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VOL. 126 | NO. 233 | Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Power Up

Hickory Hill’s Power Center Academy moves ahead

By Bill Dries

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The company that operates the Power Center Academy charter school in Hickory Hill has made the list of charter schools the Tennessee Department of Education will use as part of its Achievement School District.

Power Center Academy students study between classes. The school was recently named best charter school in Tennessee by SCORE.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)

The ASD charter schools wouldn’t require countywide school board approval and would be state-controlled.

They would operate in phased-in conversions of existing conventional schools still being matched with the charters.

Gestalt Community Schools, the company that operates the charter middle and high schools – currently serving sixth through ninth grades – was one of two in Memphis picked by state education officials.

Gestalt would operate a new middle school to be called Nexus Learning Academy.

The other Memphis charter school is Cornerstone Prep, which would open as an elementary school.

Both met standards in the ASD’s request for qualifications in a process judged by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

The decision came a week after Jamie Woodson, president and CEO of the education reform nonprofit State Collaborative on Reforming Education was at Power Center Academy. She presented the middle school with a check for $10,000 as part of the SCORE 2011 prize for the best middle school in the state in terms of improving student achievement.

Woodson and the educators who judged the competition had been to the school several times earlier in the year as part of the competition.

“They all have a very intense culture of high expectation. You can see it in everything that happens in the school building,” Woodson said after the assembly. “They use data to drive their instruction in very clever and creative ways. They focus very intentionally on closing achievement gaps.”

Woodson said what happens at Power Center Academy is applicable in other schools.

“It’s an opportunity to share the best practices that they’re implementing here with other communities around the state so they can learn from them,” she said. “We will spend the rest of 2011 and 2012 working through all the different pieces of their data, what they’re doing here and sharing it … so other educators can be inspired by the work.”

Power Center Academy students read and study during a transition between classes, part of the school’s philosophy of makng every moment count. The school was recently named best charter school in Tennessee by SCORE.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)

Power Center Academy is a creation of New Direction Christian Church and on the same campus. A new Power Center Academy building is to be the centerpiece of the PCA Town Center development farther west on Winchester Road, where the old Marina Cove Apartments once stood.

Woodson wasn’t the only representative of a school reform group on campus this month.

As Woodson was at the school assembly, former Shelby County Commissioner Mike Carpenter of the education reform group StudentsFirst was in a meeting room just down the hall.

Yetta Lewis, the academy’s founding principal and chief academic officer, said she doesn’t view charter schools as competition for conventional public schools.

The academy is directly across Ridgeway Road from Winridge Elementary School. And the Kirby High School ROTC color guard was part of the assembly at which Woodson spoke.

“The great position charter schools can serve is a research and development arm for public schools,” Lewis said. “We are public schools but we can try things – try new concepts, be more innovative and really share those best practices with our neighbors.

“For us it’s just a collaboration. It’s not us versus them. It’s how can we do it better, collaboratively, for the children of Hickory Hill. They live in the community. Their parents have selected Power Center Academy. Our setting is a little bit smaller than our counterparts but they come from the community.”

The state is about to make the decision about which existing schools in the ASD – which includes three MCS high schools and one MCS middle school – will go charter. Turning those schools into charter schools run by the state is one of several options for the perennially low-performing schools.

The charter transitions would be phased into the existing conventional schools a grade or two per school year starting with the 2012-2013 school year.

Another option is to leave MCS in control with the ASD collaborating and consulting with the school system on changes.

Between now and mid-January, the schools will be part of a “community engagement and matching process” in which ASD officials will determine which existing schools will house their operations.

Gestalt and Cornerstone will get federal Investing in Innovation grants. So will KIPP Memphis, which plans to open two charter academies next school year in new schools operating outside existing conventional schools.

The new KIPP schools – KIPP stands for Knowledge is Power Program – won approval from the countywide school board last month. This month, the same board turned down 17 new charter school applications, citing the “financial hardship” they would pose for the city and county school systems.

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