Charter Schools Tennessee

WARNING: THE CONTENT OF THIS POST IS NOT APPROPRIATE FOR CHILDREN.

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The following post was written by Amy Frogge, an elected member of the Board of Education in Nashville. Frogge is a lawyer and a strong supporter of public dchools. She was elected in a campaign where corporate reformers outspent her 5-1. She has been openly critical of “no excuses” charter schools, especially Nashville Prep, founded by Ravi Gupta. inthis post she responds to a post written by Gupta, accusing her of wanting to censor a book used in his school in seventh grade. Gupta has plans to open more charters in Mississippi.

Amy Frogge writes:

WARNING: THE CONTENT OF THIS POST IS NOT APPROPRIATE FOR CHILDREN.

Today I was attacked (again) by Ravi Gupta, the head and founder of RePublic Schools, which operates several schools in the district, including Nashville Prep. This time, Mr. Gupta was upset about a private email I’d written to MNPS administrators (the email was forwarded to Mr. Gupta) in which I reported that young students at his school are reading a wildly inappropriate book. In my email, I commented that Nashville Prep should be closed. Mr. Gupta has now sent out a blog post trying to focus attention on me and detract from the issue at hand; he contends in his post that I am trying to conduct a “book burning.” In response, I feel the need to explain the full context of my email. Anyone who knows me understands that I am not a fan of corporate education reform or of so-called “no excuses” charter schools.

However, Nashville Prep stands out in its treatment of children. The book at issue is quite stunning in its rhetoric and descriptions of explicit sexual encounters; I will detail that below.

However, complaints forwarded to me about this school over the last two years are even worse. Here, precisely, is why I have become very upset and frustrated about Nashville Prep:

Nearly two years ago, a parent approached me after a board meeting, crying. She had come to our board meeting as a last-ditch effort, because she had been unable to help her daughter, who was a 10-year-old student at Nashville Prep. She told me her child had become depressed and anxious because of the extreme no-excuses disciplinary procedures at the school, and she needed help removing her child from the school. She had tried to bring her concerns to the attention of the Office of Innovation (which oversees charter schools), but she said her concerns were ignored. She maintained that she had trouble navigating the withdrawal/enrollment process because no one seemed to be in charge of process for charter schools.

Shortly thereafter, three additional parents stepped forward to raise more disturbing complaints about Nashville Prep. The complaints, which were all very similar in nature, primarily centered on extreme, militaristic disciplinary policies, which parents contended affected students’ well-being.

Complaints from the parents included the following:

-Students at Nashville Prep are not allowed to use the restroom when needed (even young girls just starting their menstrual cycles). They are punished for simply asking to go the restroom off-schedule, for spending more than 2-4 minutes in the restroom, or for looking at themselves in the mirror.

-Lunch is taken away from students as punishment.

-Students are punished for even mentioning being too cold in the classroom in winter.

-Students are “inspected” when they enter the school each morning, and students have been forced to wait in line in the pouring rain while teachers stand under the front school awning to “inspect” them.

-Students are punished for not “eye-tracking” the teacher (keeping their eyes on the teacher at all times).

-Students are taken off school grounds without parental consent.

-Administration of the school is poor. Students are marked absent when present, and report cards often contain incorrect grades.

-One student received a demerit for saying, “bless you” when a classmate sneezed. He also received detention (1) for saying “excuse me” while stepping over another child’s backpack and (2) for picking up a pencil for a classmate.

-Another student was punished for “egregious” behavior, and when the parent inquired about the behavior, the teacher said the student “laughed out loud” during class.

-Students are told not to talk to students on in-school suspension because administrators want “student[s] to feel like they are in jail.”

-Students are punished for expressing any emotion at all when they receive demerits. Even when they don’t understand why they are being punished, they cannot inquire about the punishment. If students are not completely submissive and unquestioning, they receive a second demerit. One parent compared this treatment of children to a “slave code.”

-When students are allowed to go outside during lunch, they are not allowed to sit and talk. They must move around, as one parent put it, “like what one would see in a prison yard.”

-Nashville Prep has refused to allow some students to withdraw.

-Nashville Prep uses shaming measures to control students: Children who receive a certain number of demerits are required to wear tags on their clothing as a shaming measure so that other children will laugh at them.

-According to one parent, demerits are so common that on one day, about 100 of the approximately 300 students were on some type of suspension. Also, appeals of demerits are no longer allowed, so students who are corrected inappropriately are not allowed to voice their concerns.

-Students are not allowed to participate in enrichment activities, such as art or music, unless their standardized test scores are high enough.

-Parents have claimed their children have undergone personality changes as a result of the “no excuses” discipline. One parent claimed that her child, who typically was outgoing and outspoken, became very withdrawn and stopped communicating or expressing herself, even at home, for fear of being punished. The parent complained that “kids don’t have a voice” and “kids can’t be kids” at Nashville Prep.

Another parent went so far as to claim that some students at Nashville Prep are “suicidal.”

– School staff members are not held to the same standards at students.

According to one parent, teachers and administrators sometimes are disheveled, arrive late, and act in a disrespectful manner toward parents.

-Middle school children must do homework until 9 or 10 pm each night.

Nashville Prep parents have used extreme language in describing treatment of students at the school:

One parent described school leadership as a “dictatorship . . . like Hitler.” Multiple parents referenced jail and prison when describing the school. One parent said students there are “denied any form of autonomy and independence, . . . denied any right to think or have independent opinions, and denied . . . use [of] their cell phones on the bus even when the bus [is] running very late.” A social worker who was a parent at the school said that the treatment of students at the school amounted to “abuse” and “neglect” under her professional standards.

