Struggling Smithson-Craighead charter school in danger of forced closure

Sunday, August 26, 2012 at 9:09pm

Inside a seventh-grade science lab at Smithson-Craighead Middle School, a poster reminds students of some age-old principles: “Be Respectful! Be Responsible! Be Honest! Work Hard!”

These values aren’t ignored as teacher Michelle Osborne navigates her classroom of boys, all African-American, through a lesson on cells one recent morning. A student helps a classmate find the correct page in his textbook as they discuss cytoplasm and cell membranes — parts of the building blocks of life.

Yet as studies carry on at this Madison-area charter school — where 325 students arrive each day at the former Metro Christian Academy building on Neely’s Bend Road — a political question is becoming louder, one that could soon be answered by the Metro school board: Will Smithson-Craighead Middle be forced to close?

The state’s newly released list of “priority” schools has put this three-year-old Nashville charter school on notice as one of the bottom 5 percent of performing schools statewide. There are 83 such schools in Tennessee. Six Metro schools fall under this category, but Smithson-Craighead is the only publicly financed, privately led charter in Nashville to receive the unwanted label. Troubles for Smithson-Craighead are nothing new. Since opening in 2009, the school has struggled to meet most federal performance benchmarks each year.

“We don’t believe that charter schools that are in the bottom 5 percent should remain open,” Alan Coverstone, executive director of Metro’s Office of Innovation, told The City Paper when asked about the future of Smithson-Craighead Middle.

That statement alone could signal the fate of Smithson-Craighead Middle, which has been on the radar of school officials for some time.

Coverstone leads the district’s office that monitors the performance of charter schools and recommends to the nine-member school board whether charter contracts with Metro should be revoked. Under revamped state law, local charter authorizers have the authority to close charter schools labeled “priority.” And as the number of charter schools in Nashville multiplies, pressure to pull the plug on the ones that are failing has intensified. 

Still, Coverstone said he would let the process play itself out before revealing a definitive recommendation for Smithson-Craighead. He pointed to the recent start of the school year as a hurdle as well as the transition of a new school board. Four new members will begin in September. He added that Metro would be proposing “some action” at some point regarding Smithson-Craighead.

“It’s just a matter of when we are ready to go ahead and commit to the timeline, and all of that is just about getting through the board transition,” he said.

The Tennessee Department of Education, as of last week, hadn’t released last year’s TCAP test scores for individual schools — only overall district scores, along with the groups of schools labeled either priority, intermediate or exemplary.

Smithson-Craighead’s 2010-11 test results were abysmal, however. The school failed to meet federal benchmarks in both math and reading and language arts. That year, only 3.6 percent of the school’s students achieved proficient TCAP scores in math, while just 16 percent of students were proficient in reading and language arts.

Complicating action on the charter, however, is its eligibility in the state-operated Achievement School District, a governance body that oversees Tennessee’s 83 lowest performing schools. Five are charters. The one-year-old ASD, as its known, has turned some of its schools to outside charter organizations, co-managed others, but left the majority of its schools alone for now. If the local board doesn’t revoke Smithson-Craighead’s charter, another option could be ASD intervention.

Even the state’s biggest charter advocates recognize something needs to happen at the middle school — perhaps even its closure.

“Clearly, any decision that’s made has to reflect the best interest of those children, and the academics are just not solid,” said Matt Throckmorton, director of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association, the state’s foremost charter lobbying arm. “It’s sad. It’s tough. But if there’s not dramatic change, they need to be closed.”



Leaders at Smithson-Craighead are aware they’re under the microscope. They also understand the school’s termination is a possibility now that the state has labeled it a “priority” school.

“There’s no shock about that,” said Pat Weaver, hired in July as CEO of Project Reflect, the nonprofit umbrella that manages both Smithson-Craighead Middle and Smithson-Craighead Elementary (that school, located on Brick Church Pike, does not face the prospect of having its charter revoked).

“We have to do a better job,” said Weaver, who hopes it remains open to sustain its original mission to serve low-income African-American youth. “There’s no doubt about it. That’s exactly what I’m working on as we speak.”

