In Blount County, with three school systems and a stated commitment to putting education first, any evidence of going after a charter school, the state’s newest push toward innovative education, has been missing.
A grassroots group of Blount County residents is committed to changing that, with plans made to open the doors on a charter school by August of 2012.
There are currently 29 charter schools in the state of Tennessee and all but two of them are in inner city Memphis and Nashville. None of them are in suburban areas. Knoxville is set to open a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) charter school in the inner city in August 2012. The governor is pushing to open as many as 40 charter schools in the next few years as part of his push toward improving the state’s education.
If all goes according to their plan, founding members of the Innovative Educational Partnership, Inc., will see the opening of Hope Academy in Blount County in July of 2012, making it the state’s first suburban charter school.
The mission of the school is that “the Hope family will create a positive, challenging environment in which all students excel to their highest potential via Hands-On, Progressive Education methods.”
Leading the efforts are a 7 member founding team and Patricia Bradley, a long-time East Tennessee educator with more than 30 years of experience in education and non-profit leadership.
Founding team member Timothy Kumes, a retired Senior Master Sergeant who worked at the Non-Commissioned Officers Academy at the 134th Air Refueling Wing, said the Hope Academy’s application is ready and going forward with a June 1 submittal date with the Tennessee Charter Schools Association, Alcoa City School Board and the Commissioner of the State Department of Education.
The application is going to the Alcoa City School Board because charter schools must be under the umbrella of a Local Education Authority (LEA), and the founders are hoping to work with the Alcoa system.
Kumes said Gov. Bill Haslam aims to open eight to 10 new charter schools a year. “There is talk about 40 schools opening up in the next few years. The timing is perfect. With the governor in office, he is pushing to provide different opportunities for the children to increase education levels around the state,” he said, adding that if the Hope Academy opens, it will be the first suburban charter school in the state. “We need to be on the ‘tip of the spear.’ Children of this community deserve this, and that is why you see so much movement. The application is ready, and we’re going to charge forward,” he said.
Founding team members have met with Alcoa City officials and scouted several possible sites, said Kumes.
“There is a facility that, with a little love, we could get it to where our school could flourish there,” he said. “There has been no hard decision on where the school will be. Right now, Alcoa has a couple locations.”
According to the Hope Academy plan, the school will serve approximately 200 students, grades K-5, when it opens in July of 2012. Each consecutive year, additional classes and grades will be added, and it will ultimately be a K-12 school. Each class will have a maximum of 20 students. The school provides self-contained, multi-age, and looping options.
Students will attend 180 days for seven hours a day, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., operating on a 45-15 day calendar. The students attend school approximately nine weeks, then break for three weeks. The longest break period, approximately five weeks, occurs during the summer. The three-week break periods will be used for extended learning opportunities, such as career awareness, experiential and life-long learning.
What is a charter school?
According to the Innovative Education Partnership, states utilize charter schools as a tool in reforming public education. Because charter schools operate outside many state requirements, they become a measurement of effectiveness and a catalyst for innovative methods. Only five of the state’s 136 schools districts have charter schools. Of the 29 charter schools in Tennessee, 27 are located in Memphis and Nashville.
Head of the charter school programs for the state of Tennessee is Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association. On May 3, Bradley and members from the group traveled to Nashville where they toured a K-5 and a 6-12 charter school and met with Throckmorton.
Throckmorton said a charter school is a public school with no tuition, and the students take the TCAP assessments like at other schools. “We are simply given autonomy, and we can do things a lot differently if we desire,” he said. “And we have much higher expectations. If we fail to make average yearly progress two years in a row, we can be closed. “Charter schools have a short leash, and if we don’t get things done, we get closed down. It is a real classic incentive system where we can do things differently always with the fear of failure, and it really keeps us on our toes.”
Throckmorton described the charter system in this state as the “Tennessee model” and said it differs from other state’s models because of its strict accountability. “Other states have charter schools that have been allowed to fail year after year,” he said. “This is a somewhat accurate criticism, but in Tennessee, we have the strictest accountability in the nation. We’ve embraced it.”
Throckmorton said the design of charter schools can be focused to service the needs of students. “We know students have different learning styles. Charter schools create an environment to serve some students really well,” he said. “There are special education charter schools, charter schools for health and science, engineering, performing arts. You begin to see different types of narrow focuses, and this allows for individuals to decide if that fits the student.”
The Hope Academy will be a STEM program. Such curriculums use highly specialized professional applications at early ages.
When asked about how much it would cost to open the academy in August of 2012, Kumes didn’t have a definite number. “That is the scary part of this,” he said. “It takes a lot of money. It would be based on where we settle, and then we would determine a number. We are confident we can get there with the relationships we continue to groom,” he said.
Throckmorton said a lot would depend on the school’s LEA and how much they receive from them, but the executive director said he hopes it costs about the same for teachers at the academy as at the district schools. “We’re going to try to keep it close. A lot is fluid, depending on location and number of grades we have to start up the school,” he said.
