Nashville’s Charters Sidestep Chatter and Run Up the Score

My grandmother would always say, “I can show you better than I can tell you.” It was a mantra she lived by, which meant, in practical terms, that if someone crossed her, she might not say much, but you could bet your bottom dollar swift and decisive action was sure to follow.

I think the charter school leaders and parents might be taking a page from my grandmother’s playbook.

For a while, I’ve watched in frustration as, Nashville school board members and privileged “pro-public school” parents have executed all-out attacks on public charter schools in our city. I’ve seen effective and passionate charter leaders of color ousted, and good schools get their petitions to recharter denied.

All along I was even more frustrated by the fact the those under siege almost never raised a voice in protest. They wouldn’t fight back!

It wasn’t until I got to know Mia Howard that I started to realize what might be going on. It was Howard, the founder and executive director at Intrepid charter schools, that pulled the little chain on the light bulb in my brain and made me realize that charter leaders and supporters might be taking a page out of my grandmother’s playbook.

Last July, the Nashville Scene published a story celebrating the silence of charter backers after a series of “losses.” Angry, I tweeted “my guess is that the charter backers are quiet because they are SCARED AS S%$! And the media only exacerbates their fears. Sponsors it.” Howard, wasting no time, replied, “Not scared. Some of us are just here to educate children at the highest level. Disrupting inequity by design takes focus. No distractions.”

In other words, “I can show you better than I can tell you.”

While I was angry-tweeting about fearful charter supporters, Mia Howard’s Intrepid Schools were in the throes of flipping the narrative for Hispanic and Black students which make up the majority of their enrollment. Script-flipping statistics like: “Intrepid scholars placed #5 in the district for ELA achievement in grades 6-8.” Further, Black students placed #4 in the district for ELA in the same grades.

Compare that to the district-wide average: only 17 percent of minority students are reading in grade level.

And then there’s Math: 100% of black and brown students scored On-Track or Mastered in Algebra I and ELL students were #1 in Math achievement for grades 6-8. Anyone would be hard-pressed to ignore these life-changing achievements, but, to my knowledge, they’ve received no recognition from the school board, media, Metro Council, or even the mayor.

Just silence.

For more of Intrepid’s inequity-disrupting statistics, click here.

And speaking of silence. Do you ever hear from Valor Collegiate? The growing charter management organization of schools that prides itself on its racially and socio-economically-balanced student population that sits atop a hill above a bustling corridor in South Nashville. It seems they work very hard to avoid the city’s volatility toward charters and, like Intrepid, focuses intently on doing what they do. And what is it that they do, you ask?

Well, while I was sitting around pondering the whereabouts of Valor reps during times of distress on the edu-battlefield, Valor Voyager and Valor Flagship were busy becoming #3 and #4, respectively, in the state in composite growth. Let’s put it this way, CEO Todd Dickson and CCO (chief culture officer) Daren Dickson are fighting the haters on their own terms and Valor scholars are the reigning champs. For instance, “Our economically disadvantaged scholars inverted the achievement gap, meaning that they outperformed non-economically disadvantaged scholars in Nashville and the State of Tennessee!” Can you say #FliptheScript?

Message received and they didn’t have to say a word.

Finally, there is a Teach for America-generated graphic that keeps making an appearance on Twitter by NashvilleEdReform. It shows every middle and high school in the district and its placement on the growth chart. I am no fan of school comparisons–it’s difficult for me to celebrate schools in the face of less successful ones. Maybe it’s the socialist in me.

But to ignore this picture is to join forces with those who refuse to acknowledge the success charters schools are having in this city. I simply cannot be on the wrong side of silence. I will celebrate those who subdue their naysayers without using words, but with student successes.

Note: the three top-ranked growth schools are mentioned in this post.


Parent to School Board: “Please Stop The Disparaging Remarks Toward Our Families For Our Choice”

Contributed by KIPP Nashville Collegiate High School parent Camiqueka Fuller as read at the June 13, 2017 school board meeting. Because five of nine board members were not attendance, the parents featured in this series expressed grave concern about the cold shoulder extended to charter schools and their families at board meetings. They have a voice, please listen. 