The 2009 launching of Smithson-Craighead Middle came six years after its companion elementary school became the first charter to open in Nashville. The founder of both schools is Sister Sandra Smithson, an 87-year-old Roman Catholic Franciscan nun. An African-American who grew up in segregated Nashville, Smithson has dedicated much of her life, described in legendary terms by friends and supporters, to education and service to her hometown.

Smithson-Craighead officials declined a request for an interview with Smithson. Though she’s still connected to the school, Smithson is considered retired. A message to Nashville attorney Charles Grant, who chairs Smithson-Craighead’s board, wasn’t returned.

According to a letter Smithson wrote for the school’s website, she started Project Reflect in 1992 after seeing too many kids playing on the streets in North Nashville when they should have been in school. “Crime was pervasive, something that I never experienced in my own childhood in the same neighborhood,” she wrote.

Weaver, a former administrator at Pope John Paul High School in Hendersonville who met Smithson years ago, said Project Reflect evolved into a charter school focus. He talks about continuing “Sister’s mission,” but openly discusses the middle school’s woes.

“I can’t say what the reason is, but it’s always struggled,” Weaver said. “My sense is perhaps it grew too fast. Perhaps the strategic side of things had not been assessed fully. Whatever it is, here we are in year four, and the track record is not good.”

Weaver, on the job for not even two months, considers himself the person to put Smithson’s mission into a school model that can work. Like other existing Nashville charters, Smithson-Craighead serves a predominantly poor, minority student population. Ninety-eight percent of its student body is African-American, while 88 percent qualifies for federal free and reduced lunches. Smithson-Craighead utilizes a single-gender approach to instruction. Boys are in one building, girls in another.

The charter school has tapped SchoolWorks, a Massachusetts-based educational consulting group, to assess its operations through an audit — “top to bottom, A to Z,” Weaver said. “What are we good at? Where are we struggling?” He said he’s also reached out to Randy Dowell, executive director of KIPP Nashville Academy, a charter, for assistance.

“I know it’s possible,” he said of a turnaround. “I’ve seen it happen in schools, and I’ve been part of it. I want to transfer that here.”

Yet Weaver is also mindful that Metro’s central office is not satisfied with the status quo. “I know they’re not pleased,” he said. “I don’t blame them. I know that there’s angst about what to do. I get that. I know that. What I’ve tried to do is see the need for corrections, see the need for change, and actively go about doing that.

“We have kids here,” he added. “We have to deliver.”



On Nashville’s charter schools front, eyes are currently fixated on Great Hearts Academies, a charter proposal the school board deferred voting on this month over concerns that it would serve a largely white, affluent student population in West Nashville. The action defied a state order to approve it, but the proposal is set for reconsideration on Sept. 11. 

After the state vs. Metro conflict involving Great Hearts plays out, the future of Smithson-Craighead figures to be the school board’s next major charter-school decision.

The board has demonstrated both action and hesitation in closing charters in the past. When financial troubles arose at Nashville Global Academy in 2010, the school board applied pressure, and the school surrendered its charter. One year later, the board elected to keep Drexel Preparatory Academy open, even though Director of Schools Jesse Register’s administration recommended its closure.

The fate of Smithson-Craighead could come down to a nine-member school board with four new members. Not yet sworn into office, the quartet has been reluctant to speak on policy decisions. At various candidates’ forums prior to August’s election, however, most seemed to agree: Failing charter schools shouldn’t remain open.

“Closing schools is always a last resort and a drastic step,” said outgoing board member Mark North, whose district includes Smithson-Craighead Middle. “Taking that step in the middle part of the school year adds to the difficulty of making that move. When the board faces that decision, the question’s going to be: What’s best for the children at Smithson-Craighead and the rest of the school district?

“I know they’ve made some changes,” North said, adding he’s not in position to say whether the moves are enough. “It’s going to be up to the new board.”

8 Comments on this post:

By: ChrisMoth on 8/27/12 at 5:42

It is so tragic. Does _anyone_ out there know how we can close the achievement gap, and halt the endless stream of bad news for impoverished students?

Here we have a Charter school that is "failing" - and that is especially troubling as the parents of these children specifically _chose_ it for their kids. By all the great rhetoric of Charter advocates, that segregation-through-parent-choice should have created an easier path to higher test scores.

