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JMCSS Board to vote on charter schools

As the Jackson-Madison County Schools Board prepares to vote on whether or not to accept the application for a charter school from American Classical Education (ACE) on Thursday in a special called meeting, proponents of ACE and opposition have been vocal to the school board urging them to vote one way or the other.

Board Chairman James “Pete” Johnson said he’s been asked repeatedly last year and this year as the discussion has become more and more eminent what his thoughts are on charter schools in JMCSS. But he says his opinion on charter schools in JMCSS shouldn’t have much influence in this week’s vote.

“Our vote is basically around the application process,” Johnson said. “Whether I am for or against charter schools doesn’t matter in this vote as much as does this charter application suggests that it meets or exceeds the level of services we offer all our children in the school system.”

Madison County Commissioner Olivia Abernathy released a guest column for The Post last week, speaking from her position as chair of the ad hoc charter review committee, saying the application doesn’t need to be accepted at this time. That column can be read on The Post’s opinion page in this edition.

During an appearance on Walker Talks, a mid-day local talk show hosted by Chuck Walker on WBFG-FM 96.5 on Monday, Abernathy further clarified some of her statements.

“In my job at United Way, I’m part of a network of education professionals across the state, and some of them are from districts that do have charter schools,” Abernathy said. “And I asked some of them what are some of the markers we need to be looking for when looking for a quality application.”

She said there was one thing that troubled her.

“Yes, there were errors that appear to be failures to make changes when ACE applied for charter schools in five counties,” Abernathy said. “But they stated in their application that they’d made contact with a couple of local groups here who are involved with students – because community engagement was another positive marker of an application.”

The first troubling issue with this part of the application is it referenced a Boys and Girls Club in another state, and it apparently misidentified a local non-profit whose objective is helping students have somewhere to belong to and go after school – Keep My Hood Good. Those are spelled out in the column. But another issue regarding Keep My Hood Good is even more troubling, according to Abernathy.

“They said they’d made contact and engaged in discussions with them,” Abernathy said. “But when I checked around with Keep My Hood Good and Boys and Girls Club, neither of them recalled any conversations with anyone from ACE.”

ACE CEO Phil Schwenk said in an interview last week that a conversation with JMCSS Superintendent Marlon King in February led to King driving Schwenk to Jackson Careers and Technology Elementary School.

He said King didn’t give him an official offer to allow ACE into the JCT building to put a charter school there, but it was more of a conversation seeing what his options might be if the board were to approve an application.

Schwenk – who’s been involved in leading charter schools in public school districts for most of his career – said an elementary school in East Jackson would be a perfect spot for ACE to operate a school, and they’d welcome the opportunity.

“I’ve been told people are concerned we’d want to put a school in the northern part of town, but it’s not needed there,” Schwenk said during the interview with The Post on April 17. “Well if it’s not needed there, we don’t want it to be there.

“We want to work in partnership with the district, and if the district tells us they’re willing to let us use a certain facility in a certain area of town for a specific list of reasons, then we’re more than willing to work with them in that way.”

School Board member Harvey Walden was also on the ad hoc committee. He said he called to the top five performing districts in the state to try to find out what they have that JMCSS doesn’t, and he said ACE offers a key part that JMCSS isn’t currently offering.

“Hendersonville Schools are ranked No. 1, and I called and called to their director,” Walden said. “Their second-graders could pass the third-grade test the state mandates to ensure reading proficiency in their school system.

“And I asked what they do that helps their students perform so well, and the one key word I got was ‘phonics.’ And that was taught in all five of those districts that have more than 90 percent of students at or above reading proficiency levels.”

Walden said JMCSS dropped phonics in primary education in early grades in 2008-09, as they switched to teaching site words.

“If you go back and look at our test scores, our third grade test scores began to plummet two or three years after that,” Walden said. “And our high school scores plummeted about eight or nine years after that once the students who didn’t learn phonics got to the level of this testing.”

At the February Board meeting, Walden made a pitch for phonics and asked questions about what it would take to bring phonics back to JMCSS elementary schools. He said Monday he still hasn’t received answers.

“ACE teaches phonics, and that’s a big reason their students are successful,” Walden said. “From the research I’ve done, ACE appears to be a quality charter option for us, and in the ad hoc committee’s evaluations, we could evaluate the application with one of three classifications – satisfactory, partly satisfactory and unsatisfactory.

“They got unsatisfactory in one area – facilities and location, and they can’t really discuss that with us until we vote to approve them.”

Abernathy and the rest of the ad hoc committee heard from Schwenk during one of their meetings in March. They also heard from Donna Wright, former district superintendent in Knox and Wilson counties who’s retired now and is active as a leader of a group who opposes charter schools. In a third meeting, they also heard from a leader of a charter school in Memphis.

“We wanted to hear from both sides and even a different perspective from inside a charter school that has worked, and there are some that work well,” Abernathy said. “Based on our information, the committee gave its recommendation that I wrote up based on the thoughts and notes I received from other committee members.

“But the decision is ultimately up to the school board.”

Brandon Shields, brandon@jacksonpost.news

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