Good evening, my name is Camiqueka Fuller.

I am the mother of 3 beautiful and intelligent, but very different children. Anyone with more than 1 child can probably attest with me of how bewildering that can be. Yet, because we want the very best for our children, we work with them to grow in their strengths and overcome their challenges.

I’m reminded of my brother who struggled with many behavioral challenges in school; to the point that the teachers were calling home almost daily to report those challenges. My mom addressed and dealt with each of those issues.

However, it also prompted her to ask if there was anything good that they saw in her child. That’s where I am each time I see article after article of some of our elected school board officials. Is there anything good you see with Metro Nashville Public Charter schools? I would have loved to see an article congratulating the rising senior class of KIPP Nashville Collegiate High School – where over half of the students qualify for the Hope Scholarship, having scored a 21 or higher on the ACT, or a tweet applauding over a third of them that scored a 24 or higher.

Wouldn’t it have been nice to hear how many of the students, including my daughter who scored a 29, went back this past Saturday and took the ACT again, hoping to improve their scores and opportunities to get into the colleges of their choice?

While those deserved recognitions and countless others would have been nice, our students, and teachers, and parents continue to not only press and progress without them, but also in spite of the negative rhetoric of some of our elected school board members. Much like my brother, who went on to serve his country for 21 years in the Navy, earn his degree, and now continues to serve as a teacher in a public school.

While I laud the efforts of MNPS to improve the educational outlook for all of our children through choice, I ask that you please stop the disparaging remarks toward our families for our choice.

Charter School Parent to School Board: ‘Please Understand My Choice’

Contributed by Stem Prep parent Mara Rivera as read at the June 13, 2017 school board meeting. Because five of nine board members were not attendance, the parents featured in this series expressed grave concern about the cold shoulder extended to charter schools and their families at board meetings. They have a voice, please listen. 

Buenas tardes señores de la junta directiva. Mi nombre es Mara Rivera. Soy madre de 5 niños. Tengo uno en Stem Prep, otro en Stem High y dos en Glengary Elementary. Fui uno de los padres que firmo la carta a favor de las escuelas chárter.
Good afternoon members of the board. My name is Mara Rivera. I am the mother of five children. I have one child at Stem Prep, another at Stem High and two at Glengary Elementary. I was one of the parents that signed the letter in support of charter schools.
Tuve un hijo en una de las escuelas públicas de Nashville y no fue una experiencia que como padre quería para mi hijo. Por esta razón, empecé a buscar información de las escuelas magnet y chárter para el resto de mis otros hijos.
One of my children went to a district school, and as a parent, it was not the experience I wanted for my child. For this reason, I started looking for information about magnet and charter schools for the rest of my children.
El primer año que mi hijo fue aceptado en Stem Prep, di gracias a dios por la oportunidad de que mi hijo tuviera esa oportunidad. Los maestros se dedican a que cada alumno supera sus metas en cada materia. Siempre están disponibles a ayudarlos educativas y emocionalmente a cada uno.
The year my son was accepted into Stem Prep, I thanked God for this opportunity for my son. At Stem Prep, the teachers are dedicated to ensuring each student surpasses their goals in each subject. The teachers are always available to help students with their education and emotionally.
En la escuela Stem Prep y high school, los maestros enseñan nuestros hijos que con esfuerzos y sacrificios pueden llegar a alcanzar todos sus sueños. Como madre de 5 hijos mi deseo es que los que están en Glengary Elementary en el futuro puedan estudiar en Stem Prep.
At Stem Prep and Stem High School, the teachers teach our children that with effort and sacrifice, they can reach all of their dreams. As a mother of five children, my wish is that my children at Glengary Elementary can attend Stem Prep in the future.
Gracias por darme la oportunidad de contar mi historia a ustedes. Gracias Señora Mary Pierce por apoyar a todos los padres con la resolución.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to tell you my story. Thank to Ms. Mary Pierce for supporting all parents with her resolution.

