Student attrition heightens tension between charter backers, MNPS

Thursday, May 23, 2013 at 10:05pm


KIPP Academy Nashville called a gritty old building on Douglas Avenue in East Nashville home for years before moving five miles north while waiting out their building’s reconstruction. 

But after a year teaching just north of Briley Parkway at Ewing Park Middle School’s building, KIPP Academy has seen 64 students leave — a loss of about 19 percent of the school’s student body. 

While the top leader at the charter school points largely to longer commutes to explain the loss of students, Metro Nashville Public Schools is singling out KIPP and seven other charters as district loss leaders in student attrition and worries the schools are allowing students to depart weeks before high-stakes standardized testing. 

But charter school advocates question the logic behind the district’s data and say there is much more motivation to keep students in charter schools than to let them go. 

“We don’t bat a thousand,” said Randy Dowell, executive director at KIPP, a school aimed at getting low-income East Nashville students ready for college. But, “everyone who runs a charter school tries to keep their kids. Period.” 

The tussle over attrition is the latest in what has evolved into long-running battle over the emerging role of publicly funded, privately run charter schools in a school system plagued with its own struggling schools. 

Of the district’s 81,000 students, about 5 percent of them attend one of the district’s dozen charter schools this year. 

MNPS calculates that eight of those schools have some of the district’s highest student attrition rates, including Smithson Craighead Middle, Boys Prep, KIPP Academy, Drexel Prep, STEM Prep, Liberty Collegiate, East End Prep and New Vision Academy. Collectively, 387 students have left those schools this school year, about a fifth of the schools’ population. 

“If you choose to go to a school, and then you choose not to go to a school, there’s a problem,” said Fred Carr, chief operating officer for MNPS, who managed the data. “Every time you change schools, you regress academically.”

But rejigger the formula based on charter school advocates’ preference, and the top eight schools for attrition instead lead with Boys Prep, Pearl-Cohn High School, Smithson Craighead, Maplewood High School, Hunters Lane High School, Gra-Mar Middle School, Whites Creek High School and Buena Vista Enhanced Option. Collectively, 1,759 students have left those schools since shortly after the beginning of the academic year, almost 33 percent of those schools’ student bodies.

School board member Jill Speering said she sought out district attrition numbers this year after hearing complaints from principals who said they were getting back hard-to-teach students straight from charter schools in the weeks before the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program tests. The annual exams measure students’ achievement as well as their teachers’ and schools’ ability to advance 
student performance. 

Speering, a retired teacher, was particularly interested in the case of students leaving KIPP. She found that 19 of 20 students who left the charter school since the end of January had served at least two out-of-school suspensions. Eight of those students also are categorized as having a special-needs disability. 

“If this is the case, and they’re able to, through attrition, perhaps get rid of children with behavior issues and students that have academic challenges, then we can’t compare their [TCAP] scores to Metro scores,” Speering said. 

“It just seems odd to me that this happened, that this attrition happened before achievement tests,” she added. “My concern is that we just don’t want to be putting kids out of school or withdraw right before achievement tests. That looks suspect, so we want to make sure those things are not happening.” 

Dowell rejects the idea that his school pushed students out, and instead suggests the district will find that students who choose to leave KIPP will perform better in math, reading, science and social studies than their district peers. 

“If they believe those students who left our school cannot succeed, I’d love for them to say it,” said Dowell. “The students who left were performing, based on our internal metrics, at significantly higher levels than the historic performance of the district schools.” 

Even if charter schools wanted to shed dead weight, schools can’t afford to do so, said Michael Hayes, a school board member who sat on KIPP’s charter school board for four years. 

Charter schools receive about $9,000 in taxpayer funding a year for each student enrolled. The payments are cut into 10 installments, so when students withdraw from the school, the charter school loses any further payments associated with those children.

Charter schools typically open one grade at a time, and thus build on their small populations year after year. At KIPP, the fifth- through eighth-grade school was home to 337 students two weeks into the school year, although it accepted 13 new students during the school year.

“When you lose a student, or two students or three students, it really hurts them financially. They don’t have anywhere near as big of an organization to absorb those losses,” he said. “Which is why I would be surprised if there was widespread expulsions from charter schools.” 

