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TENNESSEE: Nashville schools’ First Choice Festival helps parents navigate many options

Officials for district, charters make nice for annual event

school-choice-fairAs their deep-seated rift with charter schools rages on, Metro Nashville Public Schools sought to set aside differences Monday and showcase the very schools they claim are handcuffing the district financially.

Monday marked Metro’s First Choice Festival, which it has had for the past two years to show families the full gamut of enrollment options: zoned public schools, magnets, a virtual school and privately led, publicly financed charters.

The festival’s arrival this year coincided with a lot of politics, too.

An attorney for Metro schools recently wrote in a legal memo that the state law that established the funding mechanism for charter schools violates Tennessee’s constitution. Director of Schools Jesse Register and the Metro school board, meanwhile, have argued charter schools are to blame for an estimated $23 million budget shortfall in next year’s budget.

Nevertheless, district leaders and representatives of Nashville’s 22 charter schools were side by side Monday as parents surveyed their options.

“The charter proponents like to claim that MNPS is hostile toward choice, and that’s clearly just not the case,” said Metro school board member Will Pinkston, who has led the case that charters are to blame for the district’s financial difficulties. “Tonight’s event is just one example.”

Metro’s enrollment process for the 2014-15 school year begins Oct. 31 and runs through Dec. 2. Students and parents can select their top three choices either online or through a traditional paper application. Parents learn their child’s school on Jan 8.

Resembling something of a science fair, each school Monday had its own table. Parents and their children, an estimated 7,000 to 8,000 in all, meandered from one to the next, taking brochures and listening to pitches.

Staffing booths were those such as Shelly Dunaway, principal at Two Rivers Middle School in Donelson. Across from her were representatives of a trio of Nashville charter schools, which have a growing base of backers.

District officials have been proactive to stress collaboration with charters, but competition remains.

“They don’t offer anything that we don’t offer,” Dunaway said, discussing her school and its “personalized, individualized instruction.”

One of those charters, Valor Collegiate Academy, received school board approval this spring to open next year. In recent weeks, its founder, Todd Dickson, a transplant from California, has launched a “Pound the Pavement” campaign to spread the word to fill its 140 slots.

“I think the unrecognized part in the charter wars is it’s really challenging to get your name out,” Dickson said.

He likened the competition to a friendly sporting event. “I just love the idea of people competing to make themselves better, and then they high-five and hug,” he said. “There’s no trash-talking.”

Many choices

In the middle of it all are students and parents. One of those considering a transition from a public school to a charter is Latoya Bridges, a Nashville mother whose daughter is in fifth grade. She stopped by the booth for charter school Nashville Prep.

“I looked up the (test) scores on the computer, and the charter schools are up there,” Bridges said.

About 25 percent of Metro’s students attend schools outside their geographically zoned schools, including about 5 percent who are at charters. The charter school enrollment is expected to increase next year as new schools open and existing schools expand.

Register downplayed the charter rivalry.

“The adversarial relationship’s been made too much of,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is make choices easier for parents to navigate.”

For the district’s part, a heavy emphasis Monday went to The Academies of Nashville, Metro’s career-oriented high school curriculum model that stresses project-based learning. Students who welcomed guests Monday were even sporting blazers with the Academies’ logo.

Source: The Tennessean – by Joey Garrison

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This entry was posted on September 24, 2013 by in Charter Schools, School choice, Tennessee and tagged .


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