State authorization of charters catches school board off guard

Sunday, June 17, 2012 at 10:05pm
Students from Cameron Middle School (Eric England/SouthComm)

When Tennessee’s Achievement School District — a new governance body that oversees the state’s 85 lowest-performing schools — announced June 4 it had authorized three charter organizations to collectively launch up to 10 schools in Nashville, the city’s elected school board was caught off guard.

“It kind of surprised me that they would come in and announce the possibility of a takeover at one or two of these schools without collaboration of the local board” veteran Metro school board member Ed Kindall told The City Paper

“If we don’t have a good understanding, I’m sure the public’s probably very confused,” he added. 

The shock of some board members highlighted a potential communications challenge for Gov. Bill Haslam’s boldest education reform endeavor — the ASD, a 1-year-old powerful, yet oft-overlooked, entity that presides over the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools. Equipped with complete governing autonomy, the ASD’s strategy is centered largely on tapping charter schools, which rely on public funds but also private boards of directors, to intervene at troubled public schools.

By state law, the ASD — led by Chris Barbic, a well-known charter pioneer who moved to Nashville from Houston last year — enjoys charter authorization power among the Metro schools that fall under it. Thus, informing local school board members of plans isn’t a requirement.

Still, the board’s confusion seems indicative of widespread public questioning about the ASD and its turnaround plans. Before the ASD achieves its ambitious stated goal of “moving the bottom 5 percent of Tennessee Schools to the top 25 percent” its leader might have to topple a more fundamental feat: Explain what they’re doing.

“There’s a disconnect,” school board member Mark North said of the ASD.

What raised eyebrows among people like North was word that the ASD had contracted California-based Rocketship Education, KIPP Academy Nashville and Nashville’s LEAD Public Schools, three charter organizations, to serve students who attend the nine Metro schools that are ASD-eligible.

Barbic, who routinely crisscrosses the state from Memphis to Nashville to Chattanooga, said he notified Metro Director of Schools Jesse Register and Mayor Karl Dean’s office the Friday before the Monday morning announcement. “I feel like it’s a little bit inappropriate for me to communicate directly to their school board,” he said. “That’s kind of out of my purview and really probably inappropriate.”

LEAD, which led the transition of Metro’s Cameron Middle School to a charter school two years ago, is in the process of doing the same thing at Brick Church Middle School, an ASD school. With this month’s announcement, a third so-called charter “conversion” for LEAD is on tap at a still-unidentified school by 2013-14.

KIPP, which operates in East Nashville, is authorized to open an additional ASD charter school. Rocketship, out of California, is authorized to eventually open eight schools in Nashville by 2020, the first beginning in 2014-15. Its plan is to open new “fresh start” schools that would serve students who are zoned for Nashville’s ASD schools.

Kristoffer Haines, director of national development at Rocketship, said his charter group was “intrigued” to collaborate with Barbic’s team, which he said is doing “phenomenal” work.

Asked about the challenge of communicating the ASD’s plans to the public, Barbic pointed out that the ASD is playing different roles in Nashville compared to Memphis, home to 70 of the 85 Tennessee schools that fall under the ASD. In Memphis, Barbic’s group is directly running schools. Here, he considers the ASD more of a charter authorizer.

“I really believe our role as authorizer is to give an organization an ability to open a school, provide them the support that they need, and then get out of the way, let them do their things, and then hold them accountable,” Barbic said. “What we don’t want to do is make this confusing for families. We really want LEAD and the other schools that we just authorized to be the face and the main communication point with parents and families.”

Part of the confusion, though, stems from uncertainty over what’s in store for each ASD-eligible school. Some could have charters intervene. Others might be left alone.

Schools in Nashville that qualify for the ASD are: Bailey Middle; Brick Church Middle; Buena Vista Elementary Enhanced Option; Gra-Mar Middle; Jere Baxter Middle; John Early Paideia Middle Magnet; Napier Elementary Enhanced Option; Robert Churchwell Museum Magnet Elementary; and Smithson-Craighead Middle, which happens to be a charter.

“We’re not foolish enough to think we can run 85 schools all at once,” Barbic said, adding that while 85 statewide are ASD-eligible, only six will be a part of it next year. That should grow to 18 the next year, he said, and 35 the year after. “We want to make sure we’re thoughtfully and carefully ramping up and doing this with quality.”

In tapping LEAD and KIPP to work within the ASD, Barbic teamed with arguably Nashville’s two most celebrated charter leaders: Jeremy Kane, whose LEAD has the most expansive charter presence in Nashville, and Randy Dowell, whose KIPP Nashville is a favorite of the mayor, among others.

Kane, whose charter conversion at Cameron Middle — a contract it made with Metro — was a precursor to the ASD’s approach, said LEAD would benefit from that experience. He expects big gains at Cameron when state test scores are released this summer.

“Freedom and flexibility,” Kane said when asked what charters like his can bring to the table that Metro hasn’t. That means autonomy to make longer school days and years, hire teachers and cater classroom structure to students. “A lot of people talk about, ‘Well charter schools are not a panacea.’ I would challenge them to say, I think the flexibility charter schools offer is the panacea.”

The ASD’s charter announcement this month came as the Metro school board was struggling to grapple with charter expansion, having denied the authorization of eight new charter schools a week earlier, including KIPP Nashville, which sought to open a new middle school in 2013. Dowell has appealed. But winning the appeal appears moot. The ASD, which enjoys supremacy, has granted it the ability to open the same school.

“We’ll open that up as either an ASD school or as a Metro school,” Dowell said. Asked what distinguishes KIPP, he said, “We’ve always worked hard. We hire well. We use data really well. And for the last year and half, we’ve really honed our practice, and focused all of the adults — teachers, leadership, all of us — on student mastery.”