But what the district should look harder at are the number of students leaving traditional schools, said Hunter Schimpff, a special projects manager for the Tennessee Charter School Incubator, which trains people to lead charter schools. 

Schimpff, who revised the district’s attrition formula in a way that charter school advocates say is more reflective of reality, said the district is “not looking themselves in the mirror” and asked why 519 students are leaving Hunters Lane High School, or 310 students are leaving Pearl-Cohn.

Charter and district officials alike agree that the poverty level in many areas of the district probably contributes to the number of students leaving one school to attend another, with families relocating to a new neighborhood or moving in with family members. 

“When you look specifically at our charter schools that are open today, they’ve recruited the most at-risk kids in our community,” said Hayes. “That’s really been due to high poverty and unstable family situations.”

All sides agree it’s time to pore over the data to figure out how to address the mobile student population in the schools. Some suggest better bus service that could cross school zones, while others suggest revaluating why students are leaving their schools in the first place and installing policies to help keep students in their school of choice until the end of the school year. 

But the conversations happen at a time when the district is recovering after a narrowly won battle with the state over who should have the ultimate decision to install charter schools in district’s back yards. The debate follows the school board’s decision to deny a particular charter school, Great Hearts Academies, last year over diversity concerns, leaving the charter school community worried about the district’s attitude toward the non-traditional schools. 

Discussion about charter school attrition may be an opportunity to begin a discourse about the role of charter schools, said Dowell. 

“I think the conversation can be right-sized,” he said. 

ChartersChart.pdf38.3 KB

13 Comments on this post:

By: PigLipstick on 5/23/13 at 11:19

It's not about "rejigger"-ing anything. MNPS used a net enrollment change formula expressed as a % and called that "attrition."

It was just plain wrong to do so. And to top that off, they used the wrong enrollment numbers in their poorly construed formula.

Here's the actual spreadsheet w/ both ways to calculate:

A good example of the really flawed way MNPS calculates things is Goodlettsville Middle School. MNPS calculated their " attrition rate" at 0%. But this school had 120 total student exits over the year. A better reflection of attrition for that school is -18% with that sort of student loss.

Public charters just serve 5% of students in the district you know. 95% are served by district/magnet schools.

At the end of the day, most people, including writers, aren't interested in facts, understanding the whole issue, or keeping the school district accountable.

So we'll keep seeing narratives like this from MNPS and the reporters they own to distract the Nashville public away from how poorly they educate a large number of students, week after week, year after year.

By: ChrisMoth on 5/24/13 at 7:23

Mr. Schimpff (likely posting as PigLipstick):

As an education expert, do you agree with Fred Carr's statement "“Every time you change schools, you regress academically.”

That feels right, intuitively. Certainly, at JT Moore Middle where one child attends, my sense is that our teacers are most stressed by kids who come in and out of the school so fluidly And, I can imagine that one reason there is some pull to our surrounding counties is that parents are not constantly barraged by an endless array choices, but simply feel a committment to quality tracks in nearby neighborhod schools.

But intuition can be a bad source for decision making. You state in your post that MNPS educates Nashville's children "poorly". While we are looking at data critically, do you have any comment on table 8 on page 24 of this report?

It's a silly dataset, in a sense, because it focuses on race, not poverty. Nonetheless, if we took that dataset at face value however, the converstation might have to change - because the only subgroup MNPS is clearly failing is students of Asian descent. Is this the group that you are referring to when you write "poorly"?

Best wishes

Chris Moth, 2020 Overhill Dr

By: MusicCity615 on 5/24/13 at 8:27

metro nashville public schools have always been bad. At least charter schools have success stories.

The answer isn't all public schools nor all charter schools- it's a mix of both.

By: ChrisMoth on 5/24/13 at 9:17


When you write "have always been bad", it begs the question, "How so?" or "By what metric?"

Chris Moth, 2020 Overhill Dr

By: Mama Butterfly on 5/24/13 at 9:19

Mr. PigLipstick,

Ha ha ha ha.... MNPS "owns" the local media. That's a good one. It seems to me that, up until recently, local reporters were worshipping at the feet of charter school "gurus" and giving zoned schools the shaft. Oh, and I also recall that a group of well-funded charter school supporters pumped an insanely large amount of money into our 2012 school board election, all in an attempt to "own" the MNPS school board? Karma will get you every time.

