One of Nashville’s newest charter schools opened in early August with 88 students, all kindergarteners who are preparing– not for first grade– but for college. That’s the main objective at East End Preparatory.
“Our mission is to get them college-ready,” says Jim Lekrone, director of the school. “If they hear it all the time, they’re so exposed to it that when the idea of college becomes a reality and they realize what college is, they’ll already have the foundation. It’s not going to be a surprise. ”
Parents like LaQuisha Owens couldn’t agree more. She didn’t attend college, but wants more for her 5-year-old son, Carlos.
“I didn’t even start thinking about college until I was like a junior in high school,” says Owens. “They didn’t ever teach us younger that it’s best to go to college. If [Carlos] knows early on that his goal is to go to college, then he’s gonna’ achieve that goal if he gets it in his mind now.”
That kind of understanding and commitment from parents is key to the program at East End Prep. The school will have a longer school year and school day than other public schools; the homerooms are named after colleges with college pennants lining the hallways; students are called “scholars” and are constantly learning whether in the classroom, at play, or even enroute to the bathroom. Students who fall behind in school work are assigned to after-school tutoring.
The expectations are also high for parents, who during summer orientations, were told that student attendance must be priority– even in the face of challenges related to transportation or work schedules. In turn, Lekrone and the school staff promise something unusual for a public school or even charter school: social services and support for the families, parenting classes, after-school tutoring, even a late-evening bus service to transport kids who stay after school for tutoring.
The services are made possible through the Martha O’Bryan Center, the operator of this charter school and one of Nashville’s oldest service organizations located near the city’s poorest public housing developments.
“Having the benefit of Martha O’Bryan and having their services and their knowledge and know-how is just huge, and we’re thankful to be in that position,” says Lekrone. “There’s not many schools that I know of that are modeled this way.
“We want to eliminate every distraction and every obstacle, everything that’s getting in the way of our kids getting into college and doing what we’re expecting them to do.”
That model could help East End Preparatory to succeed where many other charters fail, according to experts who study school choice.
“A school that can take into account both the out of school influences and in-school factors that we know lead to levels of achievement,” says Claire Smrekar, a professor at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College and a researcher for the National Center on School Choice.
Smrekar says while charters are public schools with more freedom to try different approaches, they also have a tight timeline of 3 to 5 years to meet academic benchmarks. Many fail to do so.
One study at Stanford University (Center for Research on Education Outcomes) found academic gains in 17-percent of charter schools, gains that were worse than traditional public schools in 37-percent, and no change in 46-percent of charter schools. In Tennessee, a new law creates more opportunities for opening charter schools and allows more students to attend them. The result is an increasing number of charter schools and applications as districts seek ways to raise student performance under No Child Left Behind.
“When you open a charter school it’s like opening a small business. You are now responsible for transportation, meal service, facility management, a budget. Those are rather daunting tasks in addition to managing an instructional program.”
Knowing the challenges of starting a charter school, Lekrone and some of his staff did their homework, visiting charter schools around the country and studying the history of those that failed.
“Best trip professionally development for me to see the people that are doing it the best and what are they doing. I think there’s just as much to be learned from the charter schools that failed as the ones that are great (like)managing your enrollment and managing your finances; the behind-the-scenes things.”
Lekrone says it’s also important to have a staff and teachers with excellent credentials who are dedicated to a holistic approach to education.
“The kids can’t come to school and we sprinkle magic dust,” says Lekrone. “It is very hard work. It requires parents, students, teachers, everybody to be on the same page.”