case closed

Charter high school wins courtroom battle to remain open

 A nine-month effort by the Department of Education to shutter a troubled charter school ended today when a judge ruled in favor of keeping it open.

The decision this morning came hours before the school, Williamsburg Charter High School, is scheduled to host its graduation ceremony, where 118 students will receive their diplomas. It will also mean that the nearly 900 students who remain at the school will not need to find a new one next fall. About 20 students left in recent months because of the uncertainty that loomed from the court case.

“It’s been a great day,” said Joseph Cardarelli, a director at the school. “There were a lot of anxious parents, but it seems like a lot of  people stayed in there until the end.”

Kings County Supreme Court Judge Ellen Spodek wrote in her decision today that the process that the DOE’s charter school office followed to revoke the the school’s charter was “riddled with inconsistencies and lacks a certain level of transparency.”

Williamsburg Charter was placed on probation last September and given an ultimatum to sever ties with its founder, Eddie Calderone-Melendez, and the network he operated, or face closure. Calderone-Melendez had been under investigation for tax fraud since last spring and was indicted in April.

The charter school office ruled that the school did not move fast enough to divorce itself from Calderone-Melendez and moved to revoke its charter in January. The school fought back in court and in the streets. It hired a lawyer from Syracuse to lead the case and organized protests in front of DOE headquarters. The school won an early court victory to hold its annual enrollment lottery for incoming ninth graders while the larger case was being decided.

Spodek said that charter school office, which was the school’s authorizer, had plenty of opportunities to warn the school about its problems, but repeatedly failed to do so. The DOE renewed the school’s charter in 2009 for a five-year term, despite the fact that many of the financial and governance problems that existed with the school took prior to then.

And after the city conducted its annual site visit to the school in May 2011, Spodek wrote in her decision that the subsequent “report did not stress a sense of urgency, nor did it establish actual deadlines for task completion in which WCHS could be held accountable.”

City attorney Andrew Rauchberg, who handled the case for the Department of Education, said he disagreed with the decision and planned to pursue an appeal.

Williamsburg Charter school encountered financial problems when it moved into a $30 million building but struggled to uphold its 1,000-student enrollment targets. The DOE also found the school to have “incredible cash flow problems,” in part because of its relationship with the Believe Network, which received $2 million in management fees. The school is now $5 million in debt and the DOE concluded that it had “no credible financial plan,” according to court papers.

Spodek’s decision also establishes the importance of public access during the charter revocation process. A March hearing that the DOE “intended to be public, yet a number of parents and [students] state that they were told by the DOE that they would not be able to attend the hearing.”

Spodek said that a key provision of charter law was that the public be given “appropriate notification” at each significant stage of the chartering process.

Despite the victory, Williamsburg Charter faces other hurdles. The school is hoping to enroll 300 students next year, but has filled just 110 of those seats so far, according to Patrick Kern, director of recruitment at the Believe Network.

Kern said he expected to join Williamsburg Charter next month to help the school increase those numbers.

”There has been no formal request to have Kern work for Williamsburg,” said Williamsburg’s lawyer Ellen Kimatian Eagen.

“We have a strong plan for enrollment to get our numbers up,” Cardarelli said. “We have kids who have already transferred but now they want to come back. I’m confident that we can get our enrollment to where it needs to be.”

WCHS Court Decision 6-28-12

Election Forum

Tennesseans are about to get their first good look at candidates for governor on education

Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tennesseans will elect their next governor in November.

For almost 16 years, two Tennessee governors from two different political parties have worked off mostly the same playbook when it comes to K-12 education.

This year, voters will choose a new governor who will determine if that playbook stays intact — or takes a different direction from the administrations of Bill Haslam, a Republican leaving office next January, and Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who preceded him.

Voters will get to hear from all but one of the major candidates Tuesday evening during the first gubernatorial forum televised statewide. Organizers say the spotlight on education is fitting since, based on one poll, it’s considered one of the top three issues facing Tennessee’s next governor. Both K-12 and higher education are on the table.

Candidates participating are:

  • Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet and former Tennessee state senator;
  • Randy Boyd, a Republican from Knoxville and former commissioner of Economic and Community Development and a Republican from Knoxville;
  • Karl Dean, a Democrat and former mayor of Nashville;
  • Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley and minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville and speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County

The seventh major candidate, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is in the midst of a congressional session in Washington, D.C.

The next governor will help decide whether Tennessee will stay the course under its massive overhaul of K-12 education initiated under Bredesen’s watch. The work was jump-started by the state’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, for which Tennessee agreed to adopt the Common Core academic standards for math and English; incorporate students’ scores from standardized tests in annual teacher evaluations; and establish a state-run turnaround district to intervene in low-performing schools at an unprecedented level.

Tennessee has since enjoyed steady student growth and watched its national rankings rise, but the transition hasn’t been pain-free. Pushback on its heavy-handed turnaround district led leaders to widen school improvement strategies. They also ordered new academic standards due to political backlash over the Common Core (though the revised standards are still basically grounded in Common Core).

A major issue now is whether the next governor and legislature will retain Tennessee’s across-the-board system of accountability for students, teachers, schools and districts. Snafus and outright failures with TNReady, the new standardized test that serves as the lynchpin, have prompted some calls to make the assessment just a diagnostic tool or scrap it altogether. Haslam and his leadership team have stood firm.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat recently. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group that works closely with Tennessee’s Department of Education, is a co-host of Tuesday’s forum. Known as SCORE, the group has sought to shape the election-year conversation with priorities that include teacher quality, improving literacy, and developing school leaders — all outgrowths of learnings during Tennessee’s Race to the Top era.

SCORE President David Mansouri said the goal is to maintain the momentum of historic gains in student achievement from the last decade. “The next administration’s education policy decisions will be crucial in determining whether Tennessee students continue to progress faster than students in other states and whether they graduate ready for postsecondary success,” he said Monday.

The one-hour forum will delve into a range of issues. College and career readiness, education equity, and school funding will be among the topics broached before each candidate is allowed a one-minute closing statement, according to David Plazas, a Tennessean editor who will help moderate the discussion.

“It will be really exciting,” Plazas promised. “We’re hoping the candidates are prepared to talk substantively on the issues and to avoid slogans.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. CT at Nashville’s Belmont University. Along with SCORE, it’s being co-hosted by USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. You can livestream the event here and learn more about attending or watching here.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede