LEAD Academy founder Jeremy Kane stands at the entrance of his north Nashville charter school every morning and greets all 215 students as they begin their days.
The ritual is more than just an act of kindness. It’s a practice the 31-year-old Kane calls the “highlight” of his long day, an opportunity for one-on-one interaction “where we prevent 99 percent of our problems.”
As a middle school that targets at-risk youth eligible for free and reduced lunches, LEAD opens its doors to issues that often go beyond the classroom. A few weeks ago, there was the gang shooting outside Swett’s Restaurant off 28th Avenue. Forty LEAD students live within a mile-and-a-half radius of there.
“It’s a place to say, ‘How was your weekend? What’s going on? Is your mom OK? Are things good?’ ” Kane said of the morning welcome. “It’s also a way to see if a kid’s not wearing a belt, and then send them straight to the office.”
Come the 2011-2012 school year, Kane could be greeting students at another school as well — Metro’s Cameron Middle School, which also serves a mostly low-income student body, with many of its 635 children residing in nearby J. C. Napier Homes, one of the oldest public housing projects in the city. Poverty, in the case of Cameron, is coupled with the challenge of diversity, as the languages spoken in its hallways — Spanish, Arabic and Kurdish, to name a few — make it one of the most multicultural schools in the state.
After years of failing to meet federal No Child Left Behind benchmarks, Cameron is at a crossroads, recently placed in a new “achievement school district” in the state’s application for $500 million in federal Race to the Top school-rehab funds. Rather than opening the door to state governance, Director of Schools Jesse Register took an unprecedented step for Metro Nashville Public Schools, opting to bring in an outside charter organization to help oversee operations at struggling Cameron.
Three applied. An advisory committee tasked with interviewing candidates is expected to recommend on Tuesday that the school board give LEAD its nod of approval.
In the past, board members were often hesitant to embrace charter schools, and some were even hostile to the idea of sanctioning publicly funded schools with decision-making autonomy. But this isn’t the school board of five years ago.
Once beleaguered, charter schools have gained steady momentum of late in Tennessee. Signs of the sea change include the passage of a sweeping new state law that grants more children access to charter schools; an unveiling of a statewide charter incubator by Mayor Karl Dean to support development of new “choice schools”; and Register’s hiring last summer of Alan Coverstone to lead charter school operations within MNPS.
Though Tuesday’s vote may not be unanimous — and predictions can be a risky game — most observers believe the board is poised to hand charter organizations a new level of acceptance by clearing Kane to bring his model into Cameron.
For Kane — often seen as the poster child for charter momentum in Nashville — success has come rapidly. Just three years ago, he opened the doors at LEAD. Improved test scores followed, and over the summer he announced plans to open Metro’s first charter high school. Those feats were viewed in Nashville’s education world as impressive, but the challenge at Cameron — a charter entering a public school — is both unique and more difficult.
To be sure, people will be watching.
As Kane himself acknowledges, “It’s a monster challenge.”
Don’t call it a takeover
Following Register’s announcement to remake Cameron, the media grabbed hold of the narrative of a charter takeover of a public school. Such a storyline creates a misleading picture. In reality, the relationship between LEAD and MNPS — combined to form what’s called Cameron College Prep — would function more or less as a partnership.
“With LEAD, we got started in a previous era when charter schools were sort of left alone to fend for themselves,” Kane said. “Now, looking at the trend nationally, and looking at where Nashville wanted to go, it’s a partnership opportunity where Metro would actually work with us.”
A full-fledged takeover by a charter group is actually the more conventional approach, according to Kane. The partnership model proposed by LEAD is newer and less tested, one that’s been employed only in Chicago and Philadelphia, with the nationally renowned charter organization Mastery Charter Schools taking the lead in Philadelphia.
“Making it a cooperative relationship, instead of an antagonistic one, has led to all kinds of creative thinking and will continue to do so,” said Coverstone, who as the district’s director of charter and private schools has helped engineer Cameron’s transformation. “Nashville is at the forefront in that kind of thinking.”
