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VOL. 36 | NO. 30 | Friday, July 27, 2012

Charter schools as a west side alternative

Great Hearts Academy, tennis star Andre Agassi’s group reflect shift toward serving a more affluent demographic

By Linda Bryant

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There was a time when Nashville’s push for charter schools centered on low- and modest- income neighborhoods and the need to rescue children from failing schools.

Now, with the help of the state legislature, charters are open to all students, and the focus is shifting to the more affluent west side of town. Discussions of LEAD Academy, Liberty Collegiate and Nashville Prep, all part of a first wave of charters established as alternatives to failing schools, are being overshadowed by the community debate surrounding Great Hearts Academy.

Great Hearts, a charter school management organization (CMO) based in Phoenix, Ariz., became interested in the Nashville market when a contingent of west side parents “flew out and toured our schools, and it grew from there,” says CEO Daniel Scoggin. “We were touched and moved by the levels of support that ended up coming from all over Nashville. We also got interest from Antioch, North and East Nashville.”

The Metro School Board has twice rejected Great Hearts’ application, citing a lack of specifics concerning the school’s location and student transportation plans. An appeal to the state, supported by Mayor Karl Dean, was approved Friday morning.

Now another player – literally – from out West could soon join the charter school movement in the West End area.

Agassi

The Canyon-Agassi Charter School Facility Fund, formed in 2011 by former tennis champion Andre Agassi and Los Angeles-based Canyon Capital Realty Advisors, has been quietly scouting locations in the area for the past few months.

One location considered is the West End campus of Free Will Baptist Bible College, located in the Richland-West End neighborhood just west of 440 Parkway. Free Will, which is changing its name to Welch College, is in the process of selling its campus in order to relocate to property it owns in Gallatin.

“There is nothing to share yet, but I can tell you the city has the characteristics we are looking for,” says Canyon-Agassi spokesman Steve Sugarman.

The $500 million Canyon-Agassi Fund was established to “provide investors with current income and capital appreciation by responding to the growing demand for quality charter school facilities in the nation’s burgeoning urban centers, and by capturing the opportunities arising out of the current dislocation in the real estate market,” its website states.

The fund’s stated goal is to help open 80 to 100 urban campuses with space for as many as 50,000 students in the next three to four years.

Agassi founded the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy, a Las Vegas charter school for 600 underprivileged students, in 2001.

UPDATE: The Tennessee Board of Education voted unanimously Friday morning to overturn the Metro School Board's denial of a charter application from Great Hearts Academy.

In addressing one of Metro's concerns, diversity, Great Hearts representatives stated its schools would be open to students throughout Davidson County, and in the event it ran out of spots, it would hold a blind lottery.

Charter schools are is defined as a non-religious public schools functioning under a contract or "charter" that governs its operation. All aspects of operation, including name, organization, management and curriculum are determined by the charter. Since charter schools are funded by tax dollars, they must have open enrollment policies, may not charge tuition, and must participate in state testing and federal accountability programs.

– Linda Bryant

Instead of launching charter schools on its own, the Canyon-Agassi Fund helps new charter schools acquire facilities by purchasing land and buildings, leasing the space back to the school operator and giving the school the opportunity to purchase the property once full occupancy is reached.

Why the shift from underperforming schools in poor neighborhoods to an area served largely by private schools such as Montgomery Bell Academy ($21,250 tuition for 2012-13), Harpeth Hall ($21,090-$21,915), Ensworth ($19,040-$24,390) and University School ($17,265-$19,250)?

“School choice is new to Nashville,” says Scoggin, CEO of Great Hearts. “The city is just getting used to charter schools. We are broadly marketing to as many families as possible. There’s no tuition, no admission; there’s free and open access.

“Charters are a part of the future of education,” he adds. “They are about letting families decide, not the government.”

Would these new charter schools become an alternative to private schools, giving students the convenience of West End-area locales without the $20,000+ tuition bills?

Jamie Hollin, a Nashville-based attorney and former Metro council member who frequently blogs about educational issues, says he’s troubled by the west side story.

“It just doesn’t feel fair to me,” Hollin says. “Absolutely, there’s the issue of siphoning off students from the private schools, but I also worry about taking quality students from the public schools. It feels like the lowest of the bottom could be left in the traditional schools.”

