Chartering the course

Sunday, April 25, 2010 at 11:45pm

It was immediately hailed as a bold new experiment, an out-of-the-box plan to transform a historically struggling Metro middle school.

But all the excitement over the proposal to turn governance of Cameron Middle School over to a charter organization — Nashville’s LEAD Academy — pre-empted one crucial hurdle: approval from a nine-member school board.

Two weeks ago, the board tabled the initiative in a 5-4 vote. They were expected to take it up again Tuesday, and prognostications of the outcome that were quick to come before have now virtually ceased.

In February, local media received an attention-grabber of a news release from Metro Nashville Public Schools calling on reporters to attend a special announcement on the future of Cameron Middle and Glencliff High schools. “The announcement is the first of its kind in the state,” the statement read. Enticing.

Both schools, boasting two of the most diverse student bodies in the state, had just been grouped into a new “achievement school district” by the state’s Department of Education for continuing to fail to reach federal No Child Left Behind benchmarks. But the school district wouldn’t just hand the keys over to the state; a packed room of reporters was told of “reform strategies” that would allow MNPS to still have a say.

Changes proposed at Glencliff were relatively modest — longer school days and a longer school calendar were the highlights. The real newsmaker was the idea recommended for Cameron: Partnering with the state, MNPS would recruit an outside charter organization to essentially assume control of the middle school.

Taking turns at the event to celebrate the charter initiative were Mayor Karl Dean, the state’s education commissioner Tim Webb, and Director of Schools Jesse Register. In the weeks that followed, supporters of the plan began calling it a potential “national model.”

Alan Coverstone, the district’s director of charter and private schools, quickly took the lead on recruiting potential charter organizations. A committee assigned by the school board later reviewed three applicants, eventually recommending Nashville’s LEAD Academy to take the reins at Cameron.

Contracting LEAD came before the school board two weeks ago on an up-or-down vote, but board members never got to that point. That’s probably a good thing for Coverstone, Register, LEAD founder Jeremy Kane and others who hoped the Cameron plan would move forward. The five votes necessary for approval didn’t seem to be there.

After lengthy and at times head-scratching deliberation, the board voted to suspend the vote for one meeting. The board will once again take a look at the LEAD proposal this week, giving it a definitive thumbs up or down.

Some school board members voted predictably, while others seemed surprisingly uninformed about the plan.

During the last meeting, veteran board member Ed Kindall seemed hesitant about the idea of charter schools in general. Board member Gracie Porter, meanwhile, questioned whether LEAD, founded just three years ago, had a proven track record to justify the selection. Mark North, a charter critic, suggested that test scores at LEAD aren’t much better than those at Cameron.

A few board members, meanwhile, seemed downright confused, which didn’t go unnoticed to observers in the crowd — more than a few spectators later wondered where these questions had been for the past two and a half months.

One last push

Throughout the hour and a half of discussion, Coverstone, who logged long days to help engineer the Cameron-LEAD plan, tried hard to hide his frustration. School board chair David Fox, an outspoken supporter of the plan, seemed perplexed. Even the mild-mannered Register, who some have said put his reputation on the line with the Cameron proposal, likely came away befuddled.

That said, this week marks a clean slate for the charter initiative at Cameron. Proponents say they’re optimistic about its fate, wisely choosing not to wear any hard feelings on their sleeves.

“This is a big change that we’re contemplating,” Coverstone told The City Paper. “Nobody’s suggesting that it’s easy or simple, or something that we ought to take lightly. So I can say I appreciate the fact that school board members are as attentive to the quality of these plans as they are.”

Register and Coverstone spent all of last Wednesday sitting down with board members individually to hash out their concerns. Register, who has kept a steady line of communication with state education commissioner Webb, probably laid out what the alternative would likely be if the board were to reject the LEAD proposal at Cameron: a full-fledged state takeover of the school.

Webb didn’t return calls made by The City Paper. In a written statement, the state’s education department spokeswoman Amanda Maynord Anderson said the department “will take no formal action” until the board makes a decision on Cameron. However, she pointed out that Cameron currently falls under Restructuring II of federal No Child Left Behind statute, which would give the state “options” — authority, in other words — to “improve the school.”

It’s not hard to read between the lines: Either the board signs off on the charter partnership with Cameron or state administrators take complete control of the situation, perhaps contracting with a charter organization themselves.

Fox has framed the debate this way: “The question we need to ask ourselves, and really I think the only question we need to ask ourselves, is this: If our own child or grandchild were attending Cameron, which of two possible scenarios would be better for our child?”

For Fox, the answer is obvious. But it isn’t so clear for some of his colleagues.

3 Comments on this post:

By: Karl_Warden on 4/26/10 at 3:39

So, is this supposed to be a news article or an editorial? Are y'all fusing the two at this point? Actually, those were rhetorical questions. Of course you are fusing the two.

When you get around to actually looking at the facts, why don't you look at the test scores at LEAD and Cameron? And then perhaps you can explain why LEAD should get Cameron when LEAD's scores are not as high as Cameron's scores.

By: artsmart on 4/26/10 at 4:31

The confusion is just another illustration of why the Board should go. So many times they seem completely clueless. Our rep is not much more than a cardboard cutout. The only question I have had is are they clueless and don't care or are they just not bright enough.

By: localboy on 4/26/10 at 12:22

These pro-charter school puff pieces have got to stop.