Charter appeals

State Board of Education overrules Nashville district board on KIPP charter expansion

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Members and leaders of the Tennessee Board of Education meet Friday on the campus of Rhodes College in Memphis.

The State Board of Education on Friday approved an appeal from national charter operator KIPP to open two new schools in Nashville, overruling the local district board after determining that KIPP “meets or exceeds the standard” in all criteria.

However, the state board voted to uphold the Nashville district’s denial for Rocketship, another established charter network that already has two schools in Nashville, one of which opened this fall.

The unanimous vote on KIPP represents the first time that the State Board of Education has overturned a district board’s decision on charter school expansion in Tennessee since a 2014 state law granted the state board with authority to authorize charters in districts with at least one low-performing school.

Sara Heyburn, executive director of the state board, recommended this week that the body approve both KIPP schools.

“It’s clear in the law that it’s a high bar by which we have to judge appeals at the state board level, and so again we’ve done our due diligence and gone through all the objective evidence … looking at network data across the United States and other KIPP schools. And in all instances, we found they meet or exceed standard in academics, operations, financial plans and in the portfolio network,” Heyburn told the board Thursday during a work session in Memphis.

In a split vote, the Nashville board rejected KIPP’s application in August. KIPP leaders had asked to open the schools anytime within the next five years, which local officials said was too far in the future to reasonably decide.

The state board’s decision to overrule the local district drew immediate criticism from several members of the district board for Metro Nashville Public Schools.

“The [Department of Education] and State Board of Education, over the last few years, have shown an increasing desire to get into the business of local school systems,” said Will Pinkston, a vocal critic of Nashville’s growing charter sector. “They’re frankly just not qualified to make decisions about what’s going on in cities and counties.”

Amy Frogge, another Nashville board member, said she believes Friday’s decision in favor of KIPP comes at the expense of traditional Nashville public schools by directing more money and resources to charter operators.

“I am gravely disappointed that an appointed state board is considering removing local control of schools and overturning a well-reasoned, thoughtful decision by democratically elected representatives,” Frogge said. “This is not about the best interests of our students or about parent ‘choice.’ It is a radical agenda aimed at privatizing public schools, catering to the needs of corporate charter school chains, and dismantling public education.”

Heyburn, presenting staff recommendations to the board on Thursday, said the expansion of KIPP would not impact the local district financially.

“The state board staff reviewed all documentation submitted with regard to the fiscal impact of the school and ultimately concluded that there was insufficient evidence to prove that KIPP Nashville Middle and KIPP Nashville Primary School would have substantially negative fiscal impact on the school district,” she said.

The Nashville board and KIPP now have 30 days to decide whether the new KIPP schools will be authorized by the district board. If there is no mutual agreement, the state board will become the authorizer.

Pinkston said Metro Nashville’s board also might consider taking the matter to court. “When you’ve got a recalcitrant board, legislature, that passes that law, sometimes the only place to go is the third branch of government — the courts,” he said.

Since the State Board of Education became an authorizer last year, it has heard 11 appeals, mostly from younger, less established operators. The appeals from KIPP and Rocketship represented a departure. KIPP was established in 1994 with schools in New York City and Houston. California-based Rocketship launched in 2006.

Concurring with its staff recommendation, the state board voted 8-1 Friday to deny Rocketship’s appeal.

“This one was hard,” Heyburn told the board on Thursday. “This one met the standard in all areas except the portfolio review section, and in that case again there are a number of reasons to be very optimistic about this school they’re currently operating in Nashville.”

The Nashville board had rejected Rocketship’s application because, despite high growth scores at its first Nashville school, its overall academic performance this year was poor, according to board members.

“They did have a level 5 TVAAS composite, which is the highest score overall you can get in growth,” Heyburn said. “But their achievement scores are really low, some of the lowest in their cluster and in the district.”

Board member Wendy Tucker cast the lone dissenting vote. “My struggle is with the fact that Rocketship’s current school — the school we have data from — while their achievement levels are not where we need want them to be, their growth is some of the highest in the city,” said Tucker, who is a co-CEO of Project Renaissance, a Nashville nonprofit organization aimed at improving educational outcomes for Nashville schoolchildren.

Rocketship regional director Shaka Mitchell said he was disappointed with the board’s decision but respected the process.

“One of the things that the district made it’s biggest case around is that we didn’t have a track record of success,” Mitchell said. “I’m confident that if we’re sitting here this time next year, it’s going to be a different outcome. Our schools are going to keep growing; our students are going to keep showing results.”

The board also voted to uphold district denials of charter applications for International Academy of Excellence in Nashville and for Connections Preparatory Academy in Jackson.

Movers and shakers

Former Denver schools superintendent Tom Boasberg lands a new gig

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg, right, high-fives students, parents, and staff on the first day of school at Escalante-Biggs Academy in August.

Former Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg has been named superintendent of another organization 9,000 miles away: the Singapore American School in Southeast Asia.

Boasberg will start his new position July 1. He stepped down as superintendent of Denver Public Schools last month after nearly 10 years at the helm of the 92,000-student district. The Denver school board is in the process of choosing his successor.