By: Mama Butterfly on 5/24/13 at 9:49

Based on the chart included with this article, the MNPS schools listed replaced a large percentage of the students they lost during the school year, while 2 of the 3 charter schools listed didn't even come close to replacing the students they lost. The information in this article indicates that KIPP also replaced a very small percentage of the students they lost during the year (13 accepted, 64 left.) It seems this is not a novel occurrence...

"A KIPP study released in June found students leaving at rates comparable to the rate at which students leave traditional public schools but, according to Miron, that study ignored the fact that KIPP schools don't then fill empty slots with other weak, transient students the way traditional public schools do. Traditional public schools have to take everybody, Miron explains. Charter schools can determine the number they want to take and when they want to take them, and then they can close the door."

By: MusicCity615 on 5/24/13 at 2:17

is that a serious question ChrisMoth? How about the fact that Tennessee public schools have consistently ranked in the bottom 5 of the country for education, and Nashville & Memphis public schools are the worst in the state.

By: ohplease on 5/24/13 at 5:25

If Mr. Dowell is correct, and the students who left KIPP were performing at a higher level than their peers in zoned schools, that should be easy to prove. How did those students do on the TCAPS? Can't they be tracked?
And MusicCity615, we have to at least consider the fact that Tennessee public schools are at or near the bottom in funding AND that Tennessee and Tennessee urban public schools draw from poorer homes, with less educated parents, than the top performing states and cities. As a parent and now grandparent of Metro public school students, I would certainly not stereotype our public schools as failing. Students from our public schools go to the finest colleges and universities in the nation. And if Nashville didn't have such a large private school population, our rankings would be much higher. Yes, Metro public schools have problems and failures, but they mirror societal problems and failures. If charters are solving those problems, great. But if they are not, let's at least acknowledge where they aren't working.

By: Mama Butterfly on 5/24/13 at 6:47

Follow up to my previous post:

“When you lose a student, or two students or three students, it really hurts them financially. They don’t have anywhere near as big of an organization to absorb those losses,” he said. “Which is why I would be surprised if there was widespread expulsions from charter schools.”

MNPS Board Member Hayes,
If your above statement is accurate, can you explain why 3 of the 4 charter schools referenced in this article replaced relatively few students who left during the school year? If they truly need the money, wouldn't these schools want to take in as many students as possible as students leave?

By: ChrisMoth on 5/25/13 at 1:30


I could not be more dead serious with my question to you. Again, the Nashville Next report shows that Nashville may be doing a better job of educating our children, compared to surrounding counties. What data in that report should I not believe?

When you write "consistently in bottom 5." you make an interesting claim. But, that claim is vacuous without a metric behind it. If the metric is "Distance from Seattle" you probably have a good point. If your metric is "ACT scores of states that boldy require all students to take the ACT like TN do" then I suspect you are mistaken.

Chris Moth, 2020 Overhill Dr

By: Rasputin72 on 5/25/13 at 4:06

As an advocate of keeping your children and/or grandchildren away from any public school in Davidson county other than Hume Fogg or Julia Green charter schools are justanother way of trying to legislate genetic equality

An impossible task indeed.

By: pswindle on 5/29/13 at 8:30

Metro Schools has the equipment and supplies for the interest and needs of the students. Most of the teachers are of quality and work hard at their job. We have to remember the Charters are in it for the money. How many Charters have failed in Nashville ? Most all of them. Most of Metro's students are prepared for college or life, and the few that are left behind have other problems that the school system.

By: djarrell on 5/29/13 at 9:15

"It's Springtime & here come the Charter kids".

Charter schools get rid of their discipline problems.

MNPS needs to monitor the amount of days students are suspended from Charter Schools. It isn't a day here or there, but weeks at a time!
Guardians get so angry with Charters they withdraw their perfect child. That way the Charter can say the student's guardian withdrew the student, and they were not 'kicked out'. Zoned schools must take these students.