There's no question that thousands of Tennessee children are not learning what they need to be learning in school.
According to a national education report card, only 25% of Tennessee eighth graders are proficient or better in math, while only 27% are proficient or better in reading.
Metro Nashville Public Schools told Nashville's News 2 last year, 28% of Metro students who started high school in ninth grade did not graduate.
However for the first time ever, the city of Nashville is becoming a national breeding ground for a different kind of public school that hopes to change the way students learn and achieve.
They are called charter schools and there are currently 11 of them in Davidson County and 41 across the state.
Charter Schools are part of the MNPS system, but are run by independent operators.
While the schools do receive funding from Metro government and the state, charter school operators can also seek private funding.
There is also more freedom when it comes to choosing curriculum, recruiting teachers, teacher pay and in the structure of the school day itself.
The promise of changing lives and communities through a charter school education was enough to prompt Jim Leckrone to leave his position as an assistant principal at a Williamson County High School to help open East End Preparatory School.
“This opportunity came up to build a school from the ground up where we could do everything right and create a high performing school in an area that really needs a high performing school,” said Leckrone.
East End Prep opened in east Nashville in the fall of 2011 with their first class of kindergartners; the school will eventually be a kindergarten through fifth grade school, adding one grade level each year until they are full.
“To be a part of something that can be wonderful and really change the lives of a lot of people can be exciting,” said Leckrone, who also told Nashville's News 2 one of the school's biggest goals is to get every kindergarten student on the road to college.
At East End Prep, the road to college for kindergartners starts before they even set foot in the building.
It's a message the students hear everyday, and one they may only hear at school, that they can succeed and you can go to college.
“It raises the expectation for everyone, for teachers, for kids, it gives us our long-term goal and focus,” said Leckrone, who added the importance of quality, motivated teachers cannot be stressed enough.
“When we implemented our policy that our teachers get paid 10% more than normal district schools with also a 10% bonus, the idea is to attract the great teachers and give them some incentive to come,” said Leckrone.
But that isn't the reason why English Language Arts teacher, Caroline Rhodes signed on.
“I do it because I love it,” said Rhodes, “And because being in a place where a staff is on the same page meant more to me than anything else. We were going to work hard everyday for the same kids and weren't operating on this island just for our group of kids. All 79 of these kids are our children and we are going to do everything we can for all of them.”
East End Prep is one of 11 charter schools in the MNPS system.
Here, almost all students are from low-income families.
Alan Coverstone is the director of Innovation with MNPS and one of his duties is overseeing charter schools and approving new charter schools that want to open.
“There's a lot of kids in this city not getting a college ready education and frankly, it's disproportionately distributed against those who have the lowest incomes and that's not fair and what we're trying to do here is reverse that,” said Coverstone, who ended a career as a teacher at Montgomery Bell Academy, an elite all boys private school in west Nashville to work for MNPS.
“I'm deeply committed to this,” said Coverstone, “I made a major career change in my life to do this, I'm grateful to be doing this. I love coming to work every single day and that's because I'm focused on twenty years from now and focused on the kids I see in those classrooms.”
Almost all students at East End Prep are zoned for elementary schools that did not meet federal benchmarks for achievement last year.
This is something Coverstone sees as a big problem all over the district, “There is a problem, because kids aren't achieving the way they're supposed to achieve, so it's clear that education can't keep spinning its wheels and doing what we've been doing the last 20 years, because it's not working.”
It's an issue MNPS acknowledges and one Mayor Karl Dean has been pushing to chance since he took office at the beginning of his first term as mayor.
“One size does not fit all when it comes to education and we need to give parents and our students choices,” said Mayor Dean, “It's important to me and I think education reform is not all about one individual or any group of individuals, it's really a city effort.”
“We spent too much time in the past pointing fingers at why we weren't achieving,” Coverstone told Nashville's News 2, “Now, we're focused on how can we bring all the people who have something to offer into the fold and achieve for the kids on the outcome. The difference is we're focused on what the kids are learning.”
