Charter appeals

State Board of Education overrules Nashville district board on KIPP charter expansion

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Members and leaders of the Tennessee Board of Education meet Friday on the campus of Rhodes College in Memphis.

The State Board of Education on Friday approved an appeal from national charter operator KIPP to open two new schools in Nashville, overruling the local district board after determining that KIPP “meets or exceeds the standard” in all criteria.

However, the state board voted to uphold the Nashville district’s denial for Rocketship, another established charter network that already has two schools in Nashville, one of which opened this fall.

The unanimous vote on KIPP represents the first time that the State Board of Education has overturned a district board’s decision on charter school expansion in Tennessee since a 2014 state law granted the state board with authority to authorize charters in districts with at least one low-performing school.

Sara Heyburn, executive director of the state board, recommended this week that the body approve both KIPP schools.

“It’s clear in the law that it’s a high bar by which we have to judge appeals at the state board level, and so again we’ve done our due diligence and gone through all the objective evidence … looking at network data across the United States and other KIPP schools. And in all instances, we found they meet or exceed standard in academics, operations, financial plans and in the portfolio network,” Heyburn told the board Thursday during a work session in Memphis.

In a split vote, the Nashville board rejected KIPP’s application in August. KIPP leaders had asked to open the schools anytime within the next five years, which local officials said was too far in the future to reasonably decide.

The state board’s decision to overrule the local district drew immediate criticism from several members of the district board for Metro Nashville Public Schools.

“The [Department of Education] and State Board of Education, over the last few years, have shown an increasing desire to get into the business of local school systems,” said Will Pinkston, a vocal critic of Nashville’s growing charter sector. “They’re frankly just not qualified to make decisions about what’s going on in cities and counties.”

Amy Frogge, another Nashville board member, said she believes Friday’s decision in favor of KIPP comes at the expense of traditional Nashville public schools by directing more money and resources to charter operators.

“I am gravely disappointed that an appointed state board is considering removing local control of schools and overturning a well-reasoned, thoughtful decision by democratically elected representatives,” Frogge said. “This is not about the best interests of our students or about parent ‘choice.’ It is a radical agenda aimed at privatizing public schools, catering to the needs of corporate charter school chains, and dismantling public education.”

Heyburn, presenting staff recommendations to the board on Thursday, said the expansion of KIPP would not impact the local district financially.

“The state board staff reviewed all documentation submitted with regard to the fiscal impact of the school and ultimately concluded that there was insufficient evidence to prove that KIPP Nashville Middle and KIPP Nashville Primary School would have substantially negative fiscal impact on the school district,” she said.

The Nashville board and KIPP now have 30 days to decide whether the new KIPP schools will be authorized by the district board. If there is no mutual agreement, the state board will become the authorizer.

Pinkston said Metro Nashville’s board also might consider taking the matter to court. “When you’ve got a recalcitrant board, legislature, that passes that law, sometimes the only place to go is the third branch of government — the courts,” he said.

Since the State Board of Education became an authorizer last year, it has heard 11 appeals, mostly from younger, less established operators. The appeals from KIPP and Rocketship represented a departure. KIPP was established in 1994 with schools in New York City and Houston. California-based Rocketship launched in 2006.

Concurring with its staff recommendation, the state board voted 8-1 Friday to deny Rocketship’s appeal.

“This one was hard,” Heyburn told the board on Thursday. “This one met the standard in all areas except the portfolio review section, and in that case again there are a number of reasons to be very optimistic about this school they’re currently operating in Nashville.”

The Nashville board had rejected Rocketship’s application because, despite high growth scores at its first Nashville school, its overall academic performance this year was poor, according to board members.

“They did have a level 5 TVAAS composite, which is the highest score overall you can get in growth,” Heyburn said. “But their achievement scores are really low, some of the lowest in their cluster and in the district.”

Board member Wendy Tucker cast the lone dissenting vote. “My struggle is with the fact that Rocketship’s current school — the school we have data from — while their achievement levels are not where we need want them to be, their growth is some of the highest in the city,” said Tucker, who is a co-CEO of Project Renaissance, a Nashville nonprofit organization aimed at improving educational outcomes for Nashville schoolchildren.

