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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Titus Gore was up late again, sitting in silence at his kitchen table. He was concentrating on his homework, which he started around 6 p.m. and would finish some five hours later. Essays always took him the longest.
But late-nighters are something the fifth-grader is used to now that he’s started a new school, the Nashville Academy of Computer Science.
“There were some long nights and tears, but I told him just to get through the first year and it will be nothing,” said his mother, Toshiba Gore. “He is adjusting great.”
NACS is part of RePublic Schools, a non-profit that currently manages a network of three charter schools, all based in Tennessee’s capital city. Next year it will break new ground when it opens one of Mississippi’s first charter schools: Reimagine Prep. The school will educate about 120 students in Jackson, beginning in the 2015-16 school year. And those students no doubt will have to deal with culture shock similar to Titus’s: extended school days, strict discipline and lots of homework.
Ravi Gupta, a co-founder and managing partner of RePublic Schools, said his organization is coming to Mississippi because it wanted to go “where the need is the highest and where the desire is greatest for change.” The new Mississippi charter will emphasize computer coding, and plans a strong college preparatory focus.
In Nashville, NACS opened this fall and currently serves fifth-graders with a plan to add a grade each year until the eighth grade. Reimagine Prep will do the same thing in Jackson.
Charters are free public schools that are independent of local school districts but still follow the same academic standards as traditional public schools while allowing teachers much more freedom in student instruction. Unlike private schools, however, charters cannot charge tuition. The first charter opened 25 years ago in Minnesota and today charters are run in 42 states, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Mississippi joined that movement when it passed its charter school law two years ago; applications to open charters were first accepted a year later. Of 11 applications submitted last year, Reimagine Prep is one of just two schools that were approved. The second school, Midtown Public Charter School, will also open in Jackson to fifth and sixth graders and eventually serve grades five through eight.
Kate Cooper manages much of the day-to-day operations in getting ReImagine Prep ready to open.* She was part of the founding team at Nashville Prep in 2011, but said opening a new school in Jackson will be much different.
“In a state like Tennessee there’s a lot of infrastructure already there for charter schools,” Cooper said. “But in the newness of charter schools in Mississippi, there isn’t a clear answer yet. The lack of precedent is tough.”
Charter school life in Nashville – it’s an adjustment
At NACS the day begins at 7:30 a.m. and students finish classes at 4:30 p.m. four days a week and earlier on Fridays. (At Reimagine Prep, the day will be 30 minutes longer.) There is a uniform code — a RePublic School polo and khaki pants — and students are not allowed to talk in the hallways or in the bathrooms.
When pupils in 5th grade walk through the halls between classes they have to walk on a line taped to the floor. The older grades can walk more freely, but they still need to walk in line.
Titus attended a traditional public school before enrolling at NACS. Although he said “most of my friends like it here,” some students said that the school was much stricter than they expected.
“This school is different because the teachers are in control of what’s happening and they always know what’s going on at all times and the kids listen,” Titus said.
His mother said, at first, the school’s disciplined atmosphere was a surprise. She said her “jaw dropped” when she learned the students weren’t allowed to touch each other. (The school said that there’s not an explicit policy banning students from touching one another, but because students are required to walk in a line and refrain from talking in halls, that bumping another student could lead to a demerit.)**
“But they’re just so used to it, it’s not even a thought anymore,” she said.
Each classroom is colorfully decorated with the teacher’s alma mater, because RePublic Schools wants students to know college is possible someday.
On Fridays students at NACS are dismissed at 1:30 p.m. and the teachers stay until 5 p.m. for professional development. Every classroom has a video camera and Principal Allison Deissler said she often uses 30-second clips from classes to show teachers what’s working so that everyone can learn from it.
Gore said she decided to enroll her son at NACS when she learned RePublic planned to open a new middle school last fall with heavy emphasis on coding and computer science.
Titus says the most important part of his school day is the time he spends coding. All RePublic schools teach coding courses. Students use a program developed by the Massachusetts Institution of Technology, called Scratch, designed to ease them into the world of computer coding.
“I’m passionate because for one, I think it’s really fun and I think it would be cool to be able to do things that a lot of other people don’t know how to do,” Titus said.
His mom also sees a big improvement in his reading. She said Titus entered the fifth grade at reading level but by the end of the first nine weeks he was reading at a ninth-grade level.
“As a parent that’s been through a traditional school system, I see the difference already,” she said.
Gupta, the RePublic co-founder, said this is why an extended day is necessary — to allow students to catch up to the appropriate reading level.
“Our students show up on average at a third-grade level in the fifth grade and so more time and efficient use of that time is important,” Gupta said.
Although most students need time to adapt to the many changes that come with attending these charter schools, they seem to yield results.
Last year both Nashville Prep and Liberty Collegiate Academy scored far higher than the state average in every subject of the state test. According to state data, 92 percent of seventh graders at Nashville Prep scored proficient or advanced in math. The state average was 44 percent. About 72 percent of seventh graders at Liberty passed the reading and language arts exam, while half of seventh graders statewide did so.
In Mississippi, a campaign to get families to “reimagine” school
Charters, however, remain a topic of debate. Opponents of the schools argue that charters don’t truly offer a choice and instead pick high-performing students to enroll because they are more likely to succeed. Supporters say the schools provide much-needed alternatives to failing local schools.
Mississippi has consistently posted some of the lowest scores on standardized tests in the nation. The state also struggles with a high rate of child poverty; 58 percent of children live in low-income families. The state law that dictates how funds are distributed to schools has left districts underfunded by more than $1 billion since 2008, according to the Mississippi Economic Policy Center.
“We all know obviously that Mississippi has struggled historically to have a school system that the children in Mississippi needed,” Gupta said. “There are particular problems with inequality and race in that state that presents a tremendous challenge for us but it’s one that we’re excited to take on.”
On the RePublic Schools website, one of its cited missions is to address “historic inequality in the South.”
To fill the roughly 120 spots available for next year’s inaugural class at Reimagine Prep, RePublic has recruited parents through informational pamphlets, phone calls, and door knocking.
Mississippi law states that charter schools must admit any student who lives in the school district where the charter is located. To attend Reimagine, a student must be entering fifth grade in the 2015-16 school year and live in the Jackson Public School District. There is no grade point average requirement or admission exam necessary.
Cooper said the school obtained a list of current fourth-graders from the Mississippi Department of Education and narrowed it down to students who live in Jackson. The goal was to get parents to come to an open house where they could learn more about Reimagine and get more information on exactly what a charter school does.
Reimagine Prep accepted applications from Oct. 1 to Jan. 31.* Cooper said all spots are filled. The school did not receive more applications than available spots, but if any parents withdraw their children before the school year begins, Reimagine Prep will fill any spots that become available.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.
*Correction: This story has been updated to correctly identify Kate Cooper’s position, and to correct the description of how Reimagine accepted applications, which could have been submitted any time between Oct. 1 and Jan. 31.
**Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect the Nashville Academy of Computer Sciences’ policies related to students touching each other.