Two new charter schools are cleared to open in Metro, but the school board delivered its biggest statement Tuesday by denying the district’s most controversial charter applicant: Great Hearts Academies.
The Metro school board gave charter authorization Tuesday to Intrepid College Prep, conceived as a fifth-12th-grade school in Antioch, and Nashville Classical, a K-eighth-grade school set to eventually serve students in North Nashville. When the two schools open in the fall of 2013, Nashville will have 15 operating charter schools.
The school board denied the applications of eight charter organizations, however, including KIPP Academy, one of Nashville’s most celebrated existing charters, which had proposed launching a new middle school in Whites Creek. The vote to deny KIPP’s request, which surprised most observers, came despite a review committee’s recommendation for approval.
“We will appeal this decision and not go quietly into the night,” KIPP Nashville Executive Director Randy Dowell said late Tuesday.
Yet the most debated decision could be the board’s rejection of Arizona-based Great Hearts Academies, an organization backed by local political heavyweights that had proposed a network of five charters in Nashville. With plans to take advantage of the state’s open enrollment law, Great Hearts would welcome students from upper-class families –– a first for a publicly financed, privately led charter in Metro.
Scores of parents have rallied behind Great Hearts as a remedy for overcrowded schools on the city's west side and a magnet school system with limited capacity, but Metro’s charter review committee pointed to concerns with diversity. The school board agreed with the criticism, voting unanimously to deny Great Hearts’ application.
“It had some real strengths in curriculum,” Director of Schools Jesse Register said of the Great Hearts application. “But when you look at some of the guiding principles that the board has adopted in looking at charter schools, there were some unanswered questions there that were very serious –– for example, the diversity plan, the lack of a concrete plan for transportation, and the lack of a concrete plan for the location of schools.”
Register also pointed to Metro’s position as a defendant in the federal suit, Spurlock v. Fox, in which the district is the subject of a suit based on allegations of re-segregation. He suggested approving Great Hearts could compromise Metro’s case. “It’s been discussed –– the impact of an application like Great Hearts on the diversity in the school system,” he said.
Exiting Tuesday’s board meeting, Peter Bezanson, chief academic officer of Great Hearts, told The City Paper he’s “disappointed” in the board’s decision but declined to comment further.
Bezanson also declined to say whether Great Hearts would appeal the board’s rejection.
Denied charter applicants have until June 13 to make changes and resubmit applications to the school board. They can then appeal Metro’s decision to the state board of education, which could effectively override Metro’s vote.
Officials of Great Hearts, who manage 12 schools in charter-rich Arizona, arrived in Nashville over the winter following a parent-led push for a new charter school on the more affluent west side of town. In their application, Great Hearts officials did not identify where they would place each school, but many critics assumed the first would be somewhere west of town.
Alan Coverstone, Metro’s director of charter and magnet schools, said not only did Great Hearts not identify a location, “they also didn’t commit to a criteria for determining the location or a timeline to determining the location.” Moreover, he said Great Hearts did not make it clear whom they would serve.
Coverstone, who oversees Metro’s charter review committee, said Great Hearts outlined a “neighborhood-schools approach to diversity,” which doesn’t align with Metro’s policy. Unlike existing Metro charters, Great Hearts would not offer transportation to its students.
Coverstone also said the district is not in position to award approval of all five of Great Hearts’ proposed charter schools without observing the performance of its first.
“They want to have five schools, and we don’t have a process in place to grant them an application for one school that would then be followed up by subsequent approvals,” he said. “They didn’t propose benchmarks that we should use in making those decisions.”
Leading up to Tuesday’s vote, supporters of Great Hearts had collected nearly 1,000 signatures through an online petition that urged the board to approve the application. Several backers were on hand to watch Great Hearts’ proposal go down in defeat after no board deliberation.
Great Hearts is also considering an expansion to San Antonio, and a final rejection in Nashville might steer the group to Texas.
The decision on KIPP Academy –– which enjoys a high-profile board of directors and frequent support of the mayor’s office –– shocked many Tuesday. KIPP, which operates in East Nashville, is hoping to expand to North Nashville.
Mark North, a charter critic who represents parts of Madison on the board, unleashed a series of concerns with the academic performance of the existing KIPP, which ultimately set the tone for the board’s rejection of its expansion proposal.
“It had a bad year in 2010-11, and the test scores show it,” North said. “It did not perform up to standards for a middle school in Metro Nashville Public Schools.”
North said KIPP’s value-added scores for social studies were “the worst” among all Metro eighth-graders. “And their science score is worse than that.”
Dowell, KIPP Nashville’s executive director, defended the academic reputation of his school as he vowed to appeal. “Last year, our KIPP Nashville middle school students had the largest growth in reading for any middle school in the state serving a similar population of students from low-income families,” he said.
Defending both Great Hearts and KIPP was Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association, the state’s chief charter lobbying organization.
“With KIPP, the disappointment there is the review committee went through the process in detail and recommended approval,” Throckmorton told The City Paper. “The board voted ‘No.’ ”
Besides Great Hearts and KIPP, the school board also denied the charter applications for: Antioch Together Prep, Excel Academy, Fusion Connection of Nashville, Gifted Achievers University School, Purpose Prep and Genesis Transition.