Charter Growth Should Be Looking Down (Not Up)

Charter schools are formed on the idea that the traditional public schools are not doing what they need to do to help kids succeed. Charter schools are there for a choice for the parents. Charter leaders will tell you that they have to catch the kids up when they get them in middle school. The students have fallen so far behind that it will take years to get the students back on track. Their goal is get them on track when they leave for high school. Charters are opening high schools so their middle school students can continue on until the student graduates.

For a system that decries that students are behind out of elementary school are not doing much to fix that. If the students are failing in elementary school, go and open elementary charter schools to fix that problem. If charters are truly helping students, they should start at kindergarten (or even pre-k!). At risk students are already coming in behind when they start kindergarten. If charters can get them in kindergarten, they won’t be behind when they head to fifth grade. This is a method that can really work to improve the outcomes of at risk children. It will also show if charters are really successful in helping students more than traditional zoned schools.

This is what baffles me about the charter growth in Nashville. Currently, there are five charter elementary schools, thirteen middle schools, and two high schools. Two of the charter elementary schools were recently opened and only have kindergarteners. If more charter schools opened up in elementary schools, there wouldn’t be so many students falling behind at the middle school years. The question is why aren’t there more charter elementary schools?

Elementary schools are the time when you can really find the struggling students. There are many tests and assessments to know if a student is on track or needs extra help. You won’t have to wait around to 5th grade to help a struggling reader or find out that a student has a learning disability if you have a great school. You can start the intervention there. You can help catch the student up before they head into 5th grade.

So I asked Greg Thompson, CEO of the Tennessee Charter Center, why there aren’t more elementary charter schools.

Charter growth has been driven by education entrepreneurs proposing promising new education models to help students achieve at a higher academic level.  Many charter founders in Tennessee have gravitated toward middle/high school models (typically because those grade levels fit with their experience and skill set as educators).  Why middle/high school education leaders make up a larger percentage of charter applicants and leaders is up for debate.  But, there is a trend developing in which charter operators are creating K-12 feeder patterns within their network of schools (recognizing that it is essential to have a strong academic program from Kindergarten through high school to prevent students from falling behind).  KIPP and LEAD are good examples of that in Nashville (when one looks at their growth plans).

The Center has focused its efforts on finding talented leaders who can create great schools, and we have been mostly agnostic on the type of school created (elementary, middle, or high).  The need is so great in Nashville in terms of the number of students who need better academic options, that we have been supportive of all models.”

I understand that many of the school leaders have experience in the upper grades, but let’s not forget the students in the lower grades. They need strong leadership with teachers who can use evidence-based methods to help kids succeed. If we can catch failing students earlier, the rest of their lives will be much better. I think this could be an avenue to see a charter take over a failing elementary school. We know that Metro Nashville Public Schools are trying to pinpoint certain locations for charter growth. Maybe it is time to give up another schools to a charter, like they did with Cameron. But with an elementary school, you need experienced and high quality teachers and administrators to lead the way. It will be interesting to see how the charter growth continues in Nashville.

 

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