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.”