A new chapter

Sunday, December 20, 2009 at 10:44pm
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It was only three years ago when a recalcitrant superintendent and prevailing suspicion about charter schools posed near insurmountable obstacles to then-27-year-old Jeremy Kane’s pursuit to start LEAD Academy.

Today, under school district leadership from Jesse Register –– and on the heels of a new state law favorable to charters, government-funded schools with autonomy from school systems –– Kane is widely seen as the poster child for charter school success, hailed by leaders like Mayor Karl Dean and celebrated as a model for reformers to follow.

Hurdles that complicated Kane’s path eventually vanished, and they’ve been replaced instead by tools. Just this month, Dean unveiled a statewide charter incubator to support the development of new “choice schools.” Even the central office at Metro Nashville Public Schools, previously hostile to charter schools, went so far as to create a full-time post of charter school czar. It’s all amounted to a brave, yet strange, new world for Nashville’s charter school movement — once beleaguered, now celebrated.

“Charter schools were seen as something that would take away from the district and add to the problem, not a part of the solution,” Kane recalled. “That just created a culture of fear… fear of ‘What if they are successful?’

“There’s nothing special that I’ve done for this sea change,” he said. “We’ve been very lucky to exist both before, and now during this incredible moment in time where Nashville has awakened to the crisis and is stepping up to meet the demands and challenges.”

Kane’s triumph in navigating choppy political waters and bureaucratic morass to launch his north Nashville charter middle school –– an academy that’s delivered big-time in improving student achievement –– is one of 12 accounts discussed in Leading Schools During Crisis, a book being released this month that’s co-written by four experts on education, including Jessica Lewis, a research associate at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education & Human Development.

Rather than relying on academic jargon or education theory, Leading Schools is story-driven, featuring a broad swath of case studies in which school officials exhibited leadership. Accounts include direction from one New York City principal after the 9/11 attacks, and the launching of a New Orleans school amid the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. These feats are obvious, and heroic, but the behind-the-scenes challenges of launching a charter school can go unnoticed to an audience outside of educators.

“That’s why we ended up looking at LEAD Academy,” Lewis explained. “Specifically, how Jeremy Kane and others who were part of that school community were able to establish a school and succeed in an environment that at least originally could have been seen as not-so-friendly to charters.”

Though the book never mentions by name former Metro schools director Pedro Garcia, who contributed in part to Kane’s early troubles in getting LEAD launched. “The odds were not in [Kane’s] favor in terms of the political sentiments of those who were the power wielders,” Lewis said.

Hoping to shine light on lessons for other administrators, the book focuses on perhaps the two biggest obstacles that Kane confronted –– convincing the school board to approve his 267-page charter school application, and the thorny process of locating an actual school building.

Initially, the board rejected LEAD’s application without an invitation to re-submit, citing the application’s failure to include a required section addressing insurance coverage. Kane said he drew encouragement from the infraction.

“I’m an old sports guy,” he said. “You don’t foul the worst player. You foul the best player. And if they’re fouling me like that, and they’re going to come at me that strong, that means I’ve got a darn good application and they’re scared. They know that I’ve done my work.”

Kane aced his test

LEAD would win a state legal battle, which allowed Kane to revise the application, adding the required insurance section. Taking advantage of open meeting laws, he sat through 10 hours worth of MNPS review committee meetings, “studying” the board, as he puts it. When it came time for his five-hour interview, Kane said he “knew every question they were going to ask before they asked them.”

The book recounts how Kane, who had previously worked in Democratic politics and as director of the Charter School Resource Center, turned to his network of connected supporters. From the outset, he built allies in former Nashville Scene Editor Bruce Dobie and Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Ralph Schulz, while recruiting supporters from affluent Belle Meade neighborhoods to join his cause. He also took his case door to door to the low-income families he sought to serve, eventually finding backers from potential school parents who filled the school board room in support of his upstart education initiative.

“Building a broad and diverse base of support early on really served him well, in not only building a vision for the school but also in having justification to establish a school after its first rejection by the board,” Lewis said.

Silent passage

Of course, after the board unanimously approved LEAD’s application on the second go-around, Kane’s road to opening by the late summer of 2007 was hardly complete. He still needed to secure a facility, which hit a roadblock in Garcia, who never responded to a letter from Kane and others that inquired about leasing just eight of the district’s 290 empty classrooms.

“We never heard back from him,” Kane said. “We never heard, ‘No, you’re wrong, we don’t have any space,’ or ‘We do have space, we just don’t want to deal with you.’ We just never heard anything back.”

Garcia and his administration suggested LEAD occupy unused space in the same building that houses East Nashville’s KIPP Academy, a charter school that had been founded two years earlier.

The proposal was a non-offer for Kane, as KIPP is located miles away from his target students and the move risked fueling unwarranted competition between the two charter schools.

Lewis and co-authors then explain how Kane and others turned to the media, which caught the attention of the parish priest of St. Vincent De Paul School, who at the last moment offered space in the school’s second story. “It was a very tense time,” Kane said. “We got our space at the end of June and opened up two weeks later.” With St. Vincent De Paul now permanently closed, LEAD occupies the entire building just blocks off Jefferson Street.

Despite the push-back, Kane said he holds no animosity toward Garcia. “Looking back,” he said, “I’m glad Dr. Garcia was here. It made us a better school. We didn’t get anything for free. …I’m thankful for Dr. Garcia and all the hoops he made us jump through –– the little things and the big things, too.”