Knoxville’s First Charter School Is Trying Out New Teaching Methods. What Has Emerald Academy Learned So Far?

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When the kindergarteners stream into Emerald Academy and head for their classrooms, the sign above the door doesn’t say something like “Mrs. Owen’s Owls.” It says, “Harvard University.”

The tiny kids aren’t even referred to as students. They’re scholars. The administrators are deans.

Five-year-olds don’t get smiley faces for good behavior—they earn “scholar dollars,” or lose them, based on their performance, just like an employee in the workplace.

“We really try to emulate what the real world is like so children understand there are rewards for hard work and for following our core values,” says Renee Kelly, Emerald Academy’s dean of scholars.

Students are pushed to speak in a loud, confident “college voice” and raise their “college hands” straight above their heads.

In Brandi Kinkead’s Emerald Academy science classroom last week, sixth-graders learned practical applications for the scientific method. “One of you could be the person who finds the cure for cancer,” Kinkead tells them in a voice vibrating with excitement. There is actually an audible gasp in response.

She continues, “I used to be legally blind. Some amazing guy who was just like you—he sat in class, he paid attention—he used the scientific method to come up with a way to do just enough surgery for people like me to be able to see.”

“Cool!” some of the kids exclaim, and one girl adds, “I want to be a scientist.”

Emerald Academy, Knoxville’s first charter school, began its second school year a few weeks ago with two new grades—including sixth, its first foray into middle school. Privately-run charter schools like Emerald are approved by local school boards or the state board or education as a free alternative to public schools, and school tax dollars pay at least part of their costs. These schools, governed by charter, are given flexibility to try different teaching, testing, and discipline methods. While acknowledging that its first year with the two youngest grades was probably the easiest, Emerald Academy leaders express confidence about student growth.

It’s too soon to conclude whether Emerald’s educational model is more effective than the public schools’. But despite a few hiccups, many parents say they’re happy with Emerald’s rigorous and individualized teaching approach. It’s a new model for Knox County, which the school system is backing with millions in tax dollars in hopes of improving performance among children from inner-city neighborhoods with low-performing public schools.

There are several key differences between Emerald and the standard Knoxville public school approach. To an extent, Emerald models itself on a Cleveland charter school chain called Breakthrough Schools. The resulting philosophy includes different tacks on discipline and curriculum, a longer school day and year with time for individual attention, and a less intense approach to grade-wide testing.

Steve Diggs, president and CEO of Emerald Youth Foundation and president of the board of Emerald Charter Schools, says Breakthrough was chosen as a model because its schools made a big impact (although their testing data shows uneven progress), and its leaders were willing to share their experience.

Many parents praise Emerald Academy’s academic challenges, strong structure, and family involvement.

“I like that the kids are called scholars and not students,” says Tracey Roberts, whose daughter moved from Sarah Moore Greene Elementary (where Roberts is PTA president) to Emerald for first grade last year after boredom in kindergarten led her to get in trouble for doing flips in class. At Emerald, Roberts says, that energy was focused on school work that was more challenging than third graders at Greene, where her mother teaches.

But Emerald’s discipline has not set well with all families. Choosing Emerald, and being chosen, is a lottery: there are winners and losers.

At left, Emerald Academy Director Jon Rysewyck and Dean of Specialized Services Sarah Shaver welcome students arriving at school with hugs and high-fives. Clay Duda

Emerald Academy Director Jon Rysewyck and Dean of Specialized Services Sarah Shaver welcome students arriving at school with hugs and high-fives.

Mind the (Achievement) Gap

Billing itself as Knoxville’s “first college preparatory school,” Emerald Academy opened in the historic Moses School building in Mechanicsville last year with about 125 kindergarteners and first graders. Two grades are being added each year (this year, second and sixth) until it eventually extends to eighth grade, with 540 students.

The academy began as a project of the Emerald Youth Foundation, a Christian nonprofit that has run faith-based after-school programs in Knoxville’s inner-city neighborhoods for three decades. Although Diggs basically leads both the academy and the foundation, the academy answers to a separate Emerald Charter Schools board with different members. The academy contracts with the foundation for some administrative services, Diggs says.

