After months of tension over the denial of a specific charter school, Metro school board members are questioning what they want from new charter applicants and how to find it.
District officials said they have an opportunity to attract charter schools that could meet Metro Nashville Public Schools’ specific needs but faced questions over whether the district could be more proactive in seeking out schools they will want to approve.
"I'm really tired of the them-versus-us mentality, and that's got to stop," Cheryl Mayes, the school board chairwoman, told the board Tuesday night at its regular workshop meeting.
The district is coming off months of debate about its decision to deny Phoenix-based Great Hearts Academies’ application last summer over diversity concerns. Beginning next week, the school district will begin taking a head count on this year’s round of charter school applicants, which will be vetted then recommended to the school board by June.
“We have been open to charters all along, but when we deny one is when we get some negativism,” said Jo Ann Brannon, a school board member. “It’s not that we are anti-charter, but we want to do it in a correct manner.”
Nashville is now home to 14 operating charters. One is set to close at the end of the school year and as many as five new schools will open come fall. Meanwhile, one in four MNPS students are attending their choice of public schools outside of their zone school.
The district is in a unique position to think ahead about its needs and seek out specific charter authorizers to fill them, said Alan Coverstone, executive director of the MNPS’s Office of Innovation to review charter proposals. For example, students attending the soon-to-be-closed Smithson Craighead Middle School will now be displaced, the population is booming in the southern part of Davidson County, and the district still has a sizable achievement gap between students of different ethnicities and socioeconomic situations.
Those needs could all be addressed with the help of charter schools, said Coverstone, although board member Will Pinkston challenged that the district could do more to officially request proposals for schools to fill those needs. Coverstone and Director of Schools Jesse Register said they now advertise those needs by word of mouth and are hesitant to officially ask for a slew of requests in fear the state law would put the district in a “straightjacket,” tying its hands if it wants to approve only one of several qualified charter school to fill one specific slot.
Mayes said she finds herself skeptical of charter schools still, but said it’s because she doesn’t understand why the district isn’t taking good practices from high-performing charter schools and implementing them in traditional ones.
Register, who is expected to announce a slew of changes to MNPS’s central office during a press conference Wednesday, hinted that he is finding ways to plug those practices in. The district’s central office was the subject of hard criticism from Tribal Group, a U.K.-based firm hired to improve 34 of the district’s low-performing schools. The group found management too centralized in central office bureaucracy and Register promised to shed staff and free-up school level leaders.