After A Week of Angry Blogging, Time for Cooler Heads to Prevail – Zack Barnes

A few of us have spent the week responding to an article in The Tennessean that generously offers up space and ink to empty accusations and other witch hunt-like activities intended to eradicate charter schools from the Nashville landscape. Maybe not the most effective use of our time, but the kids, you know?

Below, the very cool (and super smart) Zack Barnes of TN Ed Report curates a roundup of voices on the subject.

I wanted to highlight three good blog posts about charter schools that came out this weekend from those for and against charter schools.

This weekend the Tennessean posted an article about how two charter schools acquired bonds from the Nashville government to help fund the cost of renovating or building new schools. Seeing how MNPS does not give money for charter facilities, charter schools have to find ways to fund remodels, expansions, etc. As the Tennessean previously reported, the city of Nashville is spending millions for renovations and land for new buildings for traditional MNPS schools.

  • $46 million for the renovation of Hillsboro High School, the second part of an $86 million makeover
  • $10.2 million for land acquisition for Hillwood High School’s relocation to Bellevue
  • $9 million for land acquisition for a new school of the arts

Charter schools don’t have the luxury of the Mayor funding new buildings for them, and many traditional schools have to wait years and years to get renovated or a new school. Two charter schools used perfectly legal measures to gain bonds from the city of Nashville, and that made some anti-charter elected officials upset because they didn’t know it took place.

This was just another attack on charter schools that blogger Vesia Hawkins calls the “Summertime Strategy.”

The grand plan to dismantle charter schools is becoming more clear, particularly with the partnership with certain reporters, asinine accusations resulting from “intense scrutiny” of lease agreements (somehow there’s time for this), and let’s not forget the targeted personal attacks on certain charter school leaders—so far, only on those of color. See my recent post about Shaka Mitchell (who, as of last week, is no longer with Rocketship), Ravi Gupta, and John Little.

I mean, Rocketship attacks have been on repeat for a year now, so no surprises there, but Purpose Prep? Purpose Prep, the elementary school that intentionally seeks out students from the North Nashville area and operates with the expectation that every child will be eligible for Martin Luther King, Jr. magnet high school and, ultimately, the college of their choice. Purpose Prep, a school in its third year of existence with a student population comprised of 98% students of color, 74% economically disadvantaged and nearly every child is reading at or above grade level. So, what’s the problem here? (Shout out to Lagra Newman and her team!)

TC Weber, who is no fan of charter schools, wants to know how this latest attack solves the problem of families flocking to charters:

My position on charter schools is well documented. I believe wholeheartedly in the power of public education as a cornerstone of our democracy. But, I am baffled by people who can recognize the futility of the drug wars and its basis in attacks on the suppliers who fail to see the paralles playing out in the fight for public education. Repeatedly attacking suppliers while ignoring why there is demand is a strategy that has demonstrably failed to achieve success in the drug war and offers a preview of what to expect if we employ the same strategy in the fight against charter school proliferation. If we don’t address demand, parents will continue to search out alternatives regardless of how had we try and paint that alternative.

Earlier in the year, several hundred Antioch HS students staged a walkout over conditions in their school. An action that was never oppenly addressed by the school board.

Last week I recieved documentation that shows over 60 teachers have left Antioch HS this year and that the Principal non-renewed 10 more. I’m told that they have roughly 115 teachers total. After the student walkout Dr. Joseph held a restorative justice circle with the teachers. They told him that if he didn’t do something about the principal he was going to lose a lot of teachers. Joseph’s reported response was that the principals was not going anywhere and the teachers could either get on the bus or get run over by the bus. Antioch HS is not the only school in the district facing huge teacher turnover – Sylvan Park, Warner, Overton, Joelton, to name a few. I ask you, which story, charter school building finance or high teacher turnover,  do you think has greater impact on student outcomes?  Which story has the ability to affect charter growth? If I’m a parent in a school with that kind of teacher turnover and my only choice is enrolling in a school that appears more stable but uses dubious means to fund its capital investments, where do you think I’m going?

