Knoxville's First Charter School Just Might Come From an Urban Ministry that Counts the Governor as a Board Member

As news has bubbled up about more and more charter operators looking to start new schools in Memphis and Nashville, it seemed unlikely that Knoxville could be left out of the mix for much longer. And on Tuesday, the news finally broke that at least one applicant, the Emerald Youth Foundation, will be submitting plans for a new charter school to the Knox County Board of Education by the April deadline.

EYF is an urban ministry with 501(c)(3) non-profit status since 1992, when it officially spun off from the Emerald Street United Methodist Church in North Knoxville. The youth outreach program originally started in 1986, mixing bible studies with sports and outings to encourage academic and personal success in underprivileged school-aged children.

From its headquarters on North Central Street and through a number of other churches in the community, EYF says it serves over 1,350 kids in 14 inner-city Knoxville neighborhoods with an annual budget around $3 million. Now the foundation plans to create a new non-profit, non-religious arm, Emerald Charter Schools.

If its application is approved this spring, Emerald Academy will open in North Knoxville in 2015 with 100 kindergartners and first-graders, expanding year by year until it has 400 students in grades K-8. More schools in other neighborhoods could follow.

There are a lot of details Emerald hasn't worked out yet. EYF communications director John Crooks won't say if the new non-profit will be run by someone locally or someone from elsewhere with previous charter school experience. They haven't decided on a space yet, only somewhere vaguely within the area zoned for Fulton High School. They don't know how many teachers they plan to hire or what qualifications will be required for them, other than those set by the state.

But Emerald does have a model it's planning to follow—that of the Cleveland, Ohio, Breakthrough Schools' "Preparatory Model."

Breakthrough's first school, the Entrepreneurship Prep, or E Prep, middle school, opened in 2006. An elementary school, Village Prep, opened soon thereafter. Breakthrough will operate 10 charter schools in Cleveland as of next school year—four in the preparatory model, and six in two other different educational models—but the goal is 20 schools serving 7,000 students by 2020, says E Prep co-founder and president of Friends of Breakthrough John Zitner. Emerald won't be run by Breakthrough, but Zitner says he's excited to help Knoxville learn what it can from his mistakes and successes.

"I think it can work in Knoxville because it works in so many other cities," Zitner says, stressing that the Prep approach isn't original to his schools. "It's not dissimilar to KIPP schools, Uncommon schools in New York, IDEA schools, the YES Prep schools—all the most successful urban charters have this highly structured, highly disciplined, but warm and welcoming approach."

KIPP, or Knowledge Is Power Program, schools have recently drawn negative national attention for their disciplinary practices. A 5-year-old student in New York City school was rushed to the hospital in December from an anxiety attack after being placed in a padded "time-out" room the size of a large closet. And Salon wrote about some KIPP schools' practice of making students "earn" their desks at the beginning of the school year, which results in some students sitting on the floor for a week.

Zitner said he's never heard of those type of practices, and that's not the type of discipline the Prep schools use. But it is tough, he admits.

"But it's not punitive. It creates freedom," Zitner says. "And what we hear overwhelmingly from our students is, ‘I feel safe here. My teachers care about me.'" Still, one flattering magazine profile of Breakthrough CEO Alan Rosskamm described E Prep as "a military school, minus the military."

Breakthrough also hires teachers via Teach for America, the controversial program that places recent college graduates in low-income schools after only a few weeks of training. Zitner says his schools have hired the most TFA recruits of any charter in Cleveland—he estimates about 20, four or five of whom work in the Prep schools.

Knox County currently doesn't use TFA teachers, but Emerald Academy might, says EYF executive director Steve Diggs.

"As part of the application process, we will seriously explore if Teach for America is a good option," Diggs says.

Crooks says the decision to adopt the Breakthrough Prep approach was made after a year of research and visits to a number of charter schools both in and out of state.

"We were just very, very impressed with Breakthrough's model," Crooks says.

Emerald Charter Schools' website notes that Breakthrough's schools are some of the top-performing charters in Ohio. "Breakthrough Schools has a track record of excellent student outcomes: in 2012, its students – who are more than 97% minority and approximately 85% low-income – significantly outperformed Ohio public school students (urban and suburban) on average on every single test at every single grade level," the site states.

School report card data from the Ohio Department of Education is a little more nuanced. The original E Prep's 2012-13 report card scores it an "A" in student progress and a "B" in achievement performance, but a "D" in achievement indicators—6th and 7th graders failed to meet the benchmarks in reading, and 8th graders failed to meet it in science. (It's worth noting that the 8th graders did exceed the state and district averages in both reading and math.) The school also earned an "F" in "gap closing," although a closer look at the statistics shows all students except for those with disabilities were very close to the threshold for success in reading and exceeded it in math.

The second E Prep campus scored a "C" and "D" in the two achievement categories and an "F" in gap closing, although it hasn't yet expanded to 8th grade. Village Prep, the elementary school, had all "A"'s and "B"'s.

The decision for EYF to expand into the charter school business seems to have come from its board of trustees, which might be another explanation for the Cleveland connection. Pilot CEO and Cleveland Browns' owner Jimmy Haslam's wife, Dee, is a longtime member of the EYF board. As is Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam. As are some longtime friends and supporters of the Haslam family, like Larry Martin, Haslam's former mayoral chief of staff and current head of the state Department of Finance and Administration, and Rick Johnson, the head of the newly-created Governor's Foundation for Health and Wellness.

Diggs says the governor—an honorary board member since his election—wasn't involved in the charter school discussion. (Martin is also currently listed as a honorary board member on the EYF website. However, last year's tax returns make no such distinction for either man.)

"Emerald Youth Foundation's Board of Trustees made the decision to move forward with the public charter school application. Gov. Haslam, while an honorary board member, provided no input regarding the decision. I have not spoken with the governor about this matter," Diggs says.

One EYF board member who was involved with the decision is KCS Board member Doug Harris, who represents West Knoxville. He doesn't think his participation is a problem.

"I won't be on the board of the charter school, so I don't see it as a conflict," Harris says.

KCS spokesperson Melissa Ogden says the district won't decide if it is a conflict until it has the application in hand, and Harris says that he will step aside from a vote to approve the school if he needs to. Still, he says he's not concerned about potential loss of over $300,000 in district funds.

"I'm not so naive that I don't think it will cause problems for us budgeting," Harris says. "But I think the benefits that a good charter school can bring to our community is worth the loss."

Board member Indya Kincannon, whose district would presumably house the school, says the verdict's still out.

"I think the Emerald Youth Foundation is great. They do great things in our community," Kincannon says. "But I think the best way to support education in our community—and I've told Steve Diggs this—is to focus on birth to K education, so students enter school ready and able to learn. It's easier to prevent gaps from appearing in the first place than to close them at age 5."

Kincannon says she also has concerns with the governor's public support for a statewide charter authorizer that would allow the state Board of Education to approve charters that a local board had turned down, as happened in Nashville with the Great Hearts charter. (Haslam's office notes the legislation is not an administration bill.)

"I'm glad that it's the local school board that gets to approve charters, and I look forward to assessing the application and seeing whether what they intend to do will really support kids," Kincannon says. "If the governor and his friends and family really want to support education, though, they could help fund education more and increase teacher salaries. If there are charter schools they think are doing cool things, then fund those things in public schools instead of siphoning funds away from them."

The debate over the charter school will officially kick off next Tuesday, Jan. 21, when EYF hosts four meetings at 9 a.m., noon, 3 p.m., and 6 p.m. at its headquarters. A separate meeting is planned for members of the clergy on Jan. 24. Details and more information about the proposed school can be found at