Working on Hope: Charter school expert, executive director share their thoughts

With the possibility of a charter school -- the state’s first suburban charter school -- coming to Blount County, both the public and the county’s educational leaders are full of questions. In listening, the public’s questions seem to be “what is this?” while the educational leaders are asking, “how much will this cost us?”

Trying to provide answers while also feeling their way through new territory is a grassroots Hope Academy Founders Board, led by Pat Bradley, who was once a Maryville teacher, principal and force behind Fort Craig School of Dynamic Learning and educator in Oak Ridge.

This week, Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Charter School Association, came to Maryville to meet with and offer training for the board, and to help answer questions from Blount Today. Also deep into looking for information and answers are the Blount County School Board, who have received the Hope Academy application to be the schools’ Local Education Authority (LEA), their attorney Chuck Cagle and Rich Haglund, director of Charter Schools at the Tennessee State Department of Education.

Bradley is founding executive director of the new school. Throckmorton represents the Tennessee Charter School Association, a 501-C-3 non-profit that has worked with all 45 charter schools that have opened in the state. The Tennessee Charter School Association is funded by foundations and individual donors. Throckmorton is a registered lobbyist for the Tennessee Charter School Association, but says they have other lobbyist as well. “Primarily what I do at the Capitol is answer questions and be a technical resource,” he says.

Throckmorton says there are 45 charter schools in Tennessee, with the majority of those being in the Nashville and Memphis.

While a charter school is independent, Throckmorton says, the source of their funding is much like any other public school. In Tennessee, money designated to educate each student follows the student, coming through the charter school’s LEA to the school.

“Or most of it does,” says Throckmorton. “Not all of the money is given to charter school because a portion stays with the student’s zoned school system. To use Memphis as an example, they spend $10,500 per pupil and the charter school receives $7,100 per pupil. They no longer have the child in their system, but they retain $3,000,” Throckmorton says.

While charter schools often do major fundraising or look for benefactors, Throckmorton advises the schools to base their operating budget on the per pupil expenditure, and Bradley says Hope Academy is following that advice.

“We have a budget, but the exact amounts aren’t plugged in yet because we don’t know the mix of students from Blount County, Maryville City and Alcoa,” says Bradley.

The per pupil expenditure varies across Blount, with Maryville City’s per pupil standing at $9,403, Alcoa at $10,128 and Blount County at $8,773, according to the Tennessee Department of Education website.

Throckmorton says it is the wise course of action for a charter school to base their budget on the funding received from their district without any donations. “Charter schools can fail academically or fail financially,” says Throckmorton. “It is always the quality of the school’s leadership that shows up. Charter schools do get closed down. In Tennessee out of the two we have closed, one was for academic reasons in 2007 and one for financial reasons last year,” he says. “We (Tennessee) have a really good average, and it goes to the fact that we have such stringent application procedures.”

Throckmorton says he understands a LEA has to be concerned with their budget and ask questions about whether instituting a charter school will financially strap a school system. In his opinion, he says, a system like Blount, with an enrollment of 11,000-plus, the number of students Hope Academy is attracting wouldn’t make a significant impact. “You are looking at 180 students out of 11,000,” he says. “The money that follows the students is going to be just a fraction of their budget.”

Haglund says a public charter school provides local boards of education the chance to change their relationship with local schools in their district. “The money generated by the Basic Education Program is for the education of individual students. With public charter schools, not only are you holding that individual school leadership accountable for getting better results, but you’re giving that school leader autonomy and funding to meet those goals,” he says. “Public charter schools face more challenges in accountability than non-charter public schools, and if that charter school fails to meet the terms of the performance agreement in its application and contract, it can be closed.”

Haglund says that at most public schools, the principal has discretion over maybe $50 per student out of an average per pupil expenditure of $7,000 to $10,000. “Most of the decisions are not made at the school level. If a district isn’t used to operating in that way - having a charter school may create challenges as it changes the mode of operation from being a central service provider to more of an accrediting body,” he says. “The money follows the kids, and in small districts, it can create a financial challenge if you’re looking at suddenly revenue the central office operated on is reduced by 10 or 8 percent.”

