Businesspeople, educators and advocates gathered yesterday morning for the latest installment of the Education 2020 Speaker Series, “Charter Schools 101.” Hosted by Lipscomb University’s College of Education, in partnership with the Chamber and the Mayor’s Office, the program provided an overview of what charter schools are (a public school run by a nonprofit organization that has a contractual agreement with an authorizer to operate independently of a local school district) and why they are important (they are innovative and bring additional outside resources into public education).
John Danner, founder of Rocketship Education, talked about his years living in Nashville as a teacher at Glengarry Elementary and as a founder of KIPP Academy Nashville, and how those experiences inspired him to form his own charter schools in Palo Alto, CA. The Rocketship model includes 30 hours of non-mandatory services for parents in the school, as a way to ensure engagement with the home. Rocketship also has an extensive professional development program for teachers that includes an academic dean observing classroom instruction and giving teachers immediate feedback during lessons through a microphone headset and earbud system. In addition, the school model includes a two-hour “lesson lab” session in a six-hour instructional day, in which students work at their own ability level on computers supervised by support staff, rather than certified teachers. This enables the school to hire fewer teachers and pour much of the savings into teacher salaries to help recruit and retain the best possible talent. Five years ago, Rocketship paid its teachers 20 percent more than the surrounding school districts, and today they pay 50 percent more with a goal of doubling the salary in the near future.
Chris Barbic, director of Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD), a new entity that has the power to take over the state’s lowest-performing schools or convert them into charter schools, told the audience that the real focus needs to be on “good schools,” whether those are charter schools or traditional district schools. According to Barbic, creating great schools is relatively simple: they have great leaders and excellent teachers, and it’s often “politics” that makes education complicated and shifts the focus to the needs of adults rather than students.
While Tennessee law has been amended significantly over the past couple of years to encourage charter school expansion, several of the panelists listed school facilities as the No. 1 challenge facing charter operators. Kristen McGraner, founder of STEM Prep in South Nashville, told the audience that she spent about 90 percent of her time during the school planning phase on finding a suitable facility. She also raised the point that, because STEM Prep and many other charters grow their schools one grade at a time, new operators are forced to decide between a temporary school location and an expensive facility that may be underutilized for several years.
Derwin Sisnett, founder of Power Academy in Memphis and an organization that was recently approved to take over a low-performing school next year through the state ASD, agreed that facilities were a major challenge. But he also related the story about how the scarcity of suitable facilities and his economic development background led him to creatively assemble a 43-acre campus of blighted property in the heart of their chosen neighborhood. Through a number of grants and partnerships, the property will allow for a new school with performing arts center and gymnasium, with the hopes of someday adding residential and commercial development.
We’re looking forward to announcing the details of a second speaker series event on charter schools that will take place in spring 2012, which will provide further insights into this exciting reform model.
To view additional photos from this event, please click here. John Danner, founder of Rocketship Education. L-R: Chris Barbic, director of Tennessee’s Achievement School District; Derwin Sisnett, founder of Power Academy in Memphis; and Kristin McGraner, founder of STEM Prep.