Charter Company to Convert Failing Schools in Nashville

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Nashville’s Cameron School is actually two schools in one building. One part of the building is a  traditional public school (Cameron Middle School), whose staff is aggressively working to get rid of the label  it acquired in recent years as a “failing school.” The other part (Cameron College Prep) is a charter school run by LEAD Academy, which believes its college-focused approach will improve performance and the graduation rate.

Which plan is working might be evident after state achievement test scores are released.  Meanwhile, officials with both programs are claiming success.

“Two years ago we only had four eighth-graders pass the TCAP (Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program), and now we’re at half of our eighth grade,” says Chris Hames, principal of Cameron Middle School.

And this opinion from a spokesperson with Cameron College Prep:  “We have taken an interim assessments that indicates our students are well on their way to having full proficiency and even advanced levels in their academic subjects,” says Shaka Mitchell.

This healthy competition by schools within a school is something Nashville education officials plan to replicate. Cameron school is in the process of being converted from traditional to charter—one grade at a time beginning this year with fifth grade classes.  It will have company next school year, as Nashville implements the same process at Brick Church Middle School.

It’s all part of the district’s ambitious plan to turn around the worst five percent of low-performing schools. State education officials gave a public endorsement to the unique idea at a recent news conference.

“Working together over the next 5 years we can ensure that all 9 priority schools here in Metro Nashville are performing at the top 25%,” says Chris Barbic, Achievement School District Superintendent.

Most agree the plan might not be possible without the recent federal waiver of No Child Left Behind—and without an open-minded approach.

“To me, it’s not about charter schools, it’s not about private schools, it’s not about public schools,” says Dr. Jesse Register, MNPS Director of Schools. “It is about good schools for all children and that’s what we have to be about in this school system.”

It’s  an approach that is so far unproven, admits Register, who says LEAD Academy was one of few charter programs that responded to Nashville’s request for proposals to manage a conversion school. LEAD already runs 2 schools (middle and high schools) in Nashville that are full charter programs.

“We’ve got some scores at Lead Academy that rival some of the best selective schools in the city,” says Mitchell. “We think we’ve got some structures in place that really set our students and our teachers up well for success. We’re a  nimble organization and that helps us get into schools maybe faster than some of these other reform sort of packages.”

Until official proof of the program’s impact on student achievement, Mitchell points to students like Basel Melek, an 11-year-old fifth grader.

“ I couldn’t believe I like Cameron college prep and I learned that much. I thought that I like, I was going not to reach this level that I’m on right now,” says Melek.

While the charter program is only for fifth grade this year, it will follow Basel and his classmates each year until the entire school—fifth through eighth grade—is converted.  Yet, students currently in the grades that have not been converted are also making progress, especially in the area of discipline, with one-fifth the number of student suspensions as a few years ago.

“Our suspensions have gone down 500-percent… We’ve really drastically cut our out-of-school suspensions, our time away from instruction,” says Hames.  “So our kids are bought in, our kids are doing what they can you know for their reputation and for Cameron’s reputation.  They want to leave it better than they found it.”

You can see visible differences in the hallways of Cameron Middle compared to the hallways of Cameron College Prep.  But administrators with both programs say that view is too superficial to guage something as important as how to turn around a school’s performance.

“ I hope they’re learning from us I hope we’re learning from them,” says Mitchell. “And you can really do that when you’re sharing a space with another school.  And that’s what we’re doing here.”

“They have one way of attacking it we have a different way of attacking it and we’re hoping we’re both right because if we’re both right then all kids succeed, and that’s what we want in the end,” says Hames.

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