Boasberg has spent significant time in Asia. After graduating from college, he taught English at a Hong Kong public school and played semi-professional basketball there. He later worked as chief of staff to the chairman of what was then Hong Kong’s largest political party.

He and his wife, Carin, met while studying in Taiwan. They now have three teenage children. In 2016, Boasberg took a six-month sabbatical to live in Argentina with his family. At the time, he said he and his wife always hoped to live overseas with their children.

“This gives us a chance as a family to go back to Asia,” Boasberg said, “and it’s something the kids are looking forward to, as well as my wife Carin and I.”

The Singapore American School is an elite non-profit school that was established in 1956 by a group of parents, according to its website. It now has more than 3,900 students in preschool through 12th grade, more than half of whom are American.

The school boasts low student-to-teacher ratios and lots of Advanced Placement classes, and sends several of its graduates to Ivy League colleges in the United States. Its facilities include a one-acre rainforest.

Boasberg notes that the school is also a leader in personalized learning, meaning that each student learns at their own pace. He called the school “wonderfully diverse” and said its students hail from more than 50 different countries. High school tuition is about $37,000 per year for students who hold a U.S. passport or whose parents do.

Leading the private Singapore American School will no doubt differ in some ways from leading a large, urban public school district. In his time as Denver superintendent, Boasberg was faced with making unpopular decisions, such as replacing low-performing schools, and the challenge of trying to close wide test score gaps between students from low-income families and students from wealthier ones.

“Denver will always be in my heart,” Boasberg said, “and we’re looking forward to this opportunity.”

it's official

Memphis schools chief Dorsey Hopson calls his work ‘a remarkable journey,’ but seeks new career at health care giant

PHOTO: Jacinthia Jones/Chalkbeat
Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson announces that he's resigning from the district to take a job with Cigna.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson is leaving Shelby County Schools to lead an education initiative at a national health insurance company effective Jan. 8.

Prior to his departure, the school board expects to name an interim before the district breaks for the winter holidays, giving the panel time to seek a permanent replacement, said board chair Shante Avant.

Hopson’s job with Cigna is a new national position in government and education that will be based in Memphis, he said. He called the decision a “difficult” one that he ultimately made because of the demands on his family that are part of his job as superintendent.

“It’s been a remarkable journey,” Hopson said. “I’m very proud of the progress we’ve made together.”

A likely successor the board could tap is Lin Johnson, who was hired in 2015 as chief of finance. Johnson previously was director of special initiatives for the Tennessee Department of Education and director of finance and operations for the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board. He recently overhauled the district’s budget process to be more responsive to student needs rather than to a strict pupil-teacher ratio — a move Hopson lauded as a potential vehicle to reduce gaps in test scores for students of color living in poverty.

Hopson’s future has been the subject of intense speculation in recent weeks, especially after he endorsed Republican Bill Lee for governor in a race that the Williamson County businessman eventually won. A position in the governor’s office, or as education commissioner to succeed Candice McQueen, was considered among the possibilities for Hopson. But Hopson said on Tuesday that he would not be heading to Nashville to work for the Lee administration.

Cigna, Hopson’s future employer, is a Connecticut-based company that manages health insurance for about 19,500 district employees and retirees under a $24 million contract. The company is the third-largest health plan provider in Memphis with about 200 local employees, according to the Memphis Business Journal. In his new role, Hopson will help Cigna expand its services to school districts for health benefits and wellness programs.

“Having an individual with Hopson’s expertise in school administration and school district leadership in this role will be a great asset to Cigna’s consultative work serving K-12 schools,” a Cigna spokesperson said in a statement.

An attorney who had worked for school districts in Atlanta and Memphis, Hopson was named the first superintendent of Shelby County Schools in 2013 following the historic merger of city and county schools.

His hiring came on the cusp of massive change in Memphis’ educational landscape. The district’s student enrollment steadily declined after six suburban towns split off from Shelby County Schools in 2014 to create their own districts, and the state-run Achievement School District continued to siphon off students by taking over chronically low-performing schools in the city. Hopson and the school board eventually closed nearly two dozen schools to shore up resulting budget deficits.

Since then, under Hopson’s leadership, the district has gone from a $50 million deficit to investing more than $60 million in personnel, teacher and staff pay raises, and school improvement initiatives by lobbying for more county funding, dipping into the district’s reserves, closing underutilized schools, cutting transportation costs, and eliminating open job positions. The district has also sued the state in pursuit of more funding, and that lawsuit is ongoing.

“We have accomplished a great deal together, such as eliminating a $100 million deficit, investing more and students, and developing the Summer Learning Academy to prevent summer learning loss. That, in part, is what makes this decision so difficult,” Hopson said. “I would love to see this work to the finish line, but I feel confident that we have laid a strong foundation for the next leader.”

Now, fewer schools are on the state’s list of lowest-performing schools and the district’s Innovation Zone has boosted test scores at a faster rate than the state-run district. Schools across the state are looking to strategies in Memphis to improve schools — a far cry from when Hopson took over. And recently, Hopson was among nine finalists for a national award recognizing urban school district leaders.

“For the past six years, we have worked together to guide this great school district through monumental changes,” Hopson said. “Through it all, our educators and supporters have remained committed to aggressively increasing student achievement.”