Tennessee’s State Board of Education took a step forward in its unprecedented relationship with a national charter network on Thursday as members toured two of KIPP’s existing schools in Nashville in preparation for overseeing two more.

When the State Board voted unanimously last fall to approve KIPP Nashville’s appeal to open two new schools in South Nashville, it was the first time that the body had overturned a local district board’s decision on charter school expansion.

The vote marked a shift in Tennessee from charter schools being authorized strictly at the local level. The State Board previously had rejected 11 appeals, but those were from smaller, less-established charter organizations. KIPP was established in 1994 with schools in New York City and Houston and today operates 183 schools with 70,000 students.

As a charter authorizer, the State Board and its staff will be charged with monitoring the new schools, renewing their charters, and — if they don’t reach academic and financial benchmarks — closing them down.

The board has authorization power under a 2014 state law allowing charter operators to appeal to the State Board if denied by a local school board, so long as the local district has at least one priority school, which are the state’s bottom 5 percent of worst-performing schools.

To represent the new partnership, State Board staff and members toured the shared campus of KIPP Collegiate High and KIPP Academy Nashville, a middle school, in East Nashville. Since the board already has approved KIPP’s new schools, the trip was about building relationships and enthusiasm for both sides, not a fact-finding mission.

Chris Henson, interim superintendent of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, participated in the tour. Members of the local board were invited to attend but did not. The Nashville board rejected KIPP’s application for two more schools twice, citing KIPP leaders’ plans to open the schools anytime within the next five years. Board members said that wide window hindered the district’s ability to plan.

When they rejected KIPP’s application, Nashville board members also cited concerns about overly strict discipline at KIPP, which State Board members asked about on Thursday’s tour. Indeed, the classrooms and hallways of school were absent of the typical chatter in middle and high schools.

Tenth grade KIPP student Kathy Palomino looks on as fifth-grade student Peyton Wade tells State Board of Education members about her experience so far at KIPP.
From left: Ninth-grader Caleb Graham and 10th-grader Kathy Palomino watch as fifth-grade student Peyton Wade tells State Board of Education members about her experience so far at KIPP.

Peyton Wade, a fifth-grader at KIPP Academy Nashville, told the visitors that students receive demerits for infractions such as talking when lining up at the end of class. There are three levels of infractions, Level 3 being something like  “calling someone a name — and not just any mean name, but a word kids aren’t supposed to say,” Peyton explained.

She said she likes the quiet hallways for its calming and focused atmosphere.

“When I first heard (my mom was looking into KIPP), I said, ‘Oh no!’ because my cousins had gone to a KIPP school and they were always complaining about the homework,” Peyton recalled. “But I walked in and people were friendly.”

Board members asked students about their plans after graduating. Peyton said she plans to be a teacher for 10 years before getting another degree and “trying something new.” Collegiate High ninth-grader Caleb Graham said he hopes to study engineering at Belmont University in Nashville. He’s in KIPP’s choir, and when asked by board member Wendy Tucker, delivered an impromptu a capella performance of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”

To project their ACT scores, students at KIPP take assessments three times a year, beginning in middle school, so they can start planning about where to apply to college and what to study. The charter organization’s focus on college prep and rigor was considered a major asset during the appeal process.

State Board Executive Director Sara Heyburn thanked the students and faculty for hosting the group.

“We could not be more excited,” she said.