Another parent wrote this account of what happened to her daughter after the parent questioned the school’s discipline policies:

“The very next day after I made my phone call expressing my opinion that I didn’t agree with many of the disciplinary tactics incorporated by the school because not all children respond to negative reinforcement, and that [my child] in particular responds better to some positive reinforcement, the unthinkable took place. When I picked my child up from school that evening she was brutally broken, broken down and crying as she reached her hand out to me in a tear soaked face and shaking, she stated ‘mommy I made a terrible mistake by picking this school.’ I have never seen [my child] in crisis mode, ever. Gravely concerned I asked her to truthfully tell me what happened. She proceeded to tell me that she was cited for ‘no grit’ and ‘demerited’ repeatedly because she would not sit erect with the bottoms of both feet planted on the ground. This situation quickly snowballed as she was then cited [for] ‘lack of grit’ and multiple demerits for ‘not tracking.’ Eventually instead of recognizing they were breaking down my child, they intensified the corporal punishment (which is illegal) by pulling her out of the classroom for nearly the ten hour school day and isolating her. When the teachers walked in to check on her in isolation she was finally so broken she had put her head down on her desk. The teachers interpreted this as disobedience and then made her STAND UP FOR FOUR HOURS. I remind you that my child had never been in trouble previous to this and had all ‘A’s and ‘B’s’ on her report card, as well as many high compliments written from the teachers.”

Another child fell on concrete at the school, sustaining a severe concussion. He asked to call his parent, but the school would not allow him to do so. He was finally allowed to get an icepack from the front office, but was so frightened of the disciplinary tactics at the school that he sat through the rest of the school day with a severe concussion. The parent was never notified.

I tried to address these complaints through appropriate channels and informed the MNPS administration and specifically Alan Coverstone, who oversees our charter school office, of these parent complaints. The complaints were dismissed in strange ways. When I asked for an independent investigation, the investigation consisted of allowing Ravi Gupta to write a lengthy written response discrediting all of the parents. MNPS administrators did not visit the school as part of the investigation, nor did they interview teachers, school administrators and others involved.

Then last spring, Teach for America, operating under new leadership in Nashville, terminated its contract with Nashville Prep, alleging that the school was bullying teachers. However, TFA needs charter schools to survive in Nashville, because the district is cutting the ranks of TFA in half this year. The new head of TFA was subsequently fired (presumably for terminating the contract), negotiations ensued, and the TFA contract was ultimately reinstated with some concessions. Meanwhile, in the midst of controversy over TFA (which the school has kept carefully hidden), a former Nashville Prep teacher came forward to raise more concerning allegations about the school, which I won’t detail here because they are currently under investigation.

And all of this leads me to the book. This week, another parent came forward with allegations about poor student treatment which were similar to those raised by the other parents who have contacted me in the past.

However, she also raised a new allegation. She told me that Nashville Prep is requiring twelve-year-old students to read the book, City of Thieves, aloud in class. The book contains lengthy passages which are crass and, frankly, pornographic in nature. The book contains explicit descriptions of sexual acts and includes language like this: “c*nt,” “f*ck,” “c*ck,” “p*ssy,” “a*s,” “s*ck me off,” “whoresons,” “sprayed a liter of c*me inside her,” “sh*t,” “b*tch,” and much more. (Believe me, I’ve left out the worst parts.) Whoever assigned the book made a half-hearted attempt to censor some of the foul language, but left plenty of bad language and details intact, including passages that degrade women and glorify casual sex. For example, words like “f*ck” are still included throughout passages distributed to students, and one passage (which students apparently read out loud in class) contains this line: “You two about to f*ck in the bushes?” Here’s another passage that was left in: “Have you ever been with a redhead? Oh wait, what am I saying, you’ve never been with anyone. The good news is they’re demons between the sheets. Two of the three best f*cks of my life were redheads. Two of four, anyway. But the other side of the coin, they hate men. A lot of anger there, my friend. Beware.” The parent who raised this complaint said that teachers ask the students to read this book out loud and skip over the bad words in the process, so clearly, teachers are aware of the content of the book.

I am not easily offended, and I’m not opposed to older students reading more adult books that have been carefully vetted, if parents are informed and provide permission. However, I can’t imagine who, for even a moment, would believe that this particular book is remotely appropriate for twelve-year-old students. Furthermore, the school has both photocopied and edited the book, which appears to be a clear copyright infringement. Many charter schools do not buy books and use photocopies instead, I suppose to save money.

Once again, MNPS’ Office of Innovation dismissed these complaints, even those regarding copyright. I am, frankly, angry that our own Office of Innovation thwarts parents and does not take seriously even allegations of this nature. Nashville Prep is protected because it produces high test scores. I believe the higher test scores are due primarily to the increased amount of time students spend in class (extra hours each day and three hours daily in summer) and teaching to the test.

But one must ask:

What’s the real cost of these test scores? And then, of course, there’s the political angle. Folks like Gupta are good at raising money and are eager to attack those who question their practices.

If this were a zoned school, our board could monitor and correct problems of this nature. But we have no oversight whatsoever of these matters when it comes to charter schools. Charter schools have full curriculum autonomy (they can teach anything they want) and autonomy over all disciplinary practices. This is a case of incompetent leadership coupled with zero oversight. Is this really such a great idea?

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