Breaking the government monopoly on education
Educating "Hillbillies"

A visit to two charter schools

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of touring two charter schools in Nashville and visiting with their principals. As Kentucky looks forward to its first charter school law, it was helpful to see first hand two different charter schools pursuing different strategies and serving different needs, each with its own measure of success. I came away with several observations.

The visits to East End Prep and Explore! Community School were arranged by fellow Kentucky Board of Education member Ben Cundiff, who serves on the boards of directors for the two schools. We were joined by another board member and staff members from the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence. We arrived near the end of the school day and so could only visit a few classrooms in action, but we had a chance to interact with some students and to chat with their principals.

In Tennessee charter schools are required to have a sponsoring organization. The sponsor for these two schools is the Martha O'Bryan Center, a well-respected community organization that focuses on addressing issues of poverty, education, and economic mobility.  Both schools serve the East End community of Nashville, with East End Prep focused primarily on neighborhoods in the northeast portion of the East End and Explore! concentrating on the southeast region. Despite the rapid gentrification of the East End, these schools serve mostly impoverished families. Eighty-seven percent of students at East End Prep qualify for free and reduced price lunch, compared with 63% at Explore.

Most of the district schools in the area are persistently low-achieving, except for one high-performing elementary school that serves the most affluent students in that region of the city, and which is virtually closed to low-income students because of school zoning policies (belying the reality that many public schools don't really "serve all comers"). These two charter schools are filling a great need.

East End Prep is in its sixth year of operation. It serves 650 students in grades K-5, the overwhelming majority of whom are African American and Hispanic. Like many charter schools, East End Prep began with only kindergarten classes and has added a grade each year. Principal Jim Leckrone, who is a veteran administrator from traditional public schools, has led East End Prep since its inception. The school, which is located in a building that once housed a Metro Nashville middle school, plans to continue its expansion until it serves grades K-8.

While perhaps not a "No Excuses" style charter school, East End Prep nevertheless emphasizes high academic expectations and strong character. Mr. Leckrone described an instructional program focused on state standards and regular formative assessment of student progress. Rather than use a single "out of the box" curricular program, teachers select from a variety of sources to create learning experiences based on standards. The ratio of student poverty level to academic achievement makes East End Prep one of the highest-performing high-poverty schools in the Metro area.

Explore! Community School is only in its second year of operation. It is following the growth model of East End Prep by adding a single grade level each year, so currently only serves kindergarten and first graders. Principal Jon Driskell, a former Metro special educator and coach for new teachers, described the school's mission as serving a demographically diverse student body using project-based learning as its main instructional focus. Explore! is currently housed in an incubator space owned by the Tennessee Charter School Center, a privately-funded initiative designed to support high-quality charter school implementation. A permanent space is being designed and renovated and will be available in 2018.

Both principals used the word "nimble" to describe how their schools could easily make decisions about curriculum, instruction, and day-to-day governance. Their autonomy as charter schools, freed from the bureaucratic structures (and mindsets) of district schools, allows them to move quickly and deftly in meeting student needs. They are free to hire and develop teachers as they see fit. Above all, East End Prep's Jim Leckrone said that the school's primary innovation is its mission-driven culture. Teachers choose to work at East End Prep because they feel called too work with high-risk students and they share the school's vision. The school's parents share in that mission. "When we enroll a new student, we make it clear to the parents that we are enrolling the whole family," Mr. Leckrone explained.

Here are some key insights I took from my visit to East End Prep and Explore!:

  • Charter school autonomy is critical. While I have no objection to district-operated charters (and Metro Nashville has some now), part of the explanation for these schools' success lies in their freedom from district control. In exchange they face higher accountability than their district counterparts, and the ultimate accountability that comes from knowing that if they fail to meet their client families' expectations, they could be closed. Kentucky should reject any charter school bill that doesn't include the option of schools not run by local districts.
  • Equitable funding matters. In Tennessee, state and local funds follow students to their charter school, but no transportation or facilities monies are provided. This means the schools have to raise approximately one-third of their operating budgets from private sources, which poses a substantial burden for schools that may not charge tuition. I'm pleased that in the charter school principles endorsed by the Kentucky Board of Education, we included provisions for transportation and facilities funding.
  • Charter schools are often accused of selecting or retaining only the easiest-to-educate students. There is no evidence of this at East End Prep and Explore!. These schools serve higher percentages of poor and minority students and have made an extra effort to welcome students with disabilities. Ben Cundiff described how East End Prep nearly broke its budget during the school's first year of operation in order to hire a special education teacher to assist a single, high-need student. According to Principal Jon Driskell, 15 percent of students at Explore! Community School have disabilities, a higher percentage than the overall Metro average.
  • The schools are learning lessons about sustainability. Like many charter schools, East End Prep and Explore! employ large percentages of early-career teachers who devote higher than normal hours of service to their students. But all teachers participate in the Tennessee teacher retirement system and are paid 10 percent higher salaries than the Metro salary schedule calls for in order to award their extra hours. In both schools, a teacher and teacher's assistant are employed for every class. Many aides are also fully certified, so this system builds a growing pool of experienced teachers to fill any gaps when turnover occurs. Nevertheless, East End Prep's Jim Leckrone acknowledged that the school is taking extra steps to retain high-quality teachers, especially as they become older, start families, and strive for a better work-life balance. This involves carefully trying to manage the expectations for teachers, parents, and students without compromising the mission-driven focus of the school, but will be key to the school's continued success.
  • Support makes a difference. For both principals, involvement of the schools' sponsor, the Marth O'Bryan Center, was seen as crucial to their effectiveness. And in the case of Explore! in particular, the Tennessee Charter Schools Center has been essential in providing a start-up location and additional supports. It would behoove Kentuckians to think about similar structures that can give charter schools a better chance for success.

But perhaps one of the most interesting insights of the visit came near the end of our time at Explore!. Mr. Driskell acknowledged that, even though many of his students were from low-income families, parents at the school were highly involved and eager to make good decisions about their child's education. Some students are not so blessed, however, and many educators worry about district schools that might be populated by high numbers of such children in a choice-based environment.

I offered some thoughts on this problem in a recent post, but was also intrigued by Mr. Driskell's response. He expressed his own concerns about the rapid growth of the Nashville charter school sector, with four different charters in the immediate vicinity all competing for the same students. Jon sees an opportunity for better coordination from charter schools and the Metro district to maximize their individual and collective effectiveness in meeting student needs. "We all want to educate these students, but we each have slightly different missions and could actually help each other," he observed. And there are small signs that such collaboration is possible. Jon noted that he'd recently received invitations to attend principals' meetings with other school principals from the Metro district. He hopes this is also an invitation to share ideas and provide mutual support.

My basic inclination is to let consumer choices shape the education landscape, but some level of oversight, planning, and direction is also called for. And there's nothing better than educators from different schools and sectors coming together for the benefit of students. Just as no one policy strategy will be sufficient to meet our education challenges, no one school or district is sufficient either. If district, charter, and even parochial and independent school leaders can stop viewing each other as enemies (even while they remain friendly competitors) and see how their work can complement and support one another, students and families may begin to reap maximum benefit from school choice.

Image: Students at East End Prep, from the school's website,

Usual disclaimer: Views expressed on this blog are mine alone and do not reflect the opinions of Western Kentucky University (where I serve as associate professor of education administration, leadership, and research) or the Kentucky Board of Education (where I serve as a member).

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