Founding members interviewed said they have made inquires with foundations and individuals who have a strong interest in education, but declined to name any specific companies, foundations or people.
Operating a charter school
Unlike traditional public schools, public charter schools are given autonomy for their hiring, budgeting and programmatic decisions. In exchange for this increased autonomy, charter schools must also accept greater accountability by being held to high standards of achievement and financial management. The Hope Academy Board of Directors would function as the primary authority, working in partnership with the Local Education Authority (the Board of Education), Chartering Authority and the Commissioner of Education.
As for sports, there is no state law in place that addresses students at charter schools who want to play sports on the school level. Charter schools do not typically offer athletics. In Tennessee, the precedence is that charter students compete in sports at their zoned public school. At Hope Academy, founding members hope students will be able to compete in the school’s LEA if an agreement could be met with the residing district.
How it all started
Efforts that led to Hope Academy began on March 10 with a group of parents who supported the philosophy of a year-round, school of choice. As news of state-wide charter school reforms spread, the group began investigating the possibility of opening a charter school in Blount County. When the group came together with Patricia Bradley, says one founding member, “things began to really happen.”
Throckmorton said the founding team contacted him about two months ago. “They had done an incredible job. We’ve run across applicants who haven’t done their homework and just show up with their application,” he said. “They were doing their homework and reaching out to other charter schools. Someone suggested they get in touch with me, and we’ve been in touch ever since. I’m really impressed with them.”
The application process
The executive director said that he expects that when he formally goes through their application, it will be very thorough. “They will have crossed the Ts and dotted the Is. They are taking this seriously with the idea of being ready to run a school. If they’re not ready to run a school, they shouldn’t be approved,” Throckmorton said. “Some have started running schools and have had all kinds of ‘bumps and bruises’ and that’s not the best way.”
Throckmorton said initial applications to start a charter school can be put in three boxes or categories. A third, he said, are not even close. A second third are close and the final third just need tweaking.
“I expect that when I see Hope Academy’s application, it will fall in that final third category,” he said. “On my first pass, I think it is a very sound application.”
Throckmorton said the application lays out how the school will be run, and it takes time for an application to be approved. “They will submit the application to the school district. Typically a district will set up a committee to review it. The review committee will thoroughly vet that application and score it. The district has 60 days to make an initial recommendation,” he said. “It is standard that most applications are denied the first time. The group then has 15 days to resubmit the amended application. At the end of 15 days, the district has a second vote. If denied, the applicant has 10 days to appeal to the State Board of Education. The board then has 60 days to approve the application.”
Any denial is an opportunity to tinker with the school plan a little more, Throckmorton said. “The state board has been incredibly fair. If it is a good application and deserves to be approved, the state board will approve it,” he said. “The districts knows this and tend to be straight-forward in their assessments.”
Alcoa City Schools director Tom Shamblin says he has some initial concerns about the need for a charter school in Alcoa.
“With the passage of new legislation, we can expect to see more applications for charter schools across the State,” Shamblin said. “It is certainly something new for this area to consider but, in all honesty, my first reaction would be that I’m not sure how many students would be interested in leaving their current school, whether it be Alcoa City Schools, Blount County Schools or Maryville City Schools due to the quality of education available throughout this county.
“My understanding is that if an application (for a charter school) is submitted, it would still need approval of the local school board of the LEA in which the proposed school is to be located. I feel that board members might be concerned about a loss of funding for students who might seek a transfer to a charter school.”
Throckmorton said the law says 100 percent of funding in state, federal and local dollars minus capital outlay goes to the charter school. That works out to about 75 percent of what a district school is paid per pupil. “We don’t receive capital outlay dollars from bonded debt. We pay for the building out of academic dollars,” he said.
In other words, for the most part, the money follows the student from whatever school district he or she would be coming from.
Kumes said a charter school is funded like a traditional school on a per pupil basis and depending on where you live in the state will dictate how much you get per student, with an average of $7,000 to $7,400 per student.
Kumes said the founding team is also reaching out to the community to partner with them. “We have great companies located here, and we’ll continue to seek out those partnerships. They’re part of this community, and they have children who live here. If we can get some of them to buy into the charter school concept, we think it only makes things better,” he said. “It takes money to run these schools, and if we can get some companies to buy in, that will be a big help to us as we move forward.”
Throckmorton said all public schools can raise tax-free donations through foundations connected to their schools. “Charter schools are the same, and they all end up raising some money,” he said. “By state law, every single charter school is a non-profit and have to be their own 501(c)3 or have a separate one that sponsors them. Any funds raised would go through that tax-exempt entity.”
Throckmorton said the facility is the complete responsibility of the individual charter school. “They have to find their own facility and negotiate a lease,” he said.