Nationally, Emerald is not unusual in this regard; state rules vary somewhat, but faith-based organizations can generally initiate charter-school projects as long as they establish a separate nonprofit to receive public funds and operate the school with a secular curriculum, hiring practices, and admissions. This has sometimes stirred debate about the separation of church and state, since in some states 20 to 40 percent of charter schools have been started by religious organizations—including Catholic schools that closed their doors only to re-open as secular charters, with the same staff.

Amanda Henneghan, director of communications for the Tennessee Charter School Center, says it is not necessarily very common for faith-based organizations to initiate charter schools in Tennessee. However, there are several in metro Nashville that fit this profile, including two started by the Martha O’Bryan Center and one started by Project Reflect.

Although Knox County Schools has issued requests for charter proposals annually, Emerald’s was the first to succeed. The request called for a focus on inner-city areas with a significant academic gap. Emerald appears to have successfully reached those families, with 92 percent of last year’s scholars coming from the target area, Diggs says.

Four urban KCS schools are on the state’s priority list because their student achievement levels fall in the bottom 5 percent of Tennessee. Five more are state “focus schools” because they are among the 10 percent with the largest achievement gap between subgroups of students, such as students who speak English as a second language, students with special needs, and students of different races.

In fact, until 2011, Tennessee law limited charter schools to serving at-risk students. The majority of students entering charter schools continue to come from this population, according to the Tennessee Charter School Center, a support organization for state charter schools. Its website lists four charter schools in Chattanooga, 29 in Nashville, and 64 in Memphis. However, the K-8 model is unusual in Tennessee; there were only three besides Emerald last year.

In Tennessee, charter schools are overseen by a local public school system and are open to any students within the district for free. Students are chosen through a lottery.

The Emerald Academy student slots have been in high demand. School director John Rysewyck says the school received three times more applications than slots last year. This year, it had five times more.

“We had a lot come to sixth grade this year who had a younger sibling at the school,” Rysewyck says. (After the first year, siblings get first dibs on open slots before the lottery.) “That tells us the parents are happy.”

Chasity Quinones, who lives in the Beaumont Academy school zone, had sons in kindergarten and first grade at Emerald last year. Her third son started kindergarten there this year. She says Emerald kindergarten teachers communicated much more than those at Beaumont. When her son started falling behind, his kindergarten teachers at Emerald noticed quickly and were able to turn it around, she says.

Emerald Academy marketed itself within the inner city last year by sending parents letters that included the state report card scores for the KCS elementary school their child was zoned to attend. Emerald provided information in six different languages and now teaches children whose families are from Burundi, Iraq, and various Spanish-speaking countries, Rysewyck says.

Tramaine Patterson, whose daughter was zoned for Lonsdale Elementary, was disturbed by its state report card scores when she read the Emerald letter. She considered sending her daughter to Beaumont Academy’s honors magnet program but chose Emerald.

Jen Mowrer, who lives in Karns, had the same debate about her son. Although his sister was in third grade at Beaumont, Mowrer decided Emerald would offer him more structure. “His name is Rowdy, and he is rowdy,” she says. “It’s kind of like military school, and that’s what he needed. There’s no horseplay.”

But Mowrer, who just started as Emerald’s first PTA president, was also impressed that Rowdy was writing stories in kindergarten and doing homework every night. She plans to move her daughter to Emerald for middle school.

When she does, the girl’s per-student public school funding will follow her.

Emerald Academy Director Jon Rysewyck Clay Duda

Emerald Academy Director Jon Rysewyck was previously executive director of innovation and school improvement for Knox County Schools. He has four degrees, including a bachelor’s in psychology and a doctorate in educational leadership and policy analysis.

Follow the Money (and the Talent)

The Emerald Academy budget for 2016-2017 is $2.8 million, 75 percent (or $2.1 million) of which is public funding, according to John Crooks, marketing and communications director for the Emerald Youth Foundation. Knox County schools data show that so far, the district has passed about $881,000 in state and local funding to Emerald Academy.

Residents who fought the Knox County school board’s approval of the Emerald charter in 2014 argued that losing these student dollars—and highly-involved parents—would further cripple the public schools left behind.

When all grades are filled, Emerald will take an estimated $4.5 million from Knox County Schools’ budget, Emerald officials estimate. Diggs says that once the school is filled, it will be spending a comparable amount per-student to what KCS spends.

