Future of Schools

State board finalizes role as alternate charter school authorizer

PHOTO: G. Tatter
The school board observed a presentation on charter school authorization at a meeting in July.

Although it happened three years ago, the local school board’s rejection of  Great Hearts Academies is still commonly evoked in Nashville to describe the sometimes complicated relationship between local districts and charter management organizations.

In 2012, the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools board rejected an application from the the Arizona-based charter management organization to open a school in an upper-income Nashville neighborhood. The board turned down the application even after the Tennessee Department of Education signaled that the application was strong and a rejection would lead to a hefty fine.

But local school board members said they worried that the school would be inaccessible to low-income families and rejected the application anyway. The education department said the turn-down violated state law, and withheld more than $3 million in state funding from the district.

In March, the General Assembly passed a law that allows the State Board of Education to authorize charter schools in the counties with the highest number of failing schools. Charter school operators’ applications still go to their local boards of educations first, but now, if denied, they can appeal to and be authorized by the state board.

Consequently, had that rejection happened today, Great Hearts would have had the option of appealing Metro Nashville’s decision to the State Board of Education, which is now able to authorize charter schools.  The appeal would have been upheld and the school likely would have opened.

Granting the state board this power was a direct response to the Great Hearts situation, said Justin Testerman, the chief operating officer of the Tennessee Charter School Center.

On Friday, the board will finalize its role as authorizer when it votes on the the policies it will use to hold the schools it authorizes accountable. The proposed framework contains the academic, financial, and organizational benchmarks by which board members will evaluate the schools they authorize annually. It was adopted from  the National Association of Charter School Authorizers,  a Chicago-based organization that consults with authorizing agencies and advocates for charter schools.

Supporters of the new law say it will allow more high-quality charter schools to operate in the state, because local districts are often resistant to charter schools, no matter their strengths. Opponents say that local officials have more knowledge about the potential financial and academic impacts charter schools might have on their school system.  

Wendy Thompson, a newly-appointed state board of education member from Nashville and former education adviser to the mayor, said she is hopeful about the impacts of the board’s new role.

“If we (the state board of education) do it well — and we will — we’ll be able to add to the sector in a quality way,” she said.

Most other states have multiple options for authorizers. Until the new law passed, Tennessee charters could only choose between local school districts and the state-run Achievement School District.

Authorizing a charter school requires a lot of work after the initial application approval, and this will be the board’s focus on Friday.  The state board of education will also have to monitor schools, renew their charters, and close failings ones. In July, when the board underwent a four-hour National Association of Charter School Authorizers training to be authorizers, Chairman B. Fielding Roylston predicted that those steps would be the most complex for the board.

“Measurement in the education area is difficult, and I think it’s going to be the part that’s most challenging,” he said.

Tennessee’s biggest charter authorizers, Metro Nashville Schools, Shelby County Schools, and the Achievement School District have a national reputation for being rigorous authorizers. So far, the state board of education appears to be as well: the board has upheld the local school boards’ decisions for all of four appeals its heard so far. Three of the appeals they heard were from charters in Memphis: the Scholastic Academy of Logistics and Transportation, Military Academy of Culture and Technology Charter School, and the Emerge STEM Collegiate Charter School.

Board members will decide on two more appeals on Friday; one for a school in Robertson County, and the other for a school in Fayette County. In both cases, executive director Gary Nixon has requested the local boards’ rejection be upheld.

priority exit

Four Memphis schools improve enough to exit ‘priority’ list, including one in Achievement School District

PHOTO: Mike Brown/The Commercial Appeal
Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary staff celebrate test score results in 2015. The state-run school is now one of four to exit the state's priority list.

Four schools improved enough to exit Tennessee’s list of lowest-performing schools, the state announced Friday, and they’re all located in Memphis.

The schools, including one within the state-run Achievement School District, are:

  • Mitchell High, Shelby County Schools;
  • Treadwell Elementary, Shelby County Schools;
  • Northwest Prep Academy, Shelby County Schools;
  • Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School, Achievement School District.

The moves are significant, as only 16 percent of “priority” schools have moved off of the state’s 2012 and 2014 lists.

This is only the second time an ASD school has left the priority list, said Bobby White, the turnaround district’s executive director of external affairs. He said that Brick Church College Prep, located in Nashville, exited the list previously. The ASD was created in 2012 to bolster the state’s lowest-performing schools and now oversees 32 schools in Nashville and Memphis.

The state’s priority list is released every three years and includes the bottom 5 percent of schools, which could see state intervention. Memphis has historically contained a significant portion of schools on the state’s list of priority schools.

The Department of Education has postponed the release of this year’s full list to next summer. On Friday, it released several smaller lists, including schools eligible to leave and schools that are close.

Seven schools were named “priority improving” schools by the state, meaning they did well, but not quite well enough to exit the list:

  • Westwood High School, Shelby County Schools
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Sherwood Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary, Shelby County Schools
  • Lester Prep, Achievement School District
  • John B. Whitsitt Elementary, Davidson County
  • Inglewood Elementary, Davidson County

The state also oversees more than 200 “focus schools,” which are schools struggling to close achievement gaps based on race, poverty, disabilities and language.  Fifteen schools exited the focus school list, the state said Friday, and another 20 made significant improvements. See the full list on the state’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with more context around the ASD’s exit. 


Thirteen Memphis schools among 169 honored by state for academics, growth

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Students attend class at Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, one of the Memphis schools honored this year as a reward school.

Thirteen schools in Tennessee’s largest district were among 169 honored on Friday as the state released its first list of “reward” schools since 2015.

The Department of Education annually releases its reward list, which comprises the state’s top 5 percent of schools for academic achievement and the top 5 percent for annual growth.

Here are the 13 from Shelby County Schools, including four charter schools authorized by the district:  

  • Maxine Smith STEAM Academy
  • Germantown High
  • Egypt Elementary
  • Hamilton Elementary
  • Newberry Elementary
  • Oakhaven Middle
  • Whitehaven High
  • Westhaven Elementary
  • Memphis Academy Of Science Engineering Middle/High
  • Freedom Preparatory Academy
  • Memphis Grizzlies Preparatory Charter School
  • Memphis Rise Academy
  • Middle College High

See all 169 schools honored here.

“These schools represent what is possible for students in Tennessee as they exemplify excellence in performance or progress and in some cases, both,” Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a release. “We want to replicate this success across the state and continue to celebrate the hard work of our educators and students happening in classrooms every day.”

Shelby County Schools joined more than 60 districts to earn the distinction. Three of Shelby County’s six municipal school districts were included as well: Arlington, Bartlett and Collierville.

This is the first list of state reward schools since 2015, when 170 schools were recognized. A 2016 list wasn’t created due to a lack of state test score results after some exams were canceled amid technical difficulties.

Editor’s notes: A previous version of the story mistakenly left Middle College High off of the list of Shelby County schools honored.