To the jubilation of hundreds in attendance, the Metro Nashville Board of Education voted Monday to give a troubled charter school a second chance.
Board members decided against immediately revoking Drexel Preparatory Academy’s charter despite severe federal and state violations. Instead, they voted 5-3 to place it on probation for failing to provide sufficient services to English Language Learners and special-needs students.
Leaders of Drexel, a charter school with 237 students that opened in August, will have to provide the district monthly reports to show areas of concerns are being addressed. The board will reconsider Drexel’s status in May, and decide then whether shutting down the school is warranted.
“These children deserve a fighting chance,” school board member Cheryl Mayes said, with an overflow crowd of Drexel supporters looking on. Given the information detailing Drexel’s woes, however, she called the months ahead “do or die” for the school’s leaders.
“You won’t get another chance to do this,” Mayes said. “I don’t want to see any child suffer because of what an adult did.”
In opting for probation, the board went against the will of school district officials who, after investigating Drexel’s wrongdoings, recommended the termination of the Whites Creek-area school.
A two-hour long special meeting Monday evening began with Alan Coverstone, who oversees charter schools for the district, going down a long list of Drexel’s violations. They included failing to hire properly licensed teachers and, consequently, not meeting federal guidelines in regards to ELL and special-needs education. Coverstone said Drexel’s problems constituted violations of Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Coverstone called it “the height of irresponsibility” to use public dollars on an organization that has proven unable to carry out “basic services” for students most in need of help.
“Whether or not services are now being provided, the charter was violated, and the damage to the children has been done.” Coverstone said.
“The autonomy that charter schools enjoy carries the responsibility to deliver on the promises they make, especially when failure to deliver falls on our most vulnerable students.”
May Alice Ridley, Drexel’s executive director, acknowledged mistakes were made but said the school faced “trying circumstances” in opening the charter school in a short timeframe. She said Drexel leaders became aware of the school’s number of ELL students in September. She said all teachers are currently licensed and all groups of students are being served.
“Drexel is now in full compliance,” she said.
At times, Ridley –– who cited her recent battle with pneumonia as a distraction in readying the school –– begged for a second opportunity: “Our children are learning. Please, don’t disrupt their learning experience.”
Following fierce debate, board member Kay Simmons made a motion to follow Coverstone’s request and revoke Drexel’s charter at the end of the school year.
“It seems to me what we have here is basically a lack of confidence that we can count on Drexel to do what they’re saying they’re going to do,” Simmons said. “These are federal and state laws. You can’t choose which ones you’re going to uphold and which ones you’re not.”
But board member Ed Kindall countered the motion, proposing the district place Drexel on probation instead. He said the likelihood the state would take away funding as punishment for Drexel’s violations would “probably be almost zero.”
Five board members voted for Kindall’s motion: Kindall, board chair Gracie Porter, Mark North, JoAnn Brannon and Mayes. Three voted against it: Simmons, Michael Hayes and Anna Shepherd.
Board member Sharon Gentry was not present for the vote.
A crowd, which reflected the largely African-American community that Drexel serves, erupted in applause following the board’s decision. Among those in attendance were state Sen. Thelma Harper, Rep. Brenda Gilmore, Councilwoman Karen Johnson and several notable African-American pastors.
“Drexel is an important anchor in our community,” Gilmore said. “The parents, the students, the faith community are very supportive of this school, as evident by those who are in the audience today.”
In 2010, the school board originally voted against the approval of Drexel’s charter application. The state board of education, however, stepped in and recommended approval of its charter contingent on certain changes. The local school board obliged.