The contrast to the Great Hearts charter application is so stark. When we segregate out affluent West Nashville parents to Great Hearts (like we do at Hume-Fogg), it is easy to hit an ACT of 26. I'm endlessly amazed that our society so loudly celebrates scores that come with so little effort.

Long before Nashville's Board approves Great Hearts, it must ask itself why creating additional segregated Hume-Fogg schools under our Board's control is a worse idea. Everyone across Nashville seems to agree that "more Hume-Foggs" is far preferable to hiring Great Hearts to provide segregation services to us.

But, when I read above that Charter Schools can fail impoverished students so miserably, I start to woory again that segregation may not best for all of Nashville's children, after all.

It's a complex issue - and demands more than then 18 minutes of attention that Great Hearts got from our State Board of Education.

I deeply appreciate _everyone_ who keeps a hand in this battle. However misguided, or hypocritical, we may be, I'm convinced that we offer hope where running away to to private, Williamson, Great Hearts, and Meigs/Hume-Fogg offers none.

Surely if we stay in the fight, we can find a sustainable solution to education of impoverished students without segregating out our affluent kids. But, we've been trying for 40 years now.....

Chris Moth, 2020 Overhill Dr

By: treehugger7 on 8/27/12 at 6:29

Here's a thought: Stop demonizing teachers, pay them better, respect them as the professionals they are. No one in their right mind would want to teach, given what they must put up with. Maybe then they wouldn't be in the shape they are in. Clear out the charter-loving politicians, and let teachers teach! I respect and appreciate what they do and what they put up with. Oh, and maybe ditch Register!

By: govskeptic on 8/27/12 at 8:04

treehugger7: Your posting of the same paragraph on every education story
is a bit repetitious. Teachers are being paid pretty well in the city, and maybe
some of the many worthless School Superintendents of the past fit your
fancy a bit more than Mr. Register, who to many is doing a good job.

By: Rasputin72 on 8/27/12 at 8:29

I love the way the liberals and the NAACP are always looking for creative ways to make silk purse out of a sow's ear.

If they would work as hard on changing the culture of the underclass as they do trying to push their racist agenda they might see a lot of progress.

Skin color has absolutely nothing to do with the flight of the productive class to private schools and adjacent counties.

I even saw a black family at Richland Country Club the othr evening. The children had private school attire and seemed quite at home there. Other than the color of their skin they were just exactly like every one else in that dining room.

By: paulalanjones on 8/27/12 at 8:49

I don't know what systems Smithson-Craighead has in place, but KIPP has a mandatory parent participation requirement for enrollment. They essentially take the at-risk students with at least a minimal framework for at-home support. When charters are able to filter out students that are more likely to fail, they improve their chances of success. I think that when you have a charter that intentionally addresses the students with the highest risk without some sort of support structure requirement, you have a charter with a very steep mountain in front of it. I personally think, regardless of charter of public school, they greatest formula for success is having an engaged, supportive and concerned support structure around the child. If a child comes from an environment that doesn't value education and expects little from it, or simply doesn't have the time to offer, the student's school faces almost unsurmountable challenges. I don't think paying teachers more would help this at all, unless those teachers are willing to go into the student's homes and do homework with them to earn that extra money (which is something that I've heard that KIPP teachers have done). Good teachers add tremendous value, and should be payed well, but if you can't find a way to change the student's support structure and ensure they have a home environment conducive to education, you can't throw enough money at the problem to fix it.

By: pswindle on 8/27/12 at 9:20

This is the fate of every Charter School. They last about three years. So sad because of all the wasted Metro money. All of the money needs to stay in Metro and work hard to improve where improvements are needed. Get off of the teacher's back and give them back their teaching freedom.

By: Specter47 on 8/27/12 at 2:15

Come on, ChrisMoth! You_keep_blabbing_the_same_old_ boring_crap,_blasting_Great_Hearts_and _talking_about_how_bringing_them_into_Nashville_will_create_more_Hume_Fogg_type_segregation. (I'm tired of the stupid underscores). Get over it, man! There will be no segregation, only equal opportunity for all kids in Nashville, no matter their skin color or economic status. That's the only way to run a charter school.

By: Rasputin72 on 8/29/12 at 6:35

Chris Moth......In the last 30 years the only really outstanding thing that the MNPS system has done was to create Hume Fogg.