The rest of the academy’s funding comes from contributions and grants. Its biggest donor has been United Way, which has pledged to give $125,000 annually over three years, says Diggs, who adds that the school is working toward a large-scale fundraising campaign.

To steer the new charter, Emerald culled some of the best and the brightest from Knox County school leaders, many with multiple advanced degrees. Rysewyck, a former Fulton High School principal, was serving as executive director of innovation and school improvement for Knox County Schools. He has four degrees, including a bachelor’s in psychology and a doctorate in educational leadership and policy analysis. Dean of Academics Jamie Snyder was hired away from her job as principal of Corryton Elementary School, and Kelly was principal of West Valley Middle School. As dean of scholars, Kelly focuses on family relationships and discipline.

Kelly says people have asked her why she’d leave a high-performing suburban school to help run an inner-city charter. The answer is that she came from the same background as many of the Emerald Academy scholars.

“I guess I should be in East Knoxville working in a fast-food restaurant,” says Kelly, who was born to teenage parents before attending Sarah Moore Greene Elementary and later Fulton High, eventually building a career in marketing at Proctor & Gamble. “I feel like my life was one of really defying the odds, without even knowing it. What we’re doing here is teaching scholars so they don’t have to defy the odds.”

Emerald Academy basically functions as one unit with its parent organization, Emerald Charter Schools, the secular nonprofit created by Emerald Youth Foundation. Emerald Charter Schools could apply to open more schools later, although Diggs says that’s not currently planned. Emerald Youth Foundation initially intended to open just a middle school, but shifted its focus after schools it consulted suggested intervention would be effective at younger ages, Diggs says. If Emerald Charter Schools adds another school, it would probably use the same K-8 model, he adds.

“Knox County is continuing to give choices for high school, so our sense is that if we can give choices in K-8, that will align with choices in high school,” Diggs says.

As part of charter requirements, Emerald Academy has been audited for compliance with federal education laws and KCS expects to release its first annual report on the school’s performance in September.

Emerald Academy must provide the state an annual report on progress toward the goals in its charter, but that’s not due until Sept. 1, says Ashley Ball, communications director for the Tennessee Department of Education. She says the state has received no complaints about the school.

Counselor Heidi Moles talks with a kindergartener in the halls at Emerald Academy during the second week of school. Each classroom is named after a university, as pictured above, and students are encouraged to speak in a confident “college voice” and raise their “college hands” in class.Clay Duda

Counselor Heidi Moles talks with a kindergartener in the halls at Emerald Academy during the second week of school. Each classroom is named after a university, as pictured above, and students are encouraged to speak in a confident “college voice” and raise their “college hands” in class.

Making the Grade

Emerald Academy relies on an unusual team-teaching approach and additional school hours to provide extra individual instruction.

Elementary classes at Emerald Academy are about a third larger than in local public schools, with 30 students, but each class is led by two certified teachers. One can conduct a traditional large-group class while another works with rotating smaller groups. The team approach (borrowed from Breakthrough) also makes it unlikely that students will ever lose a day of learning when a substitute is there, Roberts says.

In addition, there’s a volunteer “grandma” in elementary classes most of the day, says mother Jen Mowrer.

This year, the sixth-grade classes have around a dozen students each, providing an unusual amount of individual attention.

Emerald Academy has a 192-day school year, and instructional days are eight hours long. The extra 90 minutes at the end of each day is used to provide enrichment or extra help in small groups; advanced students can even work with students from the grade ahead.

Scholars also have a lot of access to technology, with 10 devices in every elementary school classroom and a Chromebook for every middle school student.

But Rysewyck says he is most proud of the school’s curriculum being designed by its own teachers, based on the state standards. One of Emerald’s goals is to rank among the top 5 percent of schools in Tennessee. Third- through eighth-graders will take the same state tests used to measure student achievement and year-to-year growth in public schools.

But with no students in those grades yet, last year Emerald used Northwest Evaluation Association Measures of Academic Progress tests. These allowed Emerald to compare student knowledge at the beginning, middle, and end of the year with student performance at 3,000 other school districts in 50 states.

“We want to see how our kids are competing nationally, not just at the state level,” Rysewyck says, adding that this was another piece of advice Emerald received from Breakthrough.

Emerald wants 75 percent of its students on target for achievement, as well as for academic growth over time, Rysewyck says.

