct, Kennedy fired the popular school principal, the third since the school’s inception.
While the school board backed the move, it was the first in a series of events that would eventually lead to the founder being ousted from the school.
Less than two weeks later, Kennedy found himself the subject of an investigation looking into how he disciplines students and allegations he’d taken it too far by assaulting two boys: one while breaking up a fight and another when restraining him.
The two boys’ mothers together filed complaints to Metro police, alleging assault, casting a spotlight on the already struggling school.
The allegations against Kennedy were thrown out. The Metro police Youth Services Division sent the case to the district’s attorney’s office for review but Kennedy wasn’t charged. The Tennessee Department of Children Services’ Special Investigations Unit also closed its case on the school’s founder.
But in the days following the initial allegations, Kennedy asked for administrative leave while his name was being cleared. And the next few months saw an outgrowth of the personality conflicts on display during the vote of no confidence a year before. Months later, Kennedy found himself frustrated to still be getting paid to sit at home while wanting to be a part of the school he founded, with the school board reluctant to let him back.
The issue dominated Boys Prep’s board over much of the spring term, sucking up time and energy to rectify a situation that included debates over the integrity of the meeting minutes and Kennedy’s concerns that the board was pushing him out.
Kennedy eventually came to a mutual agreement with the school board to go his separate way, although he’s vexed about not having anything to do with the school he founded two years ago.
“Quite frankly, I’m not sure what I could have done,” Kennedy told The City Paper. “Sometimes when you do the best you can, you act in good faith and you’re forthright and you’re transparent, and you’re falsely accused, still some people, you just can’t please. ... The nature of human organization is that there are going to be people who are going to be critical and hard to work with.”
Before taking administrative leave in December, Kennedy hired Braddock as the school’s principal. The board named him executive director in April, although parents who couldn’t stand the instability or disliked the new leadership began to pull their boys out of school.
At least 39 of the 100 students who started with Boys Prep left last school year, and 16 others entered. The number of students cycling out gives the school one of the highest attrition rates in the district. Braddock said he counseled some boys out of the school because it was a good move for those individuals at the time, but would urge them to consider coming back.
Nearly all schools across the district see flocks of students leave in the double and triple digits each school year, in part because mobility is high among low-income families, who tend to move more often. Boys Prep’s small size leaves the school’s attrition and mobility rates among the top 10 percent of schools — and squarely in the eyes of the Metro Nashville school board, which saw high attrition as a problem to address in coming school years.
Another issue sure to attract the district’s attention are test scores, which won’t be released until August, according to state officials. The Rev. Keith Jackson, president of the Boys Prep school board, said he expects the scores to be subpar this time around.
“With what we experienced this first year, we didn’t have the expectation that our test scores are going to be out of the park. We understood that,” said Jackson, a pastor at Friendship Baptist Church in Cross Plains.
“Our focus is on taking the lesson that we have learned in this first year and making changes, adjustments, whatever you want to call it, to get stronger next year and continue to be stronger in the years to come,” he said. “We’re not coming into year two with a sense of relief that we made it through year one and we’re still here. We enter year two with a sense of urgency.”
Boys Prep’s aggressive goals for next year would advance student growth by 1.5 grade levels annually. By the time the school begins expanding to high school grades, the boys will each require a score of 21 on the ACT to graduate, with the expectation of a 100 percent graduation rate, said Braddock.
“Can I tell you what percentage of students are going to be proficient? No. But what I can tell you is, 100 percent of our students are going to make significant gains. That’s a promise,” said Braddock about next year’s testing goals.
“The race has already begun, and we’re behind. Even if we run as fast, we’re not closing the gap. So everybody’s in the same race, and to catch up, we need to run faster and we need to run harder, and we will. Every day. From day one,” he said.
But statistically, charter schools with low performance in their first year struggle with the same problem through their fifth year, according to a study by CREDO, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, which examines the effect of education reforms.
“Our research shows that if you start wobbly, chances are you’ll stay wobbly,” said Margaret Raymond, Ph.D., the center’s director and the study’s lead author.
Using data showing student growth over time, the study found 80 percent of schools that started out as low-performing remain low performers in their fifth year. For highest performing schools, 94 percent remain that way by year five.
“Our findings suggest that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, charter school performance is remarkably stable at every stage of maturity,” read the report. “Initial performance is not merely a school’s opening swing, but is instead strongly related to later performance.”
Nashville charter schools are limited to approximately $9,100 public dollars per student, plus anything else they can raise. However, the price tag climbs yearly as charter schools take on more students.
Officials at MNPS couldn’t provide a total number of tax dollars issued to Boys Prep for this school year by the deadline for this story, but the amount was likely between $700,000 and $910,000. MNPS has budgeted $1.5 million for Boys Prep for next year, assuming 165 students are consistently enrolled in the school. However, that number could climb higher. The school is entitled to $1.82 million if it can enroll and retain 200 students between its seventh-grade and new eighth-grade class all throughout next year.
Boys Prep expects to go before the Metro school board to ask for a renewal after ten years on the job. Only two charters in Nashville have been shut down before that window closed, including the recently shuttered Smithson Craighead Middle School, which was among the worst 5 percent of schools statewide, and Nashville Global Academy, which found itself $400,000 in the red in 2010. The only other closed charter school in the state was in Memphis.
Even on good boards, there’s a certain amount of dysfunction that exists on any given day or week, said Will Pinkston, a former operative in state government under Gov. Phil Bredesen who now sits on several boards, including the Metro school board and the Tennessee Student Assistance Corp. He was also a founding board member of Nashville Prep charter school.
“It’s instructive for the entire field, what’s happened at Boys Prep and other charter schools where the experience hasn’t gone as well as everyone would have liked,” he said.
Charters can “come undone quickly if not tended to properly,” said Pinkston. And as the school board considers the district recommendations that it approve four of six new charter school applications for the 2014-15 school year at its meeting Tuesday, June 25, “We’ve got to be very careful and deliberate how we move forward with approvals and renewals,” he said.
“The charter movement at large does a pretty good job of selling itself as a silver bullet solution to all the problems of public education, but they’re pretty slow to confront issues in a situation where things haven’t gone so well. And that situation and others should be reminders that these charter schools are fragile things,” said Pinkston.
Boys Prep is still delicate. As it regroups under new leadership, the school is contemplating another change: a move to the former Smithson Craighead Middle School facility in Madison.
Whether that move can happen is unknown. Boys Prep is locked into a seven-year lease at Plus Park, where gym class is held in the alley behind the building and abuts a rock wall that grows poison ivy and occasionally lets large rocks tumble off the edges, officials said. School leaders worry the rock wall is structurally unstable and wonder whether the conditions could free them from their lease.
The relocation would mean another year of change following a year of instability. But it would mean students learning in a bona fide school building complete with science labs and sports fields for the boys to burn off their energy, especially important given the school is approved to add an eighth-grade level next year.
Some change can be a good thing, contends Braddock.
Since taking over day-to-day management of the school, he’s fired what he characterized as weak teachers and replaced them with people he believes can carry student achievement forward and hold themselves accountable. While last year the school plowed ahead without a curriculum in place, a long-term plan or accountability, it will have a full-scale plan ready for students in the coming school year, Braddock said. He is also meeting with experts on gender-specific learning styles and shifting attention to beefing up support for students with special education needs.
“I cannot go back and rewrite the chapters that have already been written,” said Braddock, “and I can’t change what individuals wrote on those pages. But I absolutely can influence the chapters that we write going forward ... because a lot of them didn’t have really great things to say.”