While tensions ran high between Metro Nashville Public Schools and the charter school community in the past year, key leaders from both camps were breaking bread behind closed doors.
There — not in the school district’s board room nor the public sphere — they were talking about the elephants in the room, namely the growing momentum of the charter school movement that allows for publicly funded, privately run schools, and how the district could embrace that movement.
“I think we’re all realizing we can get a lot more done for a lot more kids in a better way if we set aside our differences and collaborate in a genuine way,” said Randy Dowell, executive director at the KIPP Nashville charter school network, who collaborates with the pro-charter group.
The outcome of the talks is yet to be seen, although the group expects to share their best ideas for collaboration and synergy publicly this fall.
While the district is home to approximately 80,000 students, about 5 percent of them are enrolled in an area charter school. Parents can opt to pull their child out of their zoned school and apply to the charter instead.
Charter schools began opening in Tennessee a decade ago and were swept in with a wave of education reforms washing through the country. The schools are given more autonomy to make decisions, such as setting longer school days for their calendar and hiring transportation. However, the schools can be shut down for failing academically or mismanaging their money.
In the past year, the relationship between the district and the charter school community was uneasy. After the school board bad-mouthed a politically popular charter school, accusing it of failing to provide sufficient diversity in its plan to open in West Nashville, the panel repeatedly rejected the school’s application. The state then fined the district north of $3 million. Threats from the legislature followed, specifically to further punish the MNPS district by creating a state panel that would take some of the approval process out of the local school board’s hands. That legislation is expected to come up for a vote early next year.
Meanwhile, the district stressed the high costs of charter schools in the MNPS landscape. The district later highlighted student attrition rates at its local charter schools, a list that had never been released before. The list became the subject of frustration among many in the charter school community, who called the formula flawed and pointed the finger back at the district for ignoring the high numbers of students leaving MNPS’ traditional schools.
But underneath the friction, more than a dozen of Nashville’s best principals, top charter leaders and high-ranking district officials have been gathering to figure out what the two types of schools can learn from each other.
“What happens in the sort of sterilized world of press and media and politics in general is always unidimensional compared to the multidimensional aspects of human relationships and interactions. So it’s been a good thing that we’ve been meeting together and able to discuss our concerns and issues and differences,” said Alan Coverstone, executive director of the district’s Office of Innovation which oversees the city’s charter schools.
“As usual, we have a lot more similarities than we do differences, and by focusing on the students and what happens in our schools, we have plenty of common ground to work on when it comes to good formative assessment, good data-tracking, good instructional adjustment, progress for students — we can learn from each other,” he said.
The meetings, funded by the Ayers Institute for Teacher Learning and Innovation, have broken up the school leaders into elementary, middle and high school groups to share ideas from successful charter schools that the district can right-size and plug into traditional district schools.
Examples include how to approach training instructional coaches, ways to better prepare teachers to teach new content and how to better support educators, said Candice McQueen, dean of the Lipscomb College of Education and the institutes founding director, who has been playing mediator among the area’s education leaders.
At the district level, school and district leaders are talking about issues such as ways MNPS can ask for charter schools to meet strategic district needs and find district facilities where individual charter schools can make a permanent home, she said.
They’re all answers the charter and traditional school leaders can solve if the goal is doing what’s best for students, she said.
The problems the district faces are complicated and call for complex answers, said McQueen. “Collaboration is very messy, and it can be hurtful at times.
“We’re talking about money, we’re talking about people. That can’t be anything but problematic,” she said. “Over time, have there been rocky spots? Yes. We just try to address it and stay focused on where we’re going.”