Selling a school: Cameron Middle and the difficulty of becoming a charter school

Sunday, January 9, 2011 at 10:05pm
Jude Ferrara/SouthComm

I’Ashea Myles shrinks a few inches as she slips off lavender heels for black, bow-tied flats. With comfortable walking shoes on, she’s ready for her first day going door to door to sell something as undeniable as it is intangible: a better education.

Not long ago, Myles sat at a desk hawking toothpaste and detergent for Proctor and Gamble. She’d spent some time working with nonprofits before, and she realized she missed it. So last summer, Myles joined LEAD Public Schools, a new charter school organization selected by Metro Nashville Public Schools to turn around Cameron Middle School, which was crippled by poor test scores and a troubled reputation.

But LEAD is unknown in the South Nashville community that feeds Cameron. Myles’ job is to market it as an educational blessing for a school perceived as broken.

“I’m selling pie in the sky,” she jokes and raises her arms, an improvised Moses parting the Red Sea.

Cameron College Prep, LEAD’s new name for the school, rings with promise. The charter school will be phased in one grade at a time, starting next year with the fifth grade.

This solution the district has come up with is unique. Usually a charter steps in to take control of an entire school, not gradually annex it grade by grade. In December, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation honored Nashville for being a model city in charter-district partnerships, largely because of this experiment (read about the local charter incubator program here).

This idea might sound like an easy sell: underperforming school versus one promoting high expectations and success. But Myles struggles to get her message across to people perhaps not ready to listen. She must track down and make personal contact with 220 families. Roughly two-thirds are immigrants with limited or no English skills.

She stands in front of Massman Manor, a stocky apartment building that is home to many in Nashville’s Egyptian Christian community. Next to her is Zied Guizani, a tall, outgoing Arabic translator who works for the district. He has accompanied Myles to a few informational meetings she’s held at Egyptian Coptic Christian churches.

“How many students are signed up?” he asks as the two walk toward the building.


“That’s it?” he teases.

Myles knows he’s kidding but defends her progress. “I thought that was a lot!”

Guizani says Egyptians are chronically polite and may just want to please her by showing interest. He suggests nudging a little harder.

Put more pressure on about the deadline,” he says. “Sign them up now before they forget.”

It’s Nov. 29, 2010. Myles has until March 1 to get parents to commit to Cameron College Prep. Even though students who are zoned for Cameron Middle School will be zoned for CCP, kids can’t just show up on the first day. Parents must opt into a charter school. While still a public school, charters are run privately, and families must agree to the longer school days, abbreviated summer breaks and mandatory Saturday school.

“Assam-a-la-mou …” Myles slowly rehearses her Arabic before knocking on the first apartment door. Over the next few weeks she’ll talk to a Hispanic mother whose fourth grader was passed from grade to grade even though he can’t read. She’ll meet an Egyptian father nervous about the loose, American way of life his daughter might learn at a traditional middle school. She’ll meet many others.

Meanwhile, those who remain at Cameron Middle School are also determined to overhaul its image in the three years it has left.

Making the pitch

Magdy Adballa invites Myles and Guizani into his apartment. As he leans back into a leather office chair, his jalabeya laps at his bare feet. Abdalla has a fourth-grade daughter who is zoned for Cameron Middle School.

“I want to know the difference,” Abdalla says in heavily accented English.

“The new program is focused on getting kids prepared for college,” Myles says. “It is more along the lines of a private school.”

She explains the individualized education plans each child will receive, smaller class size and additional tutoring meant to ensure students are up to grade level come spring test time. These extra measures demand time and money. In addition to a $600,000 startup grant provided by the state, LEAD is a powerful fundraiser and has about $1 million slated for Cameron College Prep.

Abdalla seems pleased with all that he hears, but he continues to question. He wants to know his alternatives if he doesn’t choose to send his daughter to CCP. Myles says Metro will select two middle schools he can pick from, but those won’t be released until March, after the district knows which schools have tested well enough to categorize them as choice schools.

“Have they done this?” he asks.

Myles explains that, yes, LEAD currently has a middle school, LEAD Academy. She points to their experience working with at-risk, economically disadvantaged students. Since opening in 2007, LEAD Academy has either met state testing standards or showed enough improvement to remain in good standing. But LEAD hasn’t yet enrolled many students who are English Language Learners, the group of kids who’ve repeatedly tested low at Cameron. This year, only 9 percent of LEAD’s kids were ELL students. That’s significantly less than the 25 percent of Cameron students who come with weak English skills.

Jeremy Kane, LEAD Academy’s founder, concedes that his charter may not seem like an obvious choice to work with ELL. But he says Cameron College Prep will be ready when it opens next fall.

“Just like everything else we do, we’re finding out who out there in the country is doing a great job,” Kane says. “We’re looking for best practices.” He’ll need them in order to stay in charge: Should Cameron College Prep not produce better test scores in the next few years, their charter could be pulled.

“So how are you feeling?” Myles asks after an hour’s worth of Abdalla’s questions.

“I want an application,” he replies.