Rev. Enoch Fuzz, community activist and pastor at Corinthian Missionary Baptist Church, says he’s uncomfortable with “so many business interests” driving charter schools, and says he’s particularly worried about Great Hearts.

“I worry that we are giving children into the hands of business for cash with charter schools,” Fuzz says. “Most start-up businesses fail within five years. It seems to me there’s a danger in too many non-educators driving the schoolroom, kind of like the preacher flying the airplane without a pilot’s license.”

Adding speculation to the intrigue is this week’s school board elections.

In District 9, which includes the West End area, candidate Margaret Dolan has raised a record $106,404, including more than $17,000 from pro-charter PACS. Her closest opponent, Amy Frogge, has raised $17,864.

Dolan, vice president of community relations at Ingram Industries, says her candidacy is about much more than charter schools.

“I don’t represent any one interest,” she says. “The majority of my support comes from individuals. My candidacy is about engaging kids on a whole new level. Charter schools are an important strategy but they aren’t the be-all, end-all solution. We have to do whatever it takes as a city to recognize that education is our No.1 priority.”

Frogge, an attorney and grant writer, says she is concerned about public monitoring of charter schools.

“As charter schools expand, we must set clear goals and policies to ensure charter school accountability,” she says. “I do not view charter schools as a panacea, and I want to ensure that the expansion of charter schools in our city does not negatively impact those children with the least resources in our community.

“Like all public schools, charter schools are funded with taxpayer dollars, and we must be good stewards of these funds.”

Why have charter schools gained traction in Metro?

Davidson County schools are under constant pressure to show dramatic and continual improvements because – despite some tangible advances in the past two years – it is among the lowest-performing districts in the state. Futhermore, Metro loses many families to neighboring counties, which consistently outperform Davidson County Schools.

Jeff Bradford, president and CEO of the Bradford Group, a local advertising and public relations firm, says charter schools can help the district improve its performance.

“Charter schools are a hopeful opportunity to change the status quo,” Bradford says. “It’s no secret that traditional public schools are suffering. Let’s try some new ideas to see if we can move that needle.”

Bradford is on the board of Knowledge Academies, a new grades 5-8 charter school based near Hickory Hollow Mall that opened for its first day of school on July 25. When Knowledge Academies was accepted by the school board in May, it was seen as the “gold standard” for charter school applications.

The school targets children and families from the Antioch area, particularly those who have been dissatisfied with the quality of their public schools. Like many other charter schools, Knowledge Academies requires a longer school year and longer school days as a part of its push to help students overcome academic deficiencies.

Hollin says charter schools have their place.

“I believe they are a piece of the reform puzzle,” Hollin says. “However, the results they promise must be verified and poor performers must be closed. Nashville is fortunate to have some good operators like LEAD, KIPP and Nashville Prep. Yet, we also have some poor performing ones.

“Some folks think ‘charter,’ then it must be good,” Hollin adds. “Charters are a good part of the mix, but I take the siphoning off of limited public resources seriously. The use of the word choice sounds nice when you hear it, but it’s not really the genesis behind some of this movement. I think it’s grounded in public tax dollars for private purposes.”

Although open to all interested students and families, Nashville’s charter schools had, until recently, reached out to mostly underperforming districts. More than 80 percent of charter students were on free- or reduced-lunch programs in 2011, Tennessee Department of Education statistics show.

In May, the state legislature changed the law and eliminated restrictions on where charter schools can locate.

Enter the Great Hearts debate. It is the first charter school application in Metro with the goal of locating one of its schools in an affluent area.

“I think (the school board is) making a mistake by denying Great Hearts,” Bradford says. “Our legislature has said that anyone can attend a charter school. The school board is violating that idea (with the rejection of Great Hearts).”

Great Hearts currently runs 12 schools with about 6,300 students in Phoenix.

National statistics on charter schools show mixed results, and research into the subject is new. But a widely-cited research conducted by Stanford University in 2009 concluded 17 percent of charter schools outperform public schools, while 37 percent perform worse and 46 percent perform about the same.

“Not all charter schools are great schools,” says Linda Lentz, founding principal of Liberty Collegiate Academy, a 5-12 grade charter school in East Nashville entering its second year. “We are going to see some struggling, and we are going to see some doing very, very well.”

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