Throckmorton says a charter school isn’t a private school run with public funds. “It is a public school. It doesn’t teach religion; it meets all academic requirements from the state. They do all the things public schools do, just not necessarily in the same way as a conventional public school,” he says.

Bradley says the Hope Academy’s board perspective is they’ll be able to utilize dollars more efficiently than conventional schools. “The way we utilize dollars will be different. Comparing how we will spend the per pupil funds and how traditional school boards spend it is like comparing apples and oranges. Some things will be similar, and others different,” she says. “Our budget is all itemized, so I have a very clear perspective on where the dollars will be spent.”

Throckmorton says this plays to the strength of a charter school and why some are so efficient. “Some go austere in some areas and focus resources in others. It is one of their strengths, to be able to be flexible.”

One area where Hope Academy will spend money is on their teachers. “Teachers will be paid a good salary for teaching. It will be a healthy salary,” says Bradley.

In the classroom

Bradley says charter schools and the Hope Academy in particular will do things in instruction and environment and calendar that are geared more toward the children.

“I think the key focus is the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) schools. We will aggressively be focused on science, math and engineering and with the technology. One way our school will look different from a regular school is our children -- from second grade up -- will be working from an iPad,” Bradley says. “It will be project-based learning, looking at real life problems and analyzing problems and coming up with different solutions and using a lot of creativity in learning. It will be very student-driven and very individualized.”

Bradley says she has done extensive research on STEM schools and visited STEM programs. “From those things I’ve observed and those things I’ve seen in practice, we will use a variety of different best practices,” she says. “There is national charter school conference we’ll attend and take teachers with us to find out what are the most current things going on. You want to reach out so you can share.”

As to who would be eligible to attend Hope, Throckmorton says all students within the geographic Blount County will get first priority. “All the kids will go into a lottery in the geographic county. If you had an applicant from Knox County, they would not be considered until all those who live in Blount County are placed, ” she says.

Hope Academy intends to open with 180 students and grades Kindergarten through fifth. There will be 2 classes on the kindergarten, first and second grade classes and one class each in third through fifth.

“If all you get 180 applicants, all are a priority. If there are fewer applying than spots available, no lottery is utilized, and if there are more, you have a lottery,” says Throckmorton. “It is a random process. I’ve seen charter schools do lotteries with a ping pong ball, draw names out of hat, using Excel. They go through a publically-verified process. This is a unique situation, because it includes three school districts and in geographically based as far as priority for students.”

As for growth, Bradley says the school will add two classes each year. “The second year, we’ll add another third grade class and add a sixth grade class, and we’ll grow internally,” she says. “After the first year, the only children we’ll take in will be 40 new kindergarten students and applications to fill any holes in other grades if someone leaves.”

What now?

The board for Hope Academy presented their application to the Blount County School Board in June.

“I thought the application was really good,” says Throckmorton, “but I told them, there no perfect applications. I do think they have a really solid application.”

The Blount County School board has 60 days to make a decision, with that date being Aug. 5. It is on the agenda for the meeting on Thursday, Aug. 4.

“If it is denied, Hope Academy has 15 days to make corrections and resubmit it,” explains Throckmorton. “If denied again, the school has another 10 days to appeal to the state school board, who then have 60 days to make a final decision. Once you go to the state, there are no more amendments or corrections, and the state decision is final.”

Throckmorton says that functionally, the state school board executive director and staff come to a community and hold an hour-long hearing. The local board and the charter school board each have 10 to 15 minutes to defend their actions and explain their situation, then there is time for public input. “They will also take written comments, review everything and make recommendations to the state board,” says Throckmorton.

To date, 32 charter school applications have been appealed to the state board and five of those have been approved.

Throckmorton says if a school board doesn’t act on an application within 60 days, it is automatically approved. “We don’t want that. That is a shotgun marriage, and it is not a good situation,” he says.