Rocketship regional director Shaka Mitchell said he was disappointed with the board’s decision but respected the process.

“One of the things that the district made it’s biggest case around is that we didn’t have a track record of success,” Mitchell said. “I’m confident that if we’re sitting here this time next year, it’s going to be a different outcome. Our schools are going to keep growing; our students are going to keep showing results.”

The board also voted to uphold district denials of charter applications for International Academy of Excellence in Nashville and for Connections Preparatory Academy in Jackson.

Civil action

Detroit school board to protesters: Please remain civil. Protesters to school board: You’re naive

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore speaks with her supporters from the stage at Mumford High School. Her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to the meeting's abrupt ending.

A day after the Detroit school board abruptly ended a meeting that was disrupted by protesters, the meeting is being rescheduled, while the board president is making an appeal for civility.

“The board is extremely disappointed that the regularly scheduled meeting tonight was adjourned early due to extreme disruptive behavior from several audience members,” school board president Iris Taylor wrote in a statement issued late Tuesday, several hours after the meeting’s chaotic end.

“It is our hope moving forward that the community will remain civil and respectful of the elected Board and the process to conduct public meetings. We must be allowed to conduct the business the community elected us to do.”

The drama Tuesday night came from a large group of parents and community members, led by activist Helen Moore, who packed the board meeting to raise concerns about a number of issues.

Moore had sent the school board an email requesting an opportunity to address the meeting Tuesday on issues including her strong objection to the news that Taylor and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti had attended a meeting with Mayor Mike Duggan and leaders of city charter schools to discuss the possibility of working together.

The mayor, in his state of the city address last week, discussed the meeting, calling it “almost historic,” and said district and charter school leaders had agreed to collaborate on a student transportation effort, and on a school rating system that would assign letter grades to Detroit district and charter schools.

When Taylor told Moore during the meeting that she would not be allowed to give her presentation Tuesday night, saying she had not gotten Moore’s request in time to put it on Tuesday’s agenda, Moore and her supporters angrily shouted at the board and proceeded to heckle and object to statements during the meeting.

The meeting was ultimately ended during a discussion about the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, a school whose classes are being relocated to other district buildings for the rest of the year because of urgent roof repairs and the possibility of mold in the building.

As Moore shouted over Vitti’s discussion about the school, Taylor ordered that the 81-year-old activist be escorted from the Mumford High School auditorium where the meeting was being held. That triggered an angry response from her supporters and ultimately brought the meeting to a close.

The current Detroit school board came into existence a little over a year ago when the state returned city schools to Detroiters after years of control by state-appointed emergency managers.

The board’s swearing-in last January was heralded as a fresh start for a new district — now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District — that had been freed from years of debts encumbered by the old Detroit Public Schools.

Since then, meetings have been interrupted by the occasional heckler or protester, but they’ve largely remained orderly, without a lot of the noise and drama that had been typical of school board meetings in the past.

In her statement Tuesday night, Taylor lamented that the new school board wasn’t able to get to most of the items on its agenda.

“Detroiters have fought long and hard to have a locally elected board to govern our schools,” Taylor wrote. “It would be shameful to have our rights revoked again for impediments. It sets a poor example for the students we all represent, and it will not be tolerated by this Board.”

Wednesday morning, Moore said she plans to continue her vocal advocacy, even if it’s disruptive.

“If that’s the only avenue we have to get our point across, when they don’t allow us to speak, then we must take every avenue,” Moore said. “Time is of the essence with our children. And they spend too much time with distractions, listening to the mayor, listening to the corporations, and not listening to people who have children in the public schools.”

Moore, who is active with an organization called Keep the Vote/No Takeover Coalition and with the National Action Network, said she fought for years for Detroiters to again have a locally elected school board. City residents did not have control of their schools for most of the last two decades.

“We worked like crazy,” Moore said, but she asserts that most school board members are “naive.”

“They don’t know the history,” she said. “They need to be educated and that goes for Dr. Vitti too. We need to educate them and that was a first start.”

