Nashville charter schools numbers keep on growing

Thursday, May 28, 2009 at 1:00am

KIPP is just one of Nashville’s high-performing charter schools.

Smithson-Craighead, Nashville’s first charter school, has up to now served kids in elementary grades. Starting this fall, the school will open a middle school, so that Smithson-Craighead kids can transition directly to the sister school.

LEAD Academy is like KIPP in that it currently serves the middle grades and is part of a national movement. The first class of LEAD middle-schoolers is due to graduate from college in 2014. Both LEAD and Smithson-Craighead operate in the north Nashville area.

These three existing schools all serve populations of students considered to be high-risk, and all have met benchmarks set by federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) laws. That track record stands out in an urban district like Metro Nashville Public Schools, which as a system is currently under significant Tennessee Department of Education control after repeatedly failing to meet NCLB-mandated benchmarks.

All of Smithson-Craighead’s students, and 94.3 percent of KIPP’s, are considered economically disadvantaged by state Report Card data. State Report Card data on economically disadvantaged students is not available for LEAD. The majority of students at all three schools are African-American.

The schools are based in economically depressed neighborhoods. Tennessee’s current charter school law means schools serve their best interest when they’re situated near multiple public schools failing NCLB benchmarks. In Tennessee, charter schools may only enroll students who were previously enrolled in a charter school; who were assigned to or previously enrolled in a school failing NCLB regulations; or who in the previous year failed to test at an at least “proficient” level in several areas on Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) assessment tests.

Once part of the school system, charter schools must meet the same federal and state educational guidelines as other public schools. Charter schools receive local and state funding, but no public funds for building or transportation.

Headlines have been made in recent weeks as Tennessee’s legislature considered changing the law to allow more children in Tennessee to choose charter schools. The bill was supported publicly by Mayor Karl Dean, who cited KIPP as an example of what charter schools can achieve. The bill provoked controversy, however, and is likely dead for this year after members of the House Education Committee voted to adjourn without taking a vote on the bill.

State teachers’ union the Tennessee Education Association (TEA) is one of the most outspoken voices against the legislation, arguing that charter schools’ results are due to “cherry-picking” more talented kids and dedicated families. The Nashville charter schools typically have rigorous academic requirements of students and involvement requirements for parents, and have the ability to send students back to their zoned schools if requirements aren’t met.

KIPP School Leader Randy Dowell has heard these criticisms and, not surprisingly, disagrees. It’s very rare that KIPP sends a child back to his or her zoned school, he said. He attributes KIPP’s success in large part to the staff of teachers there, who typically work 60-hour weeks and answer student cell phone calls after hours.

“When you talk about cherry-picking, you minimize the power that a teacher actually has to impact the live of a students,” Dowell said. “Our teachers are the magic.”