Blog: The Educated Reporter

Nashville Charter School Focuses on Neighborhood’s Needs

When LEAD Public Schools came into Nashville in 2010, they took over a campus that had seen a history of low performance and substantial overhauls. Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools intended to close the site – most recently occupied by Cameron Middle School – outright.

“This was a persistently struggling school for quite some time,” said Shaka Mitchell, who oversees public affairs for the Nashville charter network.

Reporters attending EWA’s 67th National Seminar at Vanderbilt University had the opportunity to visit Cameron Prep, and learn about the school’s approach to turning around student achievement. 

The process began in 2010, when the school district put out a call for proposals to take over the campus. At the time, LEAD only ran one school – a charter school with an admissions process – but they were selected to overhaul the school. Cameron Middle School would be phased out, grade by grade.

The new model, known as Cameron College Prep Academy, would be required to enroll any neighborhood student who wished to attend. It would phase in at the campus, grade by grade, after a year’s delay for planning. The two schools would live side by side until CMS closed and no current CMS students would be displaced or switched to Cameron College Prep.

Those precautions were intended to ease the process, which would require an inevitable culture shift for the students – and the community.

The basic model of Cameron College Prep, which serves a low-income, high minority population, carries many of the hallmarks of recent school reform efforts: a longer day, a longer year, a school uniform policy, and a focus on preparing students for college. During a tour of the campus reporters noticed walls were hung with college pennants of the teachers’ alma maters. Teachers use techniques like mixed ability grouping to accelerate student growth, according to the school’s leaders.

One Cameron College Prep student — speaking with the visiting reporters — said his sisters, who attended the former CMS, commented on how much less time between classes he had than when they were students at the campus. And they remarked on numerous additional academic opportunities he received. Quoting another student on the difference between the two schools, Ernie Rodriguez, the school’s coordinator of student support said, “at Cameron College Prep, they can make your brain hurt.”

Rodriguez came to the school from CMS, where he said the goal was “let’s not make any kind of waves.” He said some of his former co-workers were baffled by his decision to quit and join the new school. But Rodriguez said, “I felt that the students were not being challenged as much.” At Cameron College Prep, at least, he said, “we’re starting to challenge them.”

He was hired as part of a promise LEAD’s administration made when they agreed to overhaul the campus: CMS staff and faculty would be given first preference in hiring at the new school.

“It at least chips away at this myth that all adults in failing schools are failing adults,” said Adrienne Useted, LEAD’s chief operating officer. “Sometimes they just need to be enlivened.”

Since opening, LEAD has hired six former CMS faculty, including Rodriguez – every single one that applied.

Since LEAD Public Schools began the phase-in process, both schools have seen their performance improve — a fairly common phenomenon when schools are being phased out. But the process has been fraught, as LEAD attempts to build ties with the community and the two schools share space.

When LEAD launched Cameron College Prep, they entered a campus with a lot of meaning for many in the community. Students at Cameron College Prep had siblings who attended Cameron Middle and parents who attended the high school. There is still an active alumni organization from a period when the campus housed a high school.

“When you’re forced to make a choice to attend somewhere, it automatically builds community,” said Tait Danhausen, Cameron College Prep’s school director who came from a California charter school.

One key step LEAD’s staff took was to use the year-long delay to meet with community members and establish trust before they ever opened the doors of the new school.

Following Cameron, LEAD has repeated the process at another school but did not have a year of lag time between the selection and the start of the new model, which Useted said was a struggle. By comparison, at Cameron Prep, “we had all this time to build community engagement,” Useted said.

 



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