The board has scheduled a special meeting for 12:30 p.m. Thursday at its Fisher Building headquarters where it can return to its unfinished business from Tuesday.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore waved to her fellow activisits from the stage at Mumford High School. She returned to the room after her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to a school board meeting’s abrupt ending on March 13, 2018.

parent voice

It’s not enough just to stay open, say Memphis parents of their struggling elementary school

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Sonya Smith, a longtime community organizer in Memphis Frayser, speaks to parents at Hawkins Mill Elementary School on Thursday during a community meeting about state intervention plans.

For six years, Hawkins Mill Elementary School has been on the state’s radar because of students’ low scores on standardized tests — an issue cited again last month when Tennessee officials urged local leaders to close the Memphis school.

Shelby County Schools is passing on that recommendation, but agrees with the state on one thing: Hawkins Mill faces big challenges, including declining enrollment and a mostly impoverished student population.

Now the question is what to do about it. Among the issues is whether Principal Antonio Harvey should stay on for a sixth year, and if the district’s first $300,000 investment in Hawkins Mill went toward the right interventions this school year.

During a Thursday evening meeting, about 50 parents and community members got their first opportunity to ask questions about competing visions for their Frayser school.

What parents like

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Principal Antonio Harvey, front, and parents listen to a Shelby County Schools presentation on the state’s new accountability model.

Parents applauded the district’s stance to keep Hawkins Mill open, in defiance of the state’s recommendation, in order to give their school a fair chance to improve.

Many also spoke in favor of Harvey, describing him as a stabilizing and nurturing force who has ushered in new opportunities in the arts, sports, and other extracurricular activities. The school’s suspension rate also has declined in recent years, except for a slight uptick last year.

“I saw how he took unruly, disrespectful kids and they shake his hand now. He sits down and talks to them. … We’re constantly adding programs,” said PTA member Sharanda Person. “Doing things that way makes me think he cares about the kids.”

Several spoke favorably of their children’s school experience.

“Since she’s been here, I’ve seen exponential growth,” said Tonyas Mays, who transferred her daughter from a state-run school last August. “My child’s potential has been recognized here and she’s testing out of (special education) now.”

What parents didn’t like

A presentation on the low percentages of students on grade level in reading and math drew moans from parents as the data was explained by Antonio Burt, the district’s assistant superintendent for its lowest performing schools.

Notes: 2013-14 science and 2014-15 social studies test scores were not listed in the state report card. Elementary students did not take TNReady in 2015-16. The 2016-17 social studies test did not count toward school accountability measures.

But some questioned the validity of the state’s new test called TNReady, which has been marred by technical glitches in administration and scoring during its first two years.

“The state of Tennessee has made excuses as to why the test wasn’t ready. They get a pass while our children don’t,” said Sonya Smith, a community organizer. “Every time our children meet the test, they tell us that test was no good.”

Another disappointment is declining enrollment. Hawkins Mill had 357 students when Harvey started in the fall of 2013. Last month, enrollment was at 314.

What parents aren’t sure of

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Antonio Burt, assistant superintendent for low-performing schools, speaks to parents.

Burt said some assessments and attendance data show “some positive trends” this school year.

His presentation was void of nitty-gritty detail on progress as outlined under the school improvement plan that went to effect this school year. However, information provided to Chalkbeat on Friday showed that student growth this school year was higher than average in reading and math — a measure key to showing whether students can catch up. Also, the school’s suspension rate so far this school year is about 4 percent of students, compared to almost 13 percent at this time last year.

Several parents asked whether Harvey would remain as principal, worrying that a new leader could set the school back because of the adjustment in getting to know the students and faculty.

Burt responded that leadership is being reviewed, but that no decisions have been made. “To be completely transparent, we have to reassess everything,” he said.

Because Hawkins Mill is a priority school on track for state intervention, the state Department of Education must approve any plan outside of its recommendation to close.

The school is slated to continue under Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them. District leaders are still discussing the amount of new funding and where to invest it.

Burt thinks the district’s plan has a “50/50 chance” of state approval since it’s new.