Four years ago, Ravi Gupta started the Nashville Prep School with a mission. He wanted to improve education opportunities for parents and children in Tennessee, so he created a charter school as a part of RePublic Schools, a movement to reimagine public schools in the South. Today, Nashville Prep is one of the highest performing schools in the state. Gupta hopes to do the same in Mississippi, where no charters yet exist and where students post some of the lowest test scores in the U.S. If negotiations between Mississippi Charter School Authorizing Board and RePublic Schools go according to plan, ReImagine Prep will open in Jackson a year from this fall.
The Hechinger Report spoke with Gupta about why he believes charter schools can improve education in Mississippi.
Q: You already have two successful schools in Nashville. Why try and start one in Mississippi?
A: When contemplating whether to go outside of Nashville, the question was where students and families needed us the most. That compelled us to take some trips to Mississippi just to learn what was happening and meet some folks on the ground who had been working in education. We were inspired from the get-go. We met a lot of people who were passionate about improving outcomes for kids in the state and that seriously compelled us to consider starting a school there. The critical partnership for us was Bishop Ronnie Crudup. It immediately was clear to us that there were people on the ground channeling the voices of the parents and kids who just wanted more excellent public school options.
Q: Why did you choose to open charter schools in particular? Some people see it as adding a third system.
A: Charter schools are public schools, and we start charter schools because we care about what is necessary for kids and families. Right now the design elements of the schools we run are only possible, unfortunately, through charter public schools. For instance, we have an extended school day which runs from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and that allows us to double the amount of math and triple the amount of literacy (taught during the school day). We have a very particular way that we do student culture and discipline. We’re very strict, from the way that we track our data to the way that we recruit and incentivize our teachers. Our belief and our hope is that anything that we do that we find successful and that our families think is needed can and should be adopted by traditional public schools — just as our model has been inspired by some of the best traditional public schools that we’ve seen.
Q: What’s made your charter schools successful, considering that not all charters are?
This story is part of our ongoing coverage of Mississippi and the challenges facing its education system. Here are some of our stories:
A: I think it starts with high expectations. We say no matter where our students came from, they can succeed at a high level. I know that sounds basic, but unfortunately that’s in short supply in a lot of places in America. Then we map that set of high expectations on to a set of systems and curricular decisions. So when our students come in, we’re constantly asking how do we make a lesson more rigorous, how do we make it more engaging? We also have some clear systems decisions that we make which give us the room to actually reach the high expectations that we have. So for instance, we have the longer school day and we made that decision in recognition of the fact that these kids usually come into our schools traditionally two grade levels behind or more. Our parents want more time for their students to learn and so our longer school day allows for double the amount of math and literacy.
Q: There’s a lot of controversy about charters. What are the major concerns and how do you address them?
A: I think one of the biggest worries people have is that charter schools are going to become segregation academies. We are uniquely helpful in helping to address that concern because we are over 90 percent African-American. So we are the opposite of what people fear in the law. Coming to Jackson, we’ve had a lot of support and have been really blessed to have such a positive initial reaction. We knew that it was a tremendous responsibility given how strong the opinions were when the law was passed there. We view it as our central responsibility to listen to concerns and that we’re transparent every step of the way.
Q: When Reimagine Prep opens, it will be setting the first example for charter schools in the state. How do you think it will make a difference in Mississippi education?
A: Everything we do is in the mission of getting our students into the colleges of their choice. One of the early goals that we set was that our students, regardless of background, would exceed the results of Williamson County which is the highest performing county in Tennessee. Williamson County is our (Tennessee’s) equivalent of Madison County, and so when we said our kids in Nashville were going to exceed the results of Williamson County in two years, people laughed us out of the room. You know, after two years our students in three out of four subjects exceeded Williamson County and in our first year even exceeded Williamson County in math by a pretty significant margin. Our students are showing what’s possible here in public education. No matter what your zip code is, students from any neighborhood can produce very high quality work. Sometimes growing up in adversity can actually be an advantage. We’ve been inspired by what our students in Nashville have done, and so when we come to Jackson one of the first things that we do with the community is set our targets there. The long term goal is this – to teach our students how to get into and succeed in college and give them skills that are relevant to the 21st century. So all our students will graduate middle school knowing how to code computers and in 12th grade they’ll graduate not only knowing how to code, but really having extensive practice in multiple languages, applying their coding skills in multiple areas.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.