KIPP Academy Nashville called a gritty old building on Douglas Avenue in East Nashville home for years before moving five miles north while waiting out their building’s reconstruction.
But after a year teaching just north of Briley Parkway at Ewing Park Middle School’s building, KIPP Academy has seen 64 students leave — a loss of about 19 percent of the school’s student body.
While the top leader at the charter school points largely to longer commutes to explain the loss of students, Metro Nashville Public Schools is singling out KIPP and seven other charters as district loss leaders in student attrition and worries the schools are allowing students to depart weeks before high-stakes standardized testing.
But charter school advocates question the logic behind the district’s data and say there is much more motivation to keep students in charter schools than to let them go.
“We don’t bat a thousand,” said Randy Dowell, executive director at KIPP, a school aimed at getting low-income East Nashville students ready for college. But, “everyone who runs a charter school tries to keep their kids. Period.”
The tussle over attrition is the latest in what has evolved into long-running battle over the emerging role of publicly funded, privately run charter schools in a school system plagued with its own struggling schools.
Of the district’s 81,000 students, about 5 percent of them attend one of the district’s dozen charter schools this year.
MNPS calculates that eight of those schools have some of the district’s highest student attrition rates, including Smithson Craighead Middle, Boys Prep, KIPP Academy, Drexel Prep, STEM Prep, Liberty Collegiate, East End Prep and New Vision Academy. Collectively, 387 students have left those schools this school year, about a fifth of the schools’ population.
“If you choose to go to a school, and then you choose not to go to a school, there’s a problem,” said Fred Carr, chief operating officer for MNPS, who managed the data. “Every time you change schools, you regress academically.”
But rejigger the formula based on charter school advocates’ preference, and the top eight schools for attrition  instead lead with Boys Prep, Pearl-Cohn High School, Smithson Craighead, Maplewood High School, Hunters Lane High School, Gra-Mar Middle School, Whites Creek High School and Buena Vista Enhanced Option. Collectively, 1,759 students have left those schools since shortly after the beginning of the academic year, almost 33 percent of those schools’ student bodies.
School board member Jill Speering said she sought out district attrition numbers this year after hearing complaints from principals who said they were getting back hard-to-teach students straight from charter schools in the weeks before the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program tests. The annual exams measure students’ achievement as well as their teachers’ and schools’ ability to advance
Speering, a retired teacher, was particularly interested in the case of students leaving KIPP. She found that 19 of 20 students who left the charter school since the end of January had served at least two out-of-school suspensions. Eight of those students also are categorized as having a special-needs disability.
“If this is the case, and they’re able to, through attrition, perhaps get rid of children with behavior issues and students that have academic challenges, then we can’t compare their [TCAP] scores to Metro scores,” Speering said.
“It just seems odd to me that this happened, that this attrition happened before achievement tests,” she added. “My concern is that we just don’t want to be putting kids out of school or withdraw right before achievement tests. That looks suspect, so we want to make sure those things are not happening.”
Dowell rejects the idea that his school pushed students out, and instead suggests the district will find that students who choose to leave KIPP will perform better in math, reading, science and social studies than their district peers.
“If they believe those students who left our school cannot succeed, I’d love for them to say it,” said Dowell. “The students who left were performing, based on our internal metrics, at significantly higher levels than the historic performance of the district schools.”
Even if charter schools wanted to shed dead weight, schools can’t afford to do so, said Michael Hayes, a school board member who sat on KIPP’s charter school board for four years.
Charter schools receive about $9,000 in taxpayer funding a year for each student enrolled. The payments are cut into 10 installments, so when students withdraw from the school, the charter school loses any further payments associated with those children.
Charter schools typically open one grade at a time, and thus build on their small populations year after year. At KIPP, the fifth- through eighth-grade school was home to 337 students two weeks into the school year, although it accepted 13 new students during the school year.
“When you lose a student, or two students or three students, it really hurts them financially. They don’t have anywhere near as big of an organization to absorb those losses,” he said. “Which is why I would be surprised if there was widespread expulsions from charter schools.”
But what the district should look harder at are the number of students leaving traditional schools, said Hunter Schimpff, a special projects manager for the Tennessee Charter School Incubator, which trains people to lead charter schools.
Schimpff, who revised the district’s attrition formula in a way that charter school advocates say is more reflective of reality, said the district is “not looking themselves in the mirror” and asked why 519 students are leaving Hunters Lane High School, or 310 students are leaving Pearl-Cohn.
Charter and district officials alike agree that the poverty level in many areas of the district probably contributes to the number of students leaving one school to attend another, with families relocating to a new neighborhood or moving in with family members.
“When you look specifically at our charter schools that are open today, they’ve recruited the most at-risk kids in our community,” said Hayes. “That’s really been due to high poverty and unstable family situations.”
All sides agree it’s time to pore over the data to figure out how to address the mobile student population in the schools. Some suggest better bus service that could cross school zones, while others suggest revaluating why students are leaving their schools in the first place and installing policies to help keep students in their school of choice until the end of the school year.
But the conversations happen at a time when the district is recovering after a narrowly won battle with the state over who should have the ultimate decision to install charter schools in district’s back yards. The debate follows the school board’s decision to deny a particular charter school, Great Hearts Academies, last year over diversity concerns, leaving the charter school community worried about the district’s attitude toward the non-traditional schools.
Discussion about charter school attrition may be an opportunity to begin a discourse about the role of charter schools, said Dowell.
“I think the conversation can be right-sized,” he said.
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