We need to be asking why parents are heading to charter schools and make changes so that parents don’t want to leave their zoned school. Teacher and blogger Josh Rogen addresses this very issue in his latest blog post. Josh does a great job graphing numbers to show a clear picture of why some families decide to leave a traditional school. He breaks down the achievement of schools based on the percentage of students of color in the school.

The answer is clear. If you are a Black, Hispanic, or Native American parent, and your zoned option is predominantly Black, Hispanic, or Native American, your best option is to send your child to a charter school if you value their overall growth, excellence, and the culture of the building they are being educated in.

In fact, if you are sending your child to a school with 80%+ Black, Hispanic, or Native American, you can basically throw a dart at any charter school in Nashville and be confident that you are doing much better than your zoned option. (That bottom one is Smithson Craighead, which is getting shut down. Closing bad schools…an interesting idea.)

On the other hand, middle-class white people are not touched by charter schools, and so they don’t support them. I will say that it is awfully easy to hate charter schools when you have a good zoned option. It’s a lot harder to oppose them when your child is locked into a failing school because of their zip code. A little empathy might change the conversation.

Josh hits on something about middle class people who are not touched by charter schools. I recently ran across a comment that TC Weber wrote that said,

It’s really easy to fight for public education when your kids are not the ones sitting in the seats at our poorest schools. I’d love to look around and see all these education warrior’s children’s sitting in seats next to my kids and perhaps then we could get equity.

I also saw a comment someone made that said it was a “disgusting insult to the teachers, students, and parents in the system” when someone was disparaging MNPS. If that is what some people think, the same should be true for charter school. There are students, teachers, and families that have decided to work and/or send their kids to a charter school. The conversation has now turned into one where one cannot speak ill of MNPS and one cannot speak good things about charter schools. We need to have these conversations about both of them in a more collaborative way.

Instead of spending time attacking charter schools, we should be working to improve our district so that families don’t feel the need to leave their zoned school. 374 parents sent a letter to the school board about these attacks, but the board never responded to those concerns. The silence shows that the board doesn’t want a dialogue with charter school parents. If we want to improve our district, we must communicate with all parents.

So let’s come together and figure out why parents are leaving for charters. I don’t know if it’s already been done, but each parent should fill out a short exit interview when they withdraw their student for a charter. Let’s start focus groups with these parents. Let’s do more to find the concerns, fix the concerns, and see what happens. We already know what some concerns are: literacy rates, ACT scores, and behavior.

Let’s spend more time listening and collaborating instead of attacking. As a teacher, I want success for all students. All students includes students who attend private, home, magnet, charter, or traditional public school.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport and @zbarnes

For LEAD Public Schools’ Class of 2017 Getting Into College Is Just the Beginning of the Story

Senior Signing Day 2017 is in the books and LEAD Public Schools knows how to throw a party for its students! LEAD’s communications director Jon Zlock launched the festivities with a pep rally of a lifetime. Each LEAD school performed a chant pumping up all within earshot before things slowed to serious.

From the schools’ CEO Chris Reynolds to Governor Bill Haslam, the message to graduates and future classes was clear: it’s great to get in college, but graduating is gold. Additionally, the students even received a mini-sermon from Belmont University’s president, Dr. Bob Fisher:

“Your purpose in life is not about you. Your purpose in life is about what you can do for others.”

If that wasn’t powerful enough, Marcus Whitney, successful businessman and civic leader, offered some heavy truths in his keynote speech by celebrating discomfort as a means to a soul-satisfying end, emphasizing the power of high expectations, and promoting a ‘no excuses’ way of navigating life.

Let me tell you what doesn’t work. Doing something to someone else because it was done to you.

After Whitney told us a thing or two, the atmosphere already electric, seemed to explode with the introduction of the main event – all 42 seniors announcing the college or university where they will obtain their degrees in either 2019 or 2021. Yes, each senior revealed their school of choice by saying “In 2021 (or 2019), I will be graduating from (school name)!” Inspiring, electric, hopeful, amazing.