Metro school board members have pointed to the ASD’s overlap with MNPS’ newly created “innovation zone,” composed of low-performing schools including most of the ASD schools. The idea with the Office of Innovation is to bring direct intervention to these schools.

But Alan Coverstone, the executive director of the Invention Zone, suggested the ASD’s influence doesn’t interfere with Metro’s efforts. “They have authorized capacity in case our schools don’t make progress. That’s just part of the deal.”

Barbic shared that outlook. “The way we kind of think about this is, the innovation zone is the district’s opportunity to turn their schools around,” he said, adding that if schools improve, the ASD would stay out of the way. “We’ll keep a close eye on how those schools are progressing.”

Register, Metro’s superintendent, told The City Paper he was “surprised” when he learned as many as 10 charters have been authorized in Nashville, though he knew an announcement was coming. “I don’t want to be critical. We try to communicate on a regular basis,” Register said. “That’s the way the Achievement Schools District is organized. They are an independent school district.”

And evidence of ASD’s charter streak has been out there from the outset. 

When state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman hired Barbic for his current position in May 2011, he brought to Tennessee the founder of YES Prep Public Schools, a charter network in Houston. Barbic is a household name in the charter-school world. U.S. Education Commissioner Arne Duncan has said Barbic’s work has “inspired” him. 

The ASD — its creation played an integral role in the approval of Tennessee’s No Child Left Behind waiver — is likened to the Louisiana Recovery School District, launched in 2003 to govern underperforming schools there. Its primary strategy is “chartering.”

But for Nashville, as well as the entire state, the approach is a new concept. And Barbic realizes it. 

“There’s some skepticism around the state,” Barbic said. “It’s probably fair. But what we’ve tried to do is be really thoughtful about this. We’ve tried to really focus on quality.”

14 Comments on this post:

By: Specter47 on 6/18/12 at 5:57

"Innovation Zone"...another monicker for yet another attempt by Jesse Register to fake success. Alan Coverstone...another Register stooge. Putting the two together equals failure. So the school board was caught off guard. Not a surprise. School Board dinosaur Ed Kindall, who has himself presided over MNPS' decline, was one of the surprised. That in itself is no surprise. I wish Mr. Barbic much luck. He's going to need it with players like Register, Coverstone, Kindall, North, Porter and others.

By: Rasputin72 on 6/18/12 at 5:59

When it comes to educating the underclass and the ;public school system that must produce this education everybody has to be involved. The hurdles and surprises are always the focal point.

Davidson County residents must rely on the private school system as their primary option

Davidson Academy
Pope John Paul
Donelson Christian
Nashville Christian
University School
Father Ryan
Franklin Road Academy
Harpeth Hall
David Lipscomb
Brentwood Academy
Christ Presbyterian
Ezell Harding.

By: Vuenbelvue on 6/18/12 at 6:30

Very well said Rasputin72
There was of course no story on this or anything else about the council vote in this morning's Tennessean, as one has grown to expect. Maybe Warren Buffett will buy them out and bring a good paper back to town.

By: BigPapa on 6/18/12 at 8:35

School- everyone seems to think they need reform, but the minute someone suggests something different it gets shot down by the education establishment.

By: Left-of-Local on 6/18/12 at 10:13

Our idiot school board surprised by something? NOOO.... No way.


Sometimes I am amazed they are not surprised the sun sets in the west. When you are a political body with nothing more than your own career path in mind, and NOT the education of minds in your core ethics, you will be walloped by those who know better taking over things against your will. Eat it, School Board.

By: Shadow63 on 6/18/12 at 11:52

What could it hurt???

By: pswindle on 6/18/12 at 1:38

I think that the state has forgotten what their duties are. The GOP does not want government in thier lives, but this administration can't keep its nose out of anything.

By: JeffF on 6/18/12 at 3:53

Yes pswindle, by all means the state should keep their noses out of a function the constitution itseld says they are responsible for. Butt out so we can keep leaving children behind when they are in these 15 failing schools.

By: pswindle on 6/18/12 at 4:12

Why should these school systems be taken by surprise? Everything is better if you work together. There are many factors why schools fail. It is not always the teachers.

By: playthegame on 6/18/12 at 4:53

Who was that principal who retired from the Academy at Hickory Hollow? Sanders? Saunders? He's the only one that used good common sense and knew how to work with students. Put him on the school board. Hell, put him in the central office and you'd have a much better school system.

By: govskeptic on 6/19/12 at 7:38

Ed Kindell being taken by surprise is actually a normal situation. What
hasn't been normal is for the state to start doing what it needed to do
in order to make an improvement in this state's systems. These type
actions and a few from the last legislative session will began to make
that needed difference!

By: TRHJR on 6/19/12 at 10:38

pisswindle are you a board member ??? looks like ti ..... it always George Bush`s
fault .... or the GOP .... no its these , now get this , do nothing school board

By: thinking12 on 6/20/12 at 7:31

The US Constitution does not mention education-of anyone. Thomas Jefferson wanted schools funded by the federal government but was disregarded in this thought.

Education for k-12 was left to the states, seemingly to be more local and therefore in touch with the educational needs and standards of the the young people thru their voting parents.Not realizing the voice of these parents would be silenced by poverty and lack of interest.
If Jefferson knew what our schools would turn into he would be thanking his lucky stars the fed's stayed out of it!
Common sense must be extracted from a person the higher the level of education attained-it seems to me.

By: Ask01 on 6/21/12 at 3:31

One has to wonder if the surprise was, in fact, due to our school board being more concerned with other issues, as opposed to actually performing the responsibilities for which they were elected.