HomeNewsOPINION: ACE’s charter application doesn’t pass the test

OPINION: ACE’s charter application doesn’t pass the test

By Olivia Abernathy

Guest columnist

A couple of months ago I was unexpectedly in the position of having to hire someone. Anytime I’ve been a part of a hiring process I’ve always known the candidates or had someone already in mind for the position. This time I was starting at square one. I really didn’t have the time or the margin to spend sorting through résumés, but I also didn’t have the time or the margin for error to spend correcting the mistake of making a bad hire. I needed to take the process seriously.

So as I sorted, if a résumé had basic errors like typos, misspellings, or missing information I tossed it aside. If I can’t trust a potential employee to get the basics right, how can I trust them to get the job right?

I thought about this a lot over the past month while serving on the Ad-Hoc Committee created to explore charter schools. The committee was formed in light of the application by American Classical Academy to start a charter school in Jackson-Madison County.

As both a parent of children who attend public school as well as a public school advocate, I’ve been asked the same question repeatedly, “what do you think about charter schools?”. My response has become automatic, “well, how long do you have?” Because the answer is not a simple yes or no answer. And it shouldn’t be.

Normally people who are solidly “anti-charter” talk about the drain that charter schools can have on the traditional public schools’ budgets. That is absolutely a valid concern. Our schools are already under-resourced and need more investment, not less.

People who are solidly “pro-charter” talk about the need for increased choices for students who may not be excelling in a traditional public school classroom. That, too, is a valid point of view. We should strive to give students diverse choices in learning, especially our most vulnerable students who have no other options.

So am I talking out of both sides of my mouth? No. I’m not anti-charter; I’m anti-bad charter. I’m not pro-charter; I am pro-good charter.

I believe that there are successful charter schools and unsuccessful charter schools.

Unfortunately, the data shows that most charter schools fall in the latter category. In the 21-22 school year, 80% of charter schools in Tennessee underperformed compared to other schools that shared the same district.

To assume that a charter school is guaranteed success just because it’s an alternative to the traditional public school would be both unwise and irresponsible. Jackson-Madison County needs to take the charter authorization process very seriously. Like the hiring situation I found myself in recently, JMCSS does not have the margin for error to make a bad hire.

Recently, I had the opportunity to co-chair the ad-hoc committee which was formed by the school board and tasked with exploring the impact a charter school might have on the district. We looked at fiscal impact and academic impact as we interviewed experts and studied various sources of research.

We also asked what to look for when determining whether a charter school would be likely to succeed or not. We heard from an experienced charter school administrator who told us the important standards to look for: Local leadership, community engagement, curriculum quality, and robust plans for educating special populations.

In my opinion, the application for the American Classical Academy did not pass the test.

For starters, the application referenced Madison County as “Montgomery County” 10 times and “Rutherford County” once. ACE is concurrently applying in four other counties, including Montgomery and Rutherford. Not only are these errors a concern for future academic quality, but they also warrant significant concern about local leadership and knowledge about our community. If this was a résumé, I would have thrown it out the first time I saw “Montgomery” instead of “Madison.”

When asked how ACE is assessing the demand for the school and engaging the community, the application states that they have already engaged with nonprofits including the “Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club” and “Be Good to the Hood Youth Org.” The Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club is in Champaign, IL- 350 miles from Jackson’s Boys and Girls Club. One would assume that “Be Good to the Hood Youth Org” is a misguided reference to the Keep My Hood Good Youth Organization, founded and directed by County Commissioner Juanita Jones.  Neither organization’s directors have heard from the applicant.

Not only does this signal a sloppy review, but it’s also a major concern about the integrity of the applicant’s community engagement efforts. Again, if this were a résumé I would have tossed it.

Throughout the application, most of the academic qualifications cite the K-12 Program Guide curriculum provided by the Barney Charter School Initiative developed by Hillsdale College. The application says the K-12 Program Guide has not yet been aligned with Tennessee State Standards, which should be a minimum standard. How is the school board expected to approve something that has not been completed and has not been reviewed?

Personally, I have other major concerns with the application like their proposed demographic not matching their plans for operation (no transportation, no robust plan for wrap-around services, etc.), or the strict attendance policy that will likely lead to students returning to their zoned schools midway through the year.

But without even getting to the deeper issues, I would have thrown the application to the side if this were my stack of résumés. To quote the Founder and Executive Director of a very successful charter school in Memphis, “The application is by far the easiest part of opening and running a highly effective charter school. If you can’t get the application right, there’s no chance you’re doing better once a school opens.”

And the Jackson-Madison County School System does not have the margin for error when it comes to a bad charter.

Olivia Abernathy is a Madison County Commissioner and has been actively involved in Jackson-Madison County Schools since her children started school. The Jackson Post’s opinion/editorial page is meant to help launch public discussion of local issues or allow local people to discuss national or statewide issues. To join the discussion, send a guest column or letter to the editor to brandon@jacksonpost.news. Submissions for a specific week’s print edition need to be sent by Monday night. Sending does not guarantee publication that week as that is based on space availability.

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