Abdalla is sold — so much that he debates pulling his seventh-grader out of Cameron and sending her to LEAD Academy. Myles foresaw this. She squirms. LEAD doesn’t want to be accused of stealing kids, but what they’re pitching sounds to many too good to pass up.

“It’s tricky. I don’t want to badmouth Cameron,” says Myles, knowing that parents are just looking out for their kids. “You can’t introduce a more rigorous, college-forward education for one and not the older one.”

Myles flips open a binder stuffed with applications and letters. She hands him papers for both schools. One of Abdalla’s last questions before they leave is why the new school’s name is so similar to the old one.

“Why call it Cameron?”  he asks. That answer goes back some 40 years.

Cameron’s road to takeover

When Jeremy Kane was deciding what to call his college prep school, it became clear the name Cameron was crucial. The stately brick building on First Avenue South is on the National Register of Historic Places for its prominent role in Nashville’s African-American community.

Kane met with Charles Watkins, president of Cameron High’s Alumni Association. Watkins graduated from Cameron in 1962, when it was an all-black neighborhood high school. Watkins describes Cameron as his “passion.” He spends his days in the alumni office, a basement room in Cameron Middle School that is unknown to most students. Even without windows, the room is candescent: Glass cases along the walls gleam with golden sports trophies and framed class pictures.

“We’ve kept the pride alive,” he says, smiling. Watkins convinced Kane of the importance of Cameron’s namesake, Professor Henry Alvin Cameron. He was a revered black science teacher who was killed in World War I.

But the school changed with the times. After desegregation in 1971, Cameron High closed and was converted to a junior high. Students were bused in from South Nashville. By the early 1980s, Cameron had a large number of children from immigrant families, many from Southeast Asia.

That’s the school Bonnie Agazuma walked into 27 years ago.

“LEAD is the unknown,” says the longtime Cameron teacher. “Shock. Scared. I couldn’t believe it. What’s going to happen to me? What’s going to happen to my kids?”

Agazuma knew something was coming. Cameron had failed to meet state benchmarks almost every year since 2003. In that time, Cameron’s hallways had become the tornado alley of Nashville schools. Change blew in each year, scattering staff and, Agazuma says, shattering morale.

Cameron has had four principals in the past seven years. It’s been fresh-started — meaning the district made all employees reapply for their positions — twice, most recently two years ago. Almost 70 percent of the staff changed. 

Even with perpetual reform, last year Cameron tumbled down the state’s accountability scale. The district had to come up with a resuscitation plan or the state would assume control.

The reasons contributing to Cameron’s academic demise vary depending on whom you talk to. Some say it’s due to an influx of poor, at-risk students. Others blame years with little professional development for teachers and inadequate translation and ELL services.

Cameron’s struggles may have existed before 2003, but No Child Left Behind, passed in 2001, pinpointed them. Under the federal law, ELL students were parceled out into their own category. Schools had to start showing improvement in ELL students’ test scores or risk being labeled as failing.

That was Cameron’s fate.

Now, the logistics

There are a lot of lingering questions about how two schools will operate under one roof. Will there be two sets of morning announcements? Two separate entrances? Will the schools share guidance counselors, physical education and art teachers?

These logistical questions should be answered by July. The emotional component of the marriage between Cameron College Prep and Cameron Middle School, however, is more complicated. In three years, it will end in divorce. Cameron Middle School will move out. Divorce is painful.

“The people it hurts most are the people who’ve been here the longest,” says Chris Hames, Cameron Middle School’s principal.

This is Hames’ first year at the school after five years as Brentwood High School’s assistant principal. He was expecting a building full of bitter teachers in need of a self-esteem boost, but that’s not what he found. For the most part, he says, teachers either hold a long-standing connection to Cameron or they’re young and up for a challenge. Still, he says, staff meetings can be punctuated with anxiety. For example, word has gone out recently that CCP is hiring fifth-grade teachers.

The district has committed a large portion of a $2 million school improvement grant toward adding staff and enhancing the skills of Cameron Middle School teachers. Lipscomb University is providing on-site professional development. Teachers get help coming up with effective lessons. They’re paid $25 for every professional development seminar they attend before or after school, and attendance has been steady. Agazuma says constant support alone will continue to raise Cameron’s
academic performance.

Still, Agazuma admits that knowing Cameron College Prep is being advertised as the new toy has sparked competition.

“Academically,” she says, “we want to go out with a bang.”

Just last month, Agazuma organized a Saturday trip for teachers to go visit students at Massman Manor and other apartments where students live. They met parents and promoted their school. It’s the same approach Myles has taken with her door-to-door visits for Cameron College Prep.

Hames says having CCP in the building will have perks. He’ll look for what’s working on their end and borrow. “I’m not opposed to stealing ideas,” he says.

Kane thinks Cameron College Prep might gain from the cohabitation, too. As a charter, there’s pressure to churn out new, innovative ideas and to extend school days. At a traditional school like Cameron Middle, teachers will showcase efficiency.

“[Students] go to school one-and-a-half or two hours less than us,” Kane says. “They [teachers] have to pack a lot more in that time.”

Opening doors

“Hola. Como estas? Mi llamo I’Ashea.”