The executive director said that in Memphis and Nashville, as the districts have begun to understand the value the charter schools bring, they have begun to share facilities and charter schoosl take over facilities the district no longer uses. They begin to view facilities as a shared responsibility. “Ultimately it is the charter school’s responsibility for its own bricks and mortar,” he said. “We have them in grocery stores, strip malls and the basements of churches.”
Alcoa City Manager Mark Johnson, who has led members of the founding team on tours of the city, said the team members are going to have to be able to “sell” the numbers to the school board on how the Hope Academy would work and be a benefit to everybody involved.
“I think if they are successful in doing what they want to do and, if my interpretation is correct, it would be geared more toward science and technology. I think there is room to improve the opportunities out there for kids who want to advance in those areas,” Johnson said. “On the other hand, without knowing the specifics of how charter schools work as far as what they do to the existing school systems in terms of how funding is shared and secured and swapped and so forth, it is too early to really judge what the ultimate evaluation would be of the project.”
Throckmorton said that as he has worked with charter schools in other states, some districts are very apprehensive, but that the charter schools end up focusing in an area and drawing from students who have that focus. “They draw a lot of students, and initially there is apprehension, but it enables a school district to focus their resources on other students and allows everybody to focus a little more,” he said. “You look at Memphis and Nashville -- initially, there was real apprehension, but over time, the district comes to understand charter schools are useful tools.”
Kumes said this new academy will be able to follow a different curriculum and experiment with different ways of teaching. “What charter schools allow is looking at different ways of educating children on a small scale. You don’t have to impose something in the entire system. You see how it works, and if something great happens, all schools can adopt it,” he said. “It makes all the school systems better when you have a charter school in a community. It is incubating in a small setting.”
Opening in 2012?
Throckmorton said the plan to open the school in August of 2012 is “very doable,” based on past charter school application processes. “The standard is, once the charter is approved, they open the next August. I can think of three examples where they delayed for a year, but for everybody else, it is the next August,” he said.
Kumes said it is a very realistic goal. “There is great movement with great people, and there is not an hour that goes by there is not something happening based on the passion, enthusiasm and contacts these founders have,” he said. “It is not just a group of people who are concerned about this county. They’re concerned about this entire state and want to provide opportunities for children to have different experiences.”
Kumes said enrollment will be open to anyone in the state but priority would be given to students within the county. By law, students in the sponsoring LEA have first priority.
Kumes said the founding board members also would have priority to have their children attend if they chose. “Parents will make a choice about whether or not this school is a good option for their child,” he said.
Kumes said they plan to recruit the best and brightest teachers. “We’ll be very, very competitive in compensating teachers who commit to this school. We’re going to be on the higher average side, close to what the Oak Ridge school system pays,” he said. “I’m confident our teachers will be well-compensated.”
Bradley to serve as founding executive director
Plans are to name Patricia Bradley as founding executive director, said Kumes. Bradley, who is a 30-year educator, is working with the team to finalize the over 400-page state charter application and prepare for Phase One of establishing Hope Academy in Blount County, said a Hope Academy press release.
“My faith has led me here,” Bradley said, in a prepared statement. “I’ve spent my life committed to children, and I’m grateful for this new opportunity. I know what children need on a fundamental level. And as a lifelong learner myself, I continue to research the best practices to provide a way for students to be successful in today’s world. That’s why we want to focus on a charter STEM school and create a learning community where students will have a unique opportunity to thrive in a globally competitive world.”
Bradley began her teaching career in 1977 at John Sevier Elementary where she served as a first grade teacher for 17 years. In 1995, Bradley was chosen to become a multi-age teacher at the newly formed Fort Craig School of Dynamic Learning.
In 2000, Bradley was named principal at Mary Blount Elementary School where she participated in the planning and construction of the new K-5 facility and moved the program with more than 650 students, into the new school in 2001.
Under Bradley’s leadership, Mary Blount Elementary was chosen as a national showcase school for the Highly Effective Teaching Model developed by Susan Kovalik.
In 2003, Bradley moved to become principal of Woodland Elementary School in Oak Ridge where she also implemented the Highly Effective Teaching program. The school became a training site for best practices developed through brain-compatible learning.
Bradley earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in Elementary Education. She earned an additional master’s degree in Administration and Supervision from Lincoln Memorial University.
The Hope Academy Founding Team consists of:
•Mary Bogert, general manager of the Knoxville Convention Center
•Tab Burkhalter, Blount County commissioner District 1-B, attorney – Burkhalter and Associates, P.C.
•Sarah T. Herron, professional writer
•Senior MSgt. (Ret.) Timothy Kumes, examiner, Riverside Publishing (Houghton Mifflin)
•Kimberly Lay, PA-C, CDE, Endocrinology Consultants of East Tennessee
•Renee Leonard, pharmaceutical sales representative
•Katie Teffeteller, owner, Little Scholars Christian Academy, Inc.