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.”