Enjoy a few minutes of the senior announcements here.

So, class of 2017, congratulations today for the degrees that will be conferred tomorrow, you’re good for it. Finally, I’d like to echo the beautiful sentiment offered by Mr. Whitney:

“Look for the light. It is always there and you, 42, are the light.”

Nashville Charter Schools Discussion Sends Dark Message, Fuels Fear and Acrimony

The charter school conversation in Nashville continues to erode. There are a plethora of issues that plague a district our size, yet increased attention is dedicated to blasting charter schools.

Last evening, the Board of Education discussed the viability and future of the seven year old district-charter school compact. Once hailed as a national model of collaboration and symbol of good intentions, dissolving the compact would make a pretty strong statement to current and prospective parents as well as current and prospective charter school leadership. I suspect this is the goal.

Ironically (or perhaps not so much), this little discussion takes place almost one month to the day 374 charter schools parents signed a letter to the editor demanding respect from the school district and the school board. I am just cynical enough to believe the dissolution talk is a warning shot to these parents and their “meddling” charter school leaders.  Note: it has been recommended that charter schools prohibit the act of “meddling”, among other things. 

So if the environment is not already hostile enough, hold on to your hats!

Speaking of hostile…

Daily, I get messages from someone expressing their frustration at the tone of the charter school discussion or the disproportionate amount of energy directed to charters and therefore, away from the majority of district schools. Because of the hostility-laden landscape, almost every message begins or ends with “please keep this confidential.” It’s sad that parents and other community advocates live in fear of speaking out about a basic civil right. When did we become this?

Last night I received a letter requesting amplification on my blog, but only on condition of anonymity. The content of the letter tells a sad story about how we do education, but the conditions by which the author must share his/her truth is a tragic narrative about who we are.

I was lucky to sit beside two wonderfully well-behaved children whose mother spoke at tonight’s MNPS board meeting. They sat quiet and wide-eyed as she told board members about the difficulty she and other Arabic speaking families have obtaining special education services in some schools because of language barriers – though not at Nashville Classical Charter School, where her son now attends.
Eight mothers – the majority of whom were non-white – attended tonight’s board meeting to tell the board how grateful they are for the public charter school their child attends. Four of them mentioned the board’s lack of response to a letter several hundred parents signed and sent to the board over a month ago.
Sadly, the powerful stories and voices of these women collectively seeking answers from their elected officials about attacks on the schools they love by elected officials were acknowledged neither by the board chair nor by any members of the media covering the meeting.
We can be sure, however, that if each of those mothers had come to share their problems with – instead of their praises for – their public charter school, all of us would have “Breaking News” notifications on our phones and it would be all over local news and social media like fleas on a dog.
This is in no way a dismissal of other injustices shared at tonight’s meeting – what we pay our teachers is shameful, for example. There is more than enough unfairness and never enough money to go around. But failing to address attacks on existing public schools that are producing great outcomes for some of the most vulnerable of our population, when asked by constituents, in writing and also in person, is grossly unfair. How unfortunate for our growing city that leadership is in even shorter supply than taxpayer dollars.
In her State of Metro address two weeks ago, Mayor Barry said, “In Nashville, we build bridges, not walls.” I generally agree. But with respect to MNPS, which comprises 50% of the city budget, it’s just not true. Walls have been erected, complete with catapults, used to assault our own. Worse still: when hundreds collectively wave a white flag and ask for peace, their request is ignored and the attacks only intensify.
Over the last few months, it’s become popular to show up at protests – surrounded by people with similar beliefs – to express disdain and march in solidarity. Try being female, non-white, and a non-native English speaker, standing alone in a roomful of strangers, and finding the courage to tell an unpopular truth –  but your truth – about the thing that matters most – your children. That takes just about the bravest woman I’ve ever seen. And when she finished, the glowing faces and enthusiastic hugs said that’s who her children saw, too.