Cagle, the attorney advising the school board, agreed with Throckmorton on that point. “It is usually not beneficial for either side for that to happen,” he says. “For the board to sit back and do nothing means they’re not taking their responsibility with regards to public dollars seriously.”

Cagle says the Blount County School Board has a committee that is reviewing the application, and he wouldn’t say how he would advise the board at this point. “It is too early to make a recommendation because the application is under review,” he says.

Cagle says he is two-thirds of the way through the application. “It seems to be well thought-out. A lot is going to depend on the people working for the school everyday. My job is to tell whether it is legal or not or advise them on what things need to be beefed up. The application seems well-presented and thorough; we just need time to evaluate it thoroughly.”

Bradley says the founding board is negotiating on a location that would enable them to open the school in late summer of 2012. She wouldn’t specify where the location is. “We’re in negotiations. It is a very good location,” Bradley says.

Bradley says plans are being made for hiring staff. “We’ll advertise for teachers. We already have applications,” she says.

The Fort Craig comparison

Bradley talked about the similarities between Fort Craig School of Dynamic Learning and a charter school like the Hope Academy.

“I don’t look at this in the same view finder as Fort Craig. I see it as a completely different school with a completely different focus on learning. This is STEM school, and Fort Craig is not. I don’t look at them through the same lens,” she says.

Bradley says Fort Craig was a school that did things differently. “The wonderful thing about charter schools is you also have opportunity to look at children and how they learn and do things differently,” she says. “It is a real plus and children gain from that opportunity. We’re going to be a testing ground.”

Bradley says she is optimistic about this school. “I feel very happy about this. I have a very joyful outlook about it. I see an opportunity for a group of teachers, children, parents and the community to work together as a team behind a vision to develop a wonderful opportunity for the children, and that is what I’m so happy about,” she says. “We’re going to create a climate of family. It is all about the children.”

Public information

The Hope Academy board is planning two events this month to give residents the opportunity to learn more about the proposed school.

Hope Academy Family Meet and Greet -- From 4:30 to 6 p.m., Tuesday, July 26, at the Everett Park Barn Pavilion and Playground. Families with children who will be in grades K-5 in July 2012 are invited to meet with the Hope Academy founding team and Pat Bradley, executive director.

Hope AcademyPublic Information Meeting -- From 7 to 8 p.m., Thursday, July 28, at The Vineyard at 713 William Blount Dr., in Maryville. Anyone interested in hearing more about the proposed charter STEM school is invited to attend a presentation given by the founding team and Executive Director Pat Bradley.

Parents can place their prospective students on the group’s contact list via website: www.hopeacademyTN.org. For more information, email info@hopeacademyTN.org.

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Comments » 2

agentorange007 writes:

There is a definite demand in this community for a truly innovative elementary school. The slated-for-closure Fort Craig School of Dynamic Learning fulfilled that need in the city school system. It baffles me why it is being closed but I digress.

It seems that countywide demand for a pupil-centered school is the driving force for the Hope Academy. Charter and other innovative-type schools are HUGE in Florida and are responsible for the significant increase in graduation rates of low income and minority students cited in recent news articles.

Given a chance, I think the Hope Academy and other non-traditional schools could do very well in Blount County.

sunshine writes:

in response to agentorange007:

There is a definite demand in this community for a truly innovative elementary school. The slated-for-closure Fort Craig School of Dynamic Learning fulfilled that need in the city school system. It baffles me why it is being closed but I digress.

It seems that countywide demand for a pupil-centered school is the driving force for the Hope Academy. Charter and other innovative-type schools are HUGE in Florida and are responsible for the significant increase in graduation rates of low income and minority students cited in recent news articles.

Given a chance, I think the Hope Academy and other non-traditional schools could do very well in Blount County.

I agree with agent. There are many families out there looking for a different educational experience for their children, and the established school systems should not feel threatened by the charter schools. They should welcome them into the county.

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