Two Proposed Schools Come Up Short in Knox County

Until quite recent years, the prospect of getting some well conceived charter schools in Knoxville held considerable appeal.

Tennessee's public school curriculum and student proficiency standards were among the weakest in the nation. Yet even so, more than 20 of Knox County's 76 public schools were deemed to be "failing" on one or more measures of student achievement on the state's Report Card of school performance.

But even as 22 charter schools were springing up in Memphis and five in Nashville since the state Legislature authorized these publicly funded but independently operated schools in 2002, prior to this year no credible applications to start one were submitted to the Knox County school board for approval, as they must be.

By now, however, the educational landscape has changed dramatically. A much more rigorous state curriculum has been coupled with much higher standards of student proficiency. At the local level, numerous early intervention and specialized remedial programs have been put in place to help students who are struggling. And the Knox school system has been an innovator in offering incentive pay to teachers based in part on their success in raising student test scores.

So it borders on the ironic that this would be the year when two charter school applications were submitted to the school board by an October deadline. Under state law, the board had until Nov. 30 to act on them, and a rejection can be appealed to the State Board of Education for action by mid-March. In various ways, including approval of the two appeals that have come before it, the State Board has shown a favorable disposition toward charter schools targeting the three categories of students who are eligible to opt for them: namely, those now attending "failing" schools, those who haven't scored proficient on their TCAPs; and those in grades K-3 (and thus haven't yet taken TCAPs) who are deemed to be "at risk" by dint of eligibility for the federal free and reduced price lunch program.

On the surface, both of the proposed charter schools embody innovative concepts that would appear worthy of consideration. One is for a grades 7-12 boarding school called the Booker T. Washington Academy to be located on the underutilized Knoxville College campus in the belief that "children who are raised in single parent homes or poor kids living in a bad environment can benefit by physically moving away from such places." The other is for a K-8 school called the Knoxville Charter Academy with a math and science emphasis "aligned with Knox County and state goals of higher student achievement, preparing its students with a fundamentals technical and scientific jobs, and helping narrow the gap for STEM education in Knox County."

In an appearance before the school board, the prime sponsor of the boarding school, Sherman Jones, compared it to a residential charter school in Washington, D.C., that was lavished with praise in the ballyhooed documentary film Waiting for Superman. Jones once served as headmaster of a boarding school for black students in rural Alabama and later as vice president for development at Knoxville College. However, the Alabama school closed during the middle of a school year on his watch, and Knoxville College made little if any progress during his tenure there.

The school board last week followed the unanimous recommendation of a review committee chaired by Assistant Superintendent Donna Wright to deny the Booker T. Washington application. The review committee found the application both academically and financially deficient on many counts, giving it a score of 28 on a scale of 100 on a state-prescribed evaluation matrix.

The review committee found more to like about the Knoxville Charter Academy application, giving it an overall score of 77. The committee was particularly impressed with its education plan, which scored 37 on a scale of 40. Nonetheless, the committee recommended denial of its application in large part because of concerns about the school's governance and proposed location. "There are no details or description of how the governing board will contribute to the school. It is not clear what ties the governing body has to the community or relevant work experience. There is only one individual with K-8 experience," Wright's evaluation stated. As for location, proposed suburban sites in the vicinity of Lovell Road were deemed inaccessible to the population of "at risk" students whom the school must target.

While endorsing the committee's recommended denial, Superintendent Jim McIntyre held out the possibility that the school's application could be amended acceptably. And he volunteered that, "I think it would be greatly improved by the addition of at least two individuals with significant public education experience, and we would certainly be willing to help the applicant identify individuals with the appropriate experience and expertise."

The lead sponsor of the proposed school is Suzan Mertyurek, whose résumé fails to include that she was a founding board member of the Triad Math and Science Academy in Greensboro, N.C., a charter school that opened in 2008. The one board member with identified K-8 experience is Leyla Achilova, who was head of the math and science department at Sonoran Science Academy, a charter school in Tucson, Ariz.

Both Mertyurek and Achilova recently moved to Knoxville when their husbands took positions at ORNL and UT respectively. In an appearance before the school board, Mertyurek said, "We hope to address your concerns and are already looking at an alternative site." When asked privately if she was going to take up McIntyre's offer to help in adding board members, she said, "We're willing to look at that, but we do have concerns."

What's left unsaid in all of this is the sensitive issue of the prevalence of individuals of Turkish ethnicity on the proposed school's board as well as on the board and administration of Triad and Sonoran. Various websites list both of these schools as associated with what's know as the Gulen movement inspired by the teachings of Fetullah Gulen, an eminent Islamic scholar whom Wikipedia says is now, "living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania" from secular Turkey.

Mertyurek denies any affiliation with the Gulen movement and insists her proposed school will be completely freestanding and secular in nature. I have no reason to disbelieve her, but believe this is another point on which the school board needs to be satisfied before approving an amended application. The same church/state separation issue should apply to a Christian charter school sponsor.