First charter high school spurred by Gates grant

Wednesday, August 5, 2009 at 8:07pm

Development of Nashville’s first charter high school has received a substantial financial shot from a $320,000 Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-funded grant.

Nashville charter school LEAD Academy, which currently serves middle school grades, announced Wednesday receipt of the grant.

LEAD already has clearance from Nashville’s Board of Education to expand to high school grades, and plans are in place for that school to open in 2010, according to LEAD Director Jeremy Kane.

The grant, awarded by Expeditionary Learning Schools using Gates Foundation dollars, will give LEAD a pool of cash to utilize in professional development and instructional support. The money will help LEAD develop its new high school around the Expeditionary Learning approach, which involves active learning for students.

On Wednesday, LEAD students demonstrated the model for local news reporters. Students quietly moved through a room in groups, critiquing posters made by other students about the habits of highly responsible students. Kids wrote comments about the posters on Post-It notes, then discussed with their teachers the posters and responsible habits.

Though non-charters in Nashville’s public school district aren’t yet in session, classes at LEAD have already started, kicking off LEAD’s extended school year.

Kane said Wednesday that it’s a “new day” for charter schools, considering recently passed state law that opens eligibility for charter schools and new charter-friendly infrastructure at Metro Nashville Public Schools.

“I get to now spend my March and April at school, instead of trudging up to the Hill and kind of knocking our heads against a wall. It’s a new day, and I am very, very excited,” Kane said. “I only have a one-night-a-week nightmare now about what can shut us down, and most of it has to do with what happens if a bus breaks down or something. It’s not, ‘Is Metro going to pay us this month?’”

LEAD is currently housed at the school facilities of North Nashville’s St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church. Kane is still seeking a site for the high school and raising funds for the school’s development, and said he hopes the new LEAD grades can also find a physical home in North Nashville. LEAD’s charter allows for 100 students in each grade at the new high school, and Kane said the school would open in 2010 serving just the ninth grade.

Nashville Mayor Karl Dean spoke to reporters Wednesday, congratulating LEAD on the grant and highlighting the need for a new charter school “incubator.”

“The groups that LEAD is working with means that there’s going to be a high-quality charter,” Dean said. “We need to make sure that we’re emphasizing quality. Charter schools are not a panacea, but they can do great things, as Jeremy and LEAD have proven.”

Earlier this summer, Tennessee’s legislature approved changes to the state’s charter school laws that set a cap of as many as 20 charter schools that can be established in Nashville. Dean wants to be a part of a city effort to act deliberately in recruiting and cultivating new charters. Such an incubator would require staff and training, which Dean said would likely require a private investment — and possibly a public investment as well.

“I want to move forward aggressively, and I want to see this incubator up and running this year,” Dean said. “I’m going to focus on this for the next couple months, and I think we’ll have some positive announcements in the near future.”

Charter schools are publicly funded, and privately operated schools, which have seen some success in Nashville. Metro Nashville Public Schools currently has three charter schools in operation: LEAD Academy, Smithson-Craighead, and KIPP Academy. Two new charter schools — Smithson-Craighead's middle school and Global Academy — will start serving students this fall.