It’s Charter School Season in Nashville and You’d Better Watch Your Back

Or perhaps I should say, GET OUT. The political landscape gets scary around the time charter organizations submit their proposals to operate in Nashville. So, it’s not surprising to see the attacks launch a month before the application deadline. What’s troubling, though, is how charter haters are doing it.

The tactics are well-timed, comprehensively planned, and merciless, which would be just fine if the anti-charter people were attacking issues instead of people. It’s the most troubling thing in education I’ve ever witnessed. It seems we are held hostage by a few, Nashville’s tight little family, who are allowed to run roughshod over desperate families by shredding the leaders of schools that seek to fill a need in the community. The tragedy is that many recognize the ruthlessness and do nothing out of fear or silent consent. Or both.

Rules for Radicals

Since entering the throes of charter school season, I have been reminded of Saul Alinsky’s little book called Rules for Radicals, written in 1971. Alinsky was a mastermind at community organizing, deploying tactics with little to no regard for ethics. As a matter of fact, he argued “the most unethical of all means is the non-use of any means.” Everything is fair game, by any means necessary.

It is known that Hillary Clinton wrote about Rules for her senior thesis upon graduating from Wellesley. There are also rumors linking President Obama to Alinsky’s rules. I was introduced to Saul Alinsky as an undergrad, but was so stunned by his mercilessness I completely blocked it out. Since venturing onto the ed reform battlefield, I recognize the Rules and wonder if there is a secret society of anti-charter Alinsky-ites who are dead set on taking out charter leaders by any means necessary.

“Pick a Target, Freeze It, Personalize It, Polarize It”

‘Pick a target, freeze, personalize and polarize’ is far down Alinsky’s list, but it happens to be the one that is most visible in Nashville. In 2015, John Little, a charter school advocate, went head-to-head with school board member Will Pinkston in an epic battle on Facebook. John was leading a mayoral campaign at the time, and for reasons that still elude me, was pounced upon by Pinkston—who at some point had supposedly been his friend.

It got ugly, y’all. We all watched Pinkston unleash personal attacks and served up private information about John. We watched while John’s years of hard work take hit after hit by a privileged elected official with tons of political capital on a mission to erase him.
Now, two years later, the target is Shaka Mitchell, leader of two Rocketship charter schools in Nashville. It seems this all began when Rocketship applied to open a third Nashville public school last year. After the school board denied the application, Mitchell and his team appealed and were denied a second time. So Mitchell took his case to the state board of education, but received a third denial.

Wait… Rewind… Let’s not forget the 2013 bloody battles on Twitter and Facebook between Pinkston and Ravi Gupta, founder of the Nashville Prep charter school. Legendary.

Fair enough, some people don’t want more charters. But just because these school leaders want to reach more kids and families, that shouldn’t make them a target for trolling and personal attacks.

Not to Play the Race Card, But…

Maybe I’ve experienced too many stories as of late about the black man in America. The movie “Get Out” and the documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” are at the top of the list. The killing of Jocques Clemmons in East Nashville running from Nashville police also comes to mind. Or maybe it’s because I’m married to one and gave birth to another. But I see a disturbing pattern in this targeting men of color, in general, and black men, in particular.

Hey, maybe it has little to do with the fact John and Shaka are black males. To be honest, I hope like hell I’m wrong about it. But here’s what I know, what I’ve seen countless times—Nashville’s black voices again are silent or silenced. And a brilliant political strategist like Pinkston understands this and, no doubt, uses it to his advantage. After all, “ridicule is man’s most potent weapon” (yes, Alinsky). And those who lack loud representation are positioned to be the perfect scapegoats for a political axe-grinding.

‘Silence is Betrayal’

Conventional wisdom says never go to a gunfight with a knife. I suppose the safe thing would be to keep my thoughts to myself. Eighty-six the rabble-rousing. But check this: I’ve spent my entire adult life silently sitting on the sidelines watching injustices slide; so damn scared, too scared to breathe. I’ve been making myself too invisible to be someone’s target. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “there comes a time when silence is betrayal.”

So, it’s charter school season and the games have begun. If you’re not against them, you’re with them. Take cover.