It’s not there yet. About 65 percent of kindergarteners met achievement targets last year, Emerald reported to KCS. About 63 percent met growth goals in language arts, but only 56 percent in math.

First-graders (who almost all attended kindergarten in KCS) fared worse: between 42 and 53 percent met achievement targets, and 55 to 58 percent showed target growth. Rysewyck notes that some of them started at a literacy level below entry-level kindergarten standards. But of 63 first-graders, the number reading on grade level increased from six at the beginning of the year to 44 at the end, he says.

Emerald parents learn test results in quarterly meetings and through a different type of report card that uses numbers 1 to 4 to indicate the level of mastery for each subject. The report card gives parents specific direction by listing any individual skills needing improvement, Patterson says. She likes that her kindergartener set personal achievement goals with the teacher’s help, so the child really cared whether she succeeded.

“Our goal is to demystify grades,” Rysewyck says, adding, “We deal with a (parent) population where school was maybe a little intimidating or not a successful experience.”

Rysewyck says the report card was such a hit with parents that he shared it with former KCS Superintendent Jim McIntyre and five Knox County public elementary schools.

Although Emerald uses tests to measure itself against other schools, it avoids “testing blitz,” Rysewyck says. Teachers don’t even review beforehand.

Kelly emphasizes, “We’re all here trying to get kids ready for their high school of choice so they’re ready for college, rather than being here to get kids to pass a standardized test.”

Testing—and rigorous assessments of teachers, tied to test scores—has been controversial in Knoxville and the state. Tennessee signed a testing contract last month reducing standardized testing time in grades three through eight by 30 percent. And the state is in the process of revamping its approach to grading teachers and school districts in the wake of last year’s federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which gives states more flexibility in evaluations.

Some teachers and parents complained that Knox County Schools’ emphasis on testing created adversarial relationships between teachers and administration. The controversy led to McIntyre’s resignation as superintendent in January.

KCS is searching for his replacement, and some have suggested Rysewyck as a candidate. He says he is happy at Emerald, and his excitement about its mission is palpable. But when pressed, he wouldn’t rule out the possibility of steering Knox County Schools.

Unlike in public schools recently, Emerald teachers are evaluated twice a year but otherwise have a pretty free reign.

“I firmly believe teachers are professionals,” Rysewyck says. “We give them space and autonomy.”

Roberts says the impact on the school atmosphere is refreshing in contrast to Greene, which her older child attends, where she says, “I feel the tension, administration against teachers and teachers against students.”

On the other hand, former Emerald parent Crystal Tippens questions why only three of the eight classroom teachers that opened Emerald have returned. Rysewyck says they all left voluntarily on good terms, two to take jobs with Knox County Schools and the rest for personal reasons like health or family relocation.

He acknowledges that developing curriculum and setting up the physical space was a lot of work. “Sometimes when you’re building something new, it’s challenging. Their contributions were great, and the staff this year was able to come and be a lot more settled,” he says. Many of the new teachers hail from out of state and have more experience, he says.

Teacher Moniqueca Hicks leads a language arts class for sixth graders. This is the first academic year Emerald has added a middle school class, starting with sixth grade. It will add two new classes each year, eventually offering a complete K-8 lineup.Clay Duda

Teacher Moniqueca Hicks leads a language arts class for sixth graders. This is the first academic year Emerald has added a middle school class, starting with sixth grade. It will add two new classes each year, eventually offering a complete K-8 lineup.

Discipline and Accountability

Rysewyck calls the Emerald approach to behavior “a three-legged stool” that depends on the school, the parents, and the student taking responsibility. When students are enrolled, their families sign a contract about their role in discipline, homework, and reading to their kids. A family engagement coordinator can visit them at home to work on strategies for meeting the terms.

“I like that they hold parents accountable,” says Roberts, who recalls her daughter’s public school kindergarten class being sidetracked daily by a child throwing chairs.

Emerald Academy has no in-school suspension for misbehaving students, but it does remove them from the classroom immediately. They go to a “reflection room” where they are asked to think about their behavior and then fill out a form explaining how their actions strayed from the school’s five core values and how the situation could have been handled better. (An adult “behavior manager” is available to help them with the process.) When finished, they apologize to the class and ask to rejoin the learning.

