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Chart(er)ing a Path to Success

Posted by on Monday, November 29, 2010 in Features, Winter 2010.

Jeremy Kane, MPP’06, and Kristin McGraner, EdD’08

Jeremy Kane’s emergence as a key figure in Nashville’s charter schools movement may well have taken root in seventh grade. That was the year he transferred from a Metro Nashville public school to Montgomery Bell Academy, a private college preparatory school.

“It was the beginning of a conversation that continues to this day,” says Kane, who earned his master’s degree in public policy from Peabody in 2006. “I had to ask why I came through advanced classes and an honors program in a public school only to find myself light years behind folks at a private school.”

Kane’s LEAD Academy, which opened in 2007 as Metro Nashville’s third charter school, has helped the movement gain enough credibility and support that this year saw the next bold step—a grafting of the charter model into an existing public school, in this case Cameron Middle School.

The current year has also seen the approval of STEM Preparatory Academy, a middle school to open in 2011-12 with an emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. STEM Prep is being founded by Kristin McGraner, EdD’08, whose passion for educational excellence was focused by a student in foster care during her first year as a teacher.

“Her name was Carlissa,” McGraner says. “It was October, and she was in her sixth school. She was an incredibly smart, capable and kind-hearted young person who simply needed stability, validation and a teacher who remained persistent in her belief that every student can excel academically. Through my work with her and other underserved students, I saw firsthand what high expectations, a supportive environment and the relentless pursuit of results can do.”

Kane and McGraner bring noteworthy passion to their roles in expanding the scope of publicly funded, independently run charter schools in Metro Nashville. Both have an enthusiastic and practical champion in Alan Coverstone, Metro’s executive director of charter schools and private schools, who is currently enrolled in Peabody’s Educational Leadership and Policy doctoral program.

“We are seeking to expand our capacity to serve underserved populations,” Coverstone says, “and where we demonstrate shortcomings, we have this burgeoning movement of people who are saying, ‘Throw us at the problems. We’ll deal with them.’ And they’re getting results.”

Kane first saw charter schools as a real solution while he was a speechwriter for the 2004 presidential campaign of Sen. John Kerry. Initially skeptical, he began studying the phenomenon, particularly in the District of Columbia, where the highest per-student expenditures in the nation were funding a failed system, but charter schools were beginning to show impressive results. Similar gains in places like Houston and Memphis convinced him.

“They were taking kids from not being able to read and, over a year or two, with true commitment and hard work, were able to bring these students around,” Kane says. “As they learned more, something amazing was happening in families, and when enough families came around, you started seeing things happening in communities. There was a catalytic effect.”

He came back to Tennessee and took a teaching job at MBA before being named head of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association. While there, he tried unsuccessfully to convince a fellow Vanderbilt grad to return to Nashville to open a charter school.

“At that point,” he says, “I had to make a real decision about whether I was content to be on the sidelines and complain over coffee and drinks or whether I was really serious about doing something.
I knew the only thing to do was to jump in feet first.”

He had enrolled in the master’s program at Peabody, using that experience to fine tune his quest.

“I was researching and writing the application and turning in sections of it as class papers,” he says. He also mortgaged his house so that he could travel to study high-performing schools across the country.

McGraner’s belief in the transformative power of education never wavered as she enrolled in the doctoral program at Peabody.

“This charter school has been in my heart and mind for the last several years,” she says. “Every class I took had something that was integrated into this school design.” Meanwhile, she analyzed the needs of the city’s underserved students.

“We [McGraner and her board] spent quite a bit of time looking at our highest- and lowest-performing schools, understanding the communities in which the achievement gap still persists,” she says. “The community needs high-quality public educational choice, which is particularly salient in southeast Nashville, where students are experiencing a range of challenges—language acquisition, cultural adjustment and preparation for college. That’s why we were drawn to serve this area of Nashville.”

We have this burgeoning movement of people who are saying, ‘Throw us at the problems. We’ll deal with them.’ And they’re getting results.

— Alan Coverstone

Both faced hurdles as they sought approval for their schools, but for Kane, an early player, they were particularly daunting. Resistance was stiff and widespread among seemingly every constituency, from school board members and administrators to teachers and politicians. Kane sought support in the community as he argued his case.

Support from Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, pressure to improve test scores under No Child Left Behind, and the possibility of a state takeover of Nashville schools were all part of the mix. Relaxed state laws expanded the pool of potential students.

“The process Kristin faced was much fairer and more balanced than what we went through,” Kane says. “It’s based on the merits of the applications and of the people bringing the applications in. There is positive momentum.”

“Both STEM and East End Prep, which was also approved this year, were scrutinized at a really high level,” Coverstone adds, “but these are really excellent applications. They represent more than just excellence on paper. They had teams that were organized and diversified in background, boards that knew how to be involved, and plans for dealing with different levels of students. These were not just laboratories of innovation, but laboratories of excellence.”

He was impressed by the scope of McGraner’s approach.

“Kristin and her board seemed to strike a balance between the need for an exciting and innovative theme to drive achievement while not neglecting the need to take students from where they are to the high level they’re entitled to,” he says. “They’re using STEM to drive high academic achievement rather than as an end in itself.”

Both Kane and McGraner cite the key roles played by their boards, the importance of fully committed teachers and, above all, the need for involving the community.

“We recognize that we have a responsibility not only to our students but also to their families,” says McGraner, “and so we are working deliberately to open the doors, to expand the pathways to participation and collaboration.”

LEAD will oversee fifth grade at Cameron beginning in the 2011-12 school year, extending the school calendar and the school day, raising teacher pay and tying it to performance. It will add sixth, seventh and eighth grades in the coming three years. STEM Prep will begin with a fifth-grade class of 100 students, also adding a grade each year. For both, excellence is the goal.

“You’ve got to have a clear vision for what you want to do,” Kane says. “That has been our saving grace, our strongest foundation. It started with, ‘Why not found a school that can produce 100 percent graduates who go on to college?’ and from there it was just doggedness and perseverance. I believe in the students, our staff, our mission, and we make decisions supporting them. Whether it’s about partnering with someone or hiring a staff member, if it doesn’t help us with our mission to graduate 100 percent of our kids, we don’t do it.”

LEAD has gone from near-universal skepticism to a 300-student waiting list. Hopes for STEM Prep—as well as for the other charter schools on line or about to come on line—run just as high.

“For me,” Coverstone says, “the excitement comes in seeing school leaders and teachers really grow into their ambitions and their goals. These are people who have said, ‘Give us the biggest challenges. We’ll take them to college and prepare them for incredible opportunities in life.’ This process improves our capacity to do right by kids. The future of public education depends on these creative approaches.”

Behind the vision and the extraordinary amounts of day-to-day work entailed in realizing it lie the people and moments that have inspired Kane and McGraner and continue to do so.

“There’s still a picture of Carlissa on my desk,” McGraner says. “She’s a constant reminder of why I’m doing what I’m doing.”

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