In Spanish, Myles slowly retraces a long greeting from memory. She’s in her car, and it’s now December. Myles is going door to door in the Woodbine area, where many Hispanic families live — and where she’s had difficulty.

“I just can’t find some kids,” she laments.

The list of fourth-graders provided by the district is rife with bum addresses. She can’t get phone numbers for some families. Low-income and immigrant families tend to move often. Selling her school has become a scavenger hunt. And there’s competition. STEM Prep, a new charter school opening in South Nashville in the fall, is recruiting some of the same families she is. Myles stays positive.

“I’m an eternal optimist,” she says. “My goal is 25 applications by the end of this week.”  She hopes to get 150 students signed up by March. If she doesn’t hit that number with families zoned for Cameron, seats will likely be offered to children at J.C. Napier Homes, a public housing project across the street from the school.

Despite being one crosswalk away, Napier kids are zoned for Donelson and Two Rivers middle schools. The district cites diversity and overcrowding. But for parents, a strong school close by is appealing, and some have been contacting LEAD and trying to secure a spot.

Myles puts on cream-colored mittens and heads into chilly sunlight and up stairs to her first family of the day. Within a half-hour she’s knocked on five apartment doors. All have gone unanswered.

“Well, we’re off to an amazing start,” she sighs as she leaves a letter in the crease of a doorframe. Myles drives to a neighborhood of aging one-story homes. She looks at her list and heads to one with a television blaring inside. She knocks. A child’s gentle stampede stops short of the door. 

“I know someone’s home,” she whispers. Myles peeks into a small window, just in time to see a man sliding into a bathroom and shutting the door. It’s hard not to feel disappointed, even though she’s heard paranoia among Hispanics is rampant. In late October, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents raided an apartment complex off Murfreesboro Road. News of their presence spread within the Latino community, trespassing on their trust of strangers.

Myles kicks herself for what the hiding man saw on his doorstep. She’s a well-dressed black woman carrying a thick black binder. The Spanish translator with her that day is a professional-looking Caucasian man.

When Myles pulls her car into another driveway she’s relieved to see a woman sitting behind a glass screen door, wiping it with a yellow rag. At the sight of Myles, the rag freezes. The woman’s blank stare falls suspicious, and frown lines, stern, little parentheses, appear around her mouth. Myles waves and glides through her rehearsed greeting before allowing the translator to take over. The woman keeps a tight grip on the door’s handle. When her toddler tries to push it open, she snaps it shut.
The woman tells Myles her family is moving so that her daughter won’t have to go
to Cameron.

“I’ve heard about years in the past, things happen at Cameron,” she says through the translator.

“I understand,” Myles says. “That’s why the district has asked us to come in and change Cameron.”

Myles has heard from many parents about “things” occurring at Cameron. She knows a lot of it is folklore. Some parents believe the J.C. Napier housing projects sit like a moat around Cameron, and their children will have to wade through crime to get to class.

As far as behavior is concerned, Cameron currently falls in the middle of the middle school pack. Last year it had 267 fights, suspensions and other reportable incidents. That’s far fewer than Bailey Middle School’s 700 recorded behavioral issues, and Cameron’s tally is down from 554 the previous year.
Myles assures the woman her child will be safe at Cameron College Prep. Before she leaves, an informational letter is accepted through a cautious slit in the door. The woman’s face softens. 

“They didn’t tell us you were coming,” she says with a small smile. “Sorry.”

Myles isn’t sure that she swayed the woman to stick around and give Cameron College Prep a try. But she moves to the next house confident that in time, what she’s selling will catch on.

4 Comments on this post:

By: courier37027 on 1/10/11 at 11:17

So if we take a t*rd, put a bow around it, throw some money at it, market new and improved t*rd door-to-door, add some fancy initials and a level of bureaucracy, the stench will go away?

By: HVillageGal on 1/12/11 at 1:05

This is the same school where the school resource officer's sons are known gang members. I believe they have bigger issues to deal with at this school.

By: 12serve on 1/15/11 at 3:25

Well, let's see... One of our comments is obviously from Hillsboro and by the zip, we can assume that the other is a Brentwood address.
I'd like to offer a personal invitation to both of you to join us at Cameron for a day. Perhaps you could volunteer in some capacity since you seem to sense a very real and urgent need for change at Cameron?
Maybe, if either of you could see past the "stench", the "gangs" and the "issues" at Cameron, you might just find out that what we're actually dealing with at Cameron are children.
These children have talents,dreams,and ambition. Their parents have the desire to see their children given a fair and equitable opportunity to realize those dreams.
The world's next Ben Carson may even now be attending class at Cameron. So, in spite of the sad, negativity displayed by so many toward struggling schools in this city, those of us who do believe, and do care, won't stop working ever harder until we make a difference.
Come join us. I dare you.

By: Marc M. on 5/18/11 at 6:23

I know that it has been a while since someone commented on this thread but I hope 12serve reads this. You Rock!!!
As for the other two comments, I understand the jaded nature of your responses because it is easy complain in attempt to justify your lack of action. Until we have more people like 12serve fighting for our children many schools will fall and need aggressive marketing to fill again. Look up The Nashville Teaching Fellows and get involved.