Rysewyck says, “The goal is to get them back in the classroom within 15 or 20 minutes,” without pulling classroom teachers away from their focus on teaching.

Quinones says her eldest son, now in second grade, was very defiant and often ended up in the reflection room last year. His teachers “were so patient and good with him,” she says. “We came together and came up with so many different problem-solving techniques,” which they used both at home and at school. By the end of the year, her son was getting more of his schoolwork done, she says.

For students who misbehave regularly, a parent, family member, or even a neighbor may come and sit in the office and work with the child, Rysewyck says.

Emerald Academy administrators say they will use basically the same approach with middle school students.

And all levels learn the same classroom behavior systems. For example, scholars use hand signals to indicate they are done with a task or need to use the restroom. Teachers use hand signals to direct when students should stand or gather their things. When someone speaks, the teacher says “track” and points to them, indicating other students should make eye contact with the speaker.

But the boundary-testing in middle school can be very different than in the lower grades. The second week of school, a sixth-grade social studies teacher was trying to guide the class through a note-taking method. One student was speaking out of turn and making wisecracks before moving on to drumming on his desk with pencils and openly snacking out of his pocket. The teacher did not intervene and couldn’t remember what the hand signal for the bathroom meant when the student used it.

Discipline at Emerald is progressive, and the guidelines are written clearly so every child gets the same consequence for the same behavior. This is a point that a local Disparities Education Task Force has highlighted in Knox County Schools, where, as nationally, a disproportionate percentage of black, poor, and disabled students receive harsher discipline, such as suspensions and expulsions. The same groups that were overrepresented in suspensions were underrepresented in academic success, the task force indicated in a May report to the community.

But not everyone likes Emerald’s alternate approach to discipline. Crystal Tippens transferred her daughter out of kindergarten at Emerald before the end of its first semester after the girl was injured several times by another child. Tippens felt the school staff was not being honest about what had happened and she was disturbed that Rysewyck knew nothing about it.

Tippens says she was also upset by the discipline she saw when she substituted, such as a teacher making a child who couldn’t answer a question stand in front of the class grasping for an answer until he cried.

“I saw teachers get down and scream in a child’s face like at boot camp,” she says. “I would have lost my mind if I had seen my daughter yelled at like that.” Tippens says she decided she couldn’t trust the school with her daughter’s safety and transferred her to Lonsdale.

Of Emerald, Tippens says, “I prayed we would get accepted to that school, and then when we got there, I was just so dissatisfied and discouraged… I’m not saying it’s not a good school. It’s just not something I can tolerate with my kid.”

Kelly says Emerald tries to be flexible in working with families. Meetings with parents will be scheduled at odd hours to accommodate shift work and public transit, especially since kids ride the bus to Emerald from across the county. The school holds “Parent Nights” once a month with topics like wellness, Internet safety, and family bonding.

Many Emerald families are struggling with other issues at home. Rysewyck says last year a teacher realized that nine of 16 kids involved in a reading group discussion had a parent in jail.

“Kids may act up or cry for no reason, because they are coming from very unstable homes,” Rysewyck says. “There’s a lot of death, single parents, gang activity, staying with odd people over the weekend.” It can be a struggle to help kids refocus on Mondays.

Although Emerald had planned to eventually hire a dean of scholars (to work with families and discipline) and a counselor, academy leaders had assumed those positions could wait until the school had more grades and older students, Diggs says. “It wasn’t projected those positions would be needed with kindergarten and first grade,” Rysewyck says—but he discovered they were, and added them during the second semester. The school also replaced its family engagement coordinator during the year because the person “was not a good fit,” Rysewyck says.

This year a counselor will work with small groups of students on anger management. Teachers will focus more on learning about student home life and working closely with parents, Rysewyck says.

Some families say they are already changing as a result of their child’s experience at Emerald. “My daughter came home and said, ‘I want three degrees like Dean Snyder,’” says Roberts, who was young when her children were born and didn’t attend college. “That inspired me.” She is starting online college courses this fall.

“We’re going to do our homework together,” Roberts says.

Students at Emerald Academy have access to a lot of technology—there are 10 devices in each elementary classroom and a Chromebook for every middle school student.Clay Duda

Students at Emerald Academy have access to a lot of technology—there are 10 devices in each elementary classroom and a Chromebook for every middle school student.

S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at heather@knoxmercury.com

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