The idea is to “share best practices,” Kane said. If LEAD were tapped to enter Cameron, they would do so one grade at a time, a five-year transition beginning in the fall of 2011. They would begin overseeing the fifth grade, then the fifth and sixth grades, and so on. During the year and a half before LEAD would officially move into the school, Kane would start building community support through partnerships with the Boys and Girls Club and other like-minded groups, he said. Parents would have the choice to opt out of sending their children to the revamped Cameron.
“What I’m most excited about with this is that Metro said, ‘We know what we do very well. We know what a charter operator can do very well,’ ” Kane said. “And if we’re selected, ‘We know what LEAD does really well.’ ”
Elements of LEAD that would move to Cameron include longer school days, an extended school calendar and higher salaries for teachers, a pay structure based on performance — on average, LEAD teachers earn 10 percent more than Metro teachers. Teachers currently at Cameron would have the opportunity to retain their positions. Cameron would also become the beneficiary of additional financial resources raised by LEAD’s board of directors.
“Culture would be a huge piece,” Kane said of other approaches to be carried to Cameron. “That’s something we stress here a lot. From the moment you walk in, students are there to learn. Everything we do — from how we allocate resources in our budget, to staff, to schedule — is all focused on student achievement.”
Still, Kane said it’s important to be flexible, especially when considering Cameron’s diversity. “The same old solutions aren’t going to work,” he said. “For us to go in and blindly say, ‘We know everything,’ and ‘You’re fired,’ and ‘Get out,’ would be crazy for us to do.”
Over the past few months, Kane has been meeting with parents and staff from the Cameron community. He’s been “met with a lot of skepticism.”
“How is LEAD going to provide some stability over the long run?” is the question Kane keeps hearing. It’s a trust factor.
“Any parent understands that a strong school is a consistent school,” Kane said. “What we keep coming back to is, we’re going to hire the best teachers. We’re going to work really hard to retain them. And we’re going to work really hard to engage parents, retain them, and listen.”
Authenticity, perseverance are keys
Introducing himself to a new neighborhood is nothing new for Kane.
It was only four years ago that the then-27-year-old hit the pavement in north and west Nashville, knocking on doors and passing out fliers to pitch his proposed school to residents.
Previously, the Stanford University graduate had been the prototypical charter skeptic. Like any “good Democrat” during those days, Kane sided with teachers unions in the shared understanding that charter schools were taking money away from traditional public schools.
Kane’s transformation came in 2004, while he was working as a speechwriter for presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. As is customary in election years, schools often served as the settings for press conferences, and Kane found himself wandering the hallways, talking to teachers and students, and soon was “bitten by the education bug.”
“I just started seeing these charter schools, and started seeing the results that they had,” Kane said. “The teachers were happy, loved being there, and the kids loved being there.”
Lacking a teaching certificate required by public schools, Kane was hired as an instructor at the elite private school, Montgomery Bell Academy. Once school let out he volunteered for various after-school programs throughout the city (where he met children who would become part of his first class at LEAD).
A ‘crazy idea’
Soon, Kane had a “crazy idea to start a charter school around a Section 8 housing unit.” Not knowing where to start, he enrolled at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development. In due time, he assembled a board of directors, mortgaged his house and quit his job. He
was fully entrenched in the charter school movement.
“The biggest thing was spending nine months out in the community, listening, hearing from parents, knocking on doors,” Kane said. It was a matter of crossing that trust threshold, of convincing the skeptics. It’s the same test that will await Kane at Cameron.
During his first venture — fresh from teaching at one of Nashville’s most expensive private academies and carrying a Stanford/Vanderbilt pedigree — Kane stood out like a dandelion in the front yard as a he went from door to door to make his pitch, especially wearing a full suit in the hot weather.
“People would not answer their doors,” Kane said. “I was getting pretty down on myself. Finally, an elderly woman pulled me aside and said, ‘I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you’re doing, but everyone thinks you’re the bill collector.’ ”
The woman suggested Kane, a white man in a black neighborhood, present himself a bit differently. Nonetheless, he pressed on, continuing to visit churches and neighborhood groups week after week, month after month.
“I don’t care what community you’re from — white, black, immigrant — it doesn’t matter what language you speak,” Kane said. “People value authenticity.”
Kane didn’t take off that suit.