What the kids are learning and how they are learning are the reasons why charter schools are different than traditional public schools.
You can see and hear the difference within a minute of setting foot inside Rich Richards fifth grade math classroom at Nashville Prep.
The students track their teacher and their classmates, swiveling their heads around to look their colleagues in the eye and show respect.
It's also a way for Richards to keep his students engaged and judge their understanding of the material.
Next door, Mrs. McDonald's social studies class learns to recite the 50 states by rapping a song.
But besides rapping and sitting in star position (sitting up straight, hands folded in front of them on the desk, eyes forward), Nashville Prep students go to school from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and then spend two half day Saturdays per month at school, too.
By the end of the year, Nashville Prep students, or scholars, as they are referred to, are exposed to double the literacy as their average Metro peers.
Crystal Bradford, who has a fifth grade daughter attending Nashville Prep, said at first, the change was difficult for DeeShawn, but after a few months, she noticed a big change in her daughter's behavior.
“It's made her a better person,” said Bradford, “She's conscious about her behavior, her lessons and everything that goes on because of the structure that's provided.”
For the first time, Nashville Prep provided Bradford with something she'd never had before when it came to her daughter's education: a choice.
“Charter schools is an eye opener,” Bradford told Nashville's News 2, “It's just a new way of learning, and from what I can see, it's a better way.”
Nashville Prep opened its doors to its first class of fifth graders in the fall of 2011; it will eventually be a fifth through twelfth grade school.
It's the brainchild of Ravi Gupta, an energetic 28-year-old Yale Law School graduate.
“Through my experience at Yale Law School I started to discover high performing charter schools that were moving the ball in substantial ways, ways I never thought were possible,” explained Gupta, “They were taking kids from all different neighborhoods and taking some kids from some of the lowest performing schools and producing results that were exceeding the results of some of the fancy schools across town.”
Before diving into the education reform movement, Gupta worked for then Senator Barack Obama on his presidential campaign and he also worked for an ambassador at the United Nations; Gupta had absolutely no ties to Nashville when he decided, a few years later, to make the move to Music City.
“Nashville has gone from a very good place to start a public charter school and to push for some key reforms in education, to the absolute best in the country,” said Gupta, on his choice to open Nashville Prep here.
“Something really significant happened at both the local and state level,” said Mayor Dean, “The state as a whole, and certainly Nashville, became much more receptive to charter schools and the state law was reformed, which I was an advocate for and many others were, to expand eligibility to charter schools and expand number we could have.”
The state of Tennessee also received half a million dollars in Race to the Top funds from the federal government, which helped fund the charter school movement.
“We're moving in the right direction,” said Mayor Dean, “But we can't stop moving forward, we can't stop supporting our schools, we can't stop looking at innovations.”
At Nashville Prep, a lot of that innovation comes from the hard work of dedicated and energetic teachers.
Richards, a first year Teach For America fellow, said, “Everyone I work with has the same mindset as me. They get up in the morning and all they're thinking about is how can we get these scholars to college.”
If half the battle is just getting these kids to believe in themselves, then it seems like Nashville Prep is already succeeding, especially if you talk to fifth grader LaDonta Gregory.
“I want to go to Harvard or Yale for college,” said Gregory when we asked him.
Gregory also said, “What I like about going to Nashville Prep is that they push you to accomplish your dreams.”
If you walk through our halls, you'll see the landscape changing before your eyes,” said Gupta, “Students who didn't believe in themselves before who believe they will go through college and students who have skills now that they never had before and parents who feel invested in a school the way they never have before.”
In the next five years, there are plans for 22 new charter schools to open in Nashville and Memphis.
It's the kind of change many, including Gupta, see as transformational for not only Nashville but the state.
“I think this is one of those cities where change is going to happen in a dramatic way,” said Gupta, “It's going to come piece by piece and through a series of individuals and policy changes over time that are completely going to transform this city, this state, but it's going to be a major change.”
For more information on charter schools, visit mnps.org.