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.


If You Care About Education Then Karl Dean’s Run for Governor Should Be On Your Radar

The 2018 race for governor of Tennessee has been a thing for nearly two years. During this time, there has been no shortage of suitors whispering sweet nothings in the ears of potential voters – both Democrat and Republican. Currently, Tennessee sits solidly in the red, but if history is any indication, our next governor is certain to make our red eyes blue.

We’ve heard rumblings from Democrats former mayor Karl F. Dean and state representative Craig Fitzhugh. And just yesterday, real estate magnate and former Nashville mayoral candidate Bill Freeman backed out and rallied behind Fitzhugh (already interesting). Additionally, we’ve heard from a long list of Republican hopefuls currently enjoying their day in the red sun. But Sunday, The Tennessean broke the news of the race’s first candidate, Mayor Dean.

It’s All Connected

Karl F. Dean, a northern transplant and man of means, spent many years as the city’s top lawyer before making a run for mayor in 2007. Dean brilliantly ran on the slogan “It’s all connected” winning over the hearts and minds of those of us concerned about education, safety, and economic development. The two-term mayor made good on his promises and our little city looks almost entirely different in 2017 than it did 10 years ago when the good mayor took the reigns.

Photo: Nashville Downtown Partnership

Nashville is a beautiful city. As a native Nashvillian, the city’s aesthetics have always been a source of pride. Interestingly, despite all the growth, the city is even more beautiful. From the walking bridge that beautifully welcomes visitors into the city, to the un-Nashville-like bus station, to the blocks-long convention hub, the Music City Center—all can be attributed to Karl F. Dean. All things we didn’t know we needed.

Education Matters

More than buildings, Dean’s impact can be seen in less obvious (socially acceptable) ways as found in our education landscape (you didn’t think education wasn’t going to be discussed, did you?). The then-mayor had a thing about charter schools and quickly assessed the city’s collective disdain for the money-sucking, anti-union craze forced upon us by the state’s Republican delegation (note: the mood hasn’t changed much).

Photo: New Hampshire Business Review

Taking matters into his own hands, the mayor forced the anti-charter town into the world of ed reform— and we went in kicking and screaming. Intent on doing it his way, Dean brazenly created a charter school incubator, a pipeline designed to groom the perfect application for submission to the unfriendly school board. Even though these applicants were backed by the mayor there was little guarantee they would be approved.

Working at Metro Schools during Mayor Dean’s tenure, each application from his incubator was submitted to my office. I watched charter hopefuls submit thoroughly vetted, perfectly coiffed applications clearly churned out by a highly skilled team of application whisperers. While I’ve never been anti-charter, I was miffed at the audacious operation. Fast forward a few years and I can help but respect the vision. Though still not wild about how it was executed, I get it.

Further, as Dean staffer Courtney Wheeler tweeted at me, the gubernatorial hopeful is not an education one-trick pony. She reminded me of the increase in teacher pay under his leadership and Limitless Libraries, a ground-breaking partnership between the city’s libraries and school libraries, giving students access to the “world” (literally) from the comfort of their own school. And there are more things we didn’t know we needed.

The creation of Nashville After Zone Alliance (NAZA) is an excellent example of campaign promises made good. Using his background as law director, Dean understood better than most the connection between schools and criminal justice. So after discovering a swath of kids of a certain age without supervision and positive engagement, Dean created NAZA to catch them during a particularly critical time in their development. Before NAZA, students between the ages of 10 and 14 were left to their own devices often leaving them vulnerable to undesirable influences and behaviors. 

Oh, but we can’t leave out the not-so-gentle introduction to alternative teacher prep programs Teach for America and The New Teacher Project. Adding more furor to the teacher’s union and public education purists alike. Yet, these projects are now an integral part of how we do business which is a testament to the man’s vision. Or power.

Sour Grapes Never Die

While this is not intended to be a pro-Dean piece and I’m still munching on a few sour grapes from his time as mayor, it would be inauthentic for me to ignore his influence on our collective expectations for high quality schools. Some of the schools created out of the incubator are not only in existence but thriving. He made those of us eternally loyal to traditional public schools to take notice – even while we were kicking and screaming.

Speaking of screaming… After the candidacy was made official, my Twitter and Facebook was on fire; lit by the same anti-charter crowd that experienced great success during last year’s school board race. Meanwhile, those warmer to the prospect tended to be those friendly to ed reform. So, while he may be a moderate in terms of business, the same cannot be said about his stance on education. But there’s plenty of time to make peace or wage war. 

Only 21 Months To Go

Breaking from tradition, I voted for Republican governor Bill Haslam twice because of his platform on education. If I had to put my money on a Democrat with a different eye for education, Dean would be the guy. In the meantime, I’ll wait for the campaign’s education platform with the expectations planted by the guy who could be our next governor. Don’t sleep on this race.