An effort on Tuesday to add fifth grade at three charter schools, in alignment with Metro Nashville Public Schools’ own initiative, devolved into chaos and a heated debate about the role of school board members.
Metro Nashville school board members eventually voted to allow three charter schools — Rocketship Nashville Northeast, Purpose Prep Academy and Smithson Craighead Academy — to add fifth grade to their current K-4 elementary schools in alignment with the district’s own initiative to move fifth grade from middle schools back to the elementary level.
But the vote came only after heated debate as board members drew pro- and anti-charter lines and a yelling match with some of the many parents who showed up in support of the charter schools.
An initial motion by board member John Little, a charter school advocate, failed and he slammed his colleagues for not supporting the desires of parents. His colleague, board member Sharon Gentry, called his remarks a “tongue lashing.”
“We’re sending the wrong message to our families to say we’re going to change how we do elementary and middle school, but we’re not going to allow charter schools,” Little said.
Board member Freda Player-Peters had earlier said charter schools could have made the move to add fifth grade before Metro Schools introduced the ReimaginED initiative to do the same, saying the process is dependent on the school board’s decision.
But Little reminded Player-Peters that charter schools still have to propose amendments to their initial agreements with the district to change the grade levels along with the number of students they serve.
Parents applauded Little’s comments before the tone quickly shifted.
“It’s worth noting that these are charter school students, not necessarily our students,” said board vice-chair Rachael Anne Elrod, who attended the meeting virtually.
Several parents voiced their disappointment with Elrod’s comments, prompting Little to interrupt Elrod before stepping away from the dais. One parent stood in the middle of the board room, pointing and shouting at Elrod on the screen while chair Christiane Buggs gaveled for silence.
A motion by Elrod to deny Rocketship’s proposal also failed.
On top of that, there was confusion about the Rocketship vote totals, with some members not voting but not officially abstaining, either. As a result, the board had to reconsider Rocketship’s application.
When it was made clear that Rocketship was not requesting an enrollment increase to add two fifth grade classes, board members eventually approved the matter with a 6-2 vote.
The board then approved Purpose Prep and Smithson Craighead’s request to add fifth grade but did not approve enrollment increases for the two schools Tuesday night.
Should fifth graders stay in elementary schools?
For years, most elementary school students have transitioned to middle schools for fifth grade in Nashville. An earlier effort to move fifth grade back to elementary school — the most common practice for school districts — in 2017, under then-superintendent Shawn Joseph, failed after district officials determined the $300 million price tag was too high.
Starting in 2018, three elementary schools that feed into Antioch Middle School began adding fifth grade and now as part of the district’s multi-year Metro Schools ReimaginEd initiative, schools in specific clusters are making the change.
And district leaders acknowledge that most parents prefer their fifth-grade children stay in elementary school.
Academically, fifth-graders learning in an elementary school environment outperform their peers attending fifth grade in middle schools, said Elisa Norris, executive officer of strategy and performance management and leader of Metro Schools’ ReimaginED initiative.
State standards and most curriculums also group grades together, typically as K-3 or K-5, 6-8 and 9-12, making it easier for fifth-grade teachers to plan and collaborate with other elementary school teachers, said David Williams, the district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction.
This school year, elementary schools in the Pearl-Cohn, Maplewood and Whites Creek clusters, have transitioned fifth grade back into their buildings
Bobby Miles, principal of Rocketship Nashville Northeast, told The Tennessean Tuesday morning that his school hoped to add two fifth grade classes for the 2022-23 school year because many current parents have been hopeful the school board will approve the effort.
Amending charter school agreements
Charter schools have to propose amendments to change the grade levels along with the number of students they serve. Both Purpose Prep and Smithson Craighead asked to increase enrollment in addition to adding fifth grade. But Rocketship Nashville Northeast is only requested to add two fifth grade classes, which the board granted.
Rocketship’s second Nashville elementary school, United Academy, did not seek to add fifth grade because the school does not have the space, said James Robinson, executive director for the Rocketship charter school network in Tennessee.
The district’s Office of Charter Schools recommended the board approve the grade additions for all three schools but found that Purpose prep and Smithson Craighead’s enrollment increase requests “fall outside of the maximum enrollment threshold” at both schools per their charter agreement.
Smithson Craighead for instance has never met its current enrollment cap and does not have a weight list, according to Shereka Roby-Grant, director of charter schools for the district.
Board member Emily Masters, who typically sides with the anti-charter school board members, voted in favor of adding fifth grade at all three schools and even spoke in favor of Smithson Craighead, which is located in her district.
“I had a great visit at Smithson Craighead and I was really straightforward that I’m very appreciative of everything that they’re doing in that school and that I would be glad to vote for them to add fifth grade …because that is a pedagogical decision that doesn’t require the addition of seats. I can be understanding of that,” Masters said.
The role of school board members
After the board finished its votes — and the room nearly cleared out — Gentry questioned Little’s motives
“I would be remiss if I didn’t say a couple things. I will be honest with you Mr. Little, I’m talking about you sir, with some of these comments you made sitting at this board,” she said. “It just concerns me that I would be chastised for serving as a school board member and making decisions that are in the best interest of MNPS. I’m concerned when the tongue lashing comes.”
Gentry also reiterated Elrod’s earlier point that charter schools are not MNPS schools.
“They’re public schools, but they’re not MNPS schools,” she said.
Little said many families have children in a variety of schools, whether a charter school, a traditional zoned public school or a magnet school, and therefore parents and students should be treated equitably no matter the “brand” of their school.
Gentry argued the board is capable of making decisions in the best interest of students, using Tuesday’s votes to add fifth grade as an example, but members are charged with making decisions in the best interest of the district.
Charter school proponents often argue that parents choose charter schools when their zone or neighborhood school doesn’t serve them well or when their only options appear to be underperforming public schools. But those who are against charter schools argue they have little oversight and pull money out of local schools, making it harder for them to improve.
The majority of the present board members eventually voted in favor of the three charter schools’ amendments. Elrod voted against all three. Board member Abigail Tylor voted against the proposals for Rocketship and Purpose Prep but in favor of Smithson Craighead’s application.
The board also voted to renew its contract with LEAD Prep Southeast but deferred Knowledge Middle School’s renewal at the request of the school.
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Meghan Mangrum covers education for the USA TODAY Network — Tennessee. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.