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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter/ Student Zapouria Wadley jumps in jubilation after winning a drawing for a monetary prize during a celebration for the achievements of the previous school year at Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy's Hutton Gymnasium on Friday, Aug. 23, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

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Hamilton County charter schools

In addition to overall student academic progress across Hamilton County Schools this year, the area's charter schools continue to perform among some of the top schools in the county.

All four of Chattanooga's public charter schools — Chattanooga Charter School of Excellence, Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, Chattanooga Preparatory School and Ivy Academy — met or exceeded student growth expectations based on 2019 TNReady and TVAAS scores released by the state Department of Education earlier this month.

All but one were among the 45 Level 5 schools in Hamilton County. Two schools — CGLA and Chattanooga Charter School of Excellence's Lower School — were named reward schools.

Elaine Swafford, executive director of CGLA, said charter schools don't have the option to perform below expectations — they have to be successful.

HAMILTON COUNTY CHARTER SCHOOLS 2019 TVAAS SCORES

Hamilton County Composite Score: 5

Chattanooga Charter School of Excellence Lower School: 5

Chattanooga Charter School of Excellence Upper School: 5

Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy: 5

Chattanooga Preparatory School: 5

Ivy Academy: 4

Source: Tennessee Department of Education

"Charters have a high level of accountability. I never forget my first year here. We have to live up to that ultimatum to perform or close," Swafford said.

As for this year's results, the second year in a row CGLA has been named a reward school, Swafford said her staff "did what they were supposed to do."

Most of Chattanooga's charter schools, which are publicly funded, privately operated schools, serve similar student demographics as some of the county's worst-performing schools — students of color from economically disadvantaged households. With the exception of Ivy Academy, Chattanooga's environmental-based program, the schools typically serve students who are often several grade levels behind when they arrive.

But Brad Scott, head of the all-boys Chattanooga Prep, said that doesn't mean students shouldn't be held to high standards.

"I think it boils down to the rigorous instruction, excellent teachers, high expectations, longer school days and tutoring after school. Out of all that, the key piece is high expectations," Scott said of the school's successful first year. "We hold every Prepster to the same high expectations that we would hold to every child. We believe every student can succeed."

Despite overall student growth, Hamilton County's charter schools still face many of the same challenges as the county's traditional public schools. In many classrooms, most students are performing below grade level.

Only Ivy Academy's middle school students mirror the district when it comes to how many students in grades 3-8 are reading on or above grade level, according to TNReady scores. In Hamilton County, 33.4% scored on or above grade level in English language arts on this year's TNReady tests.

Though Ivy Academy only has grades 6-12, 33.3% of its middle school students scored on or above grade level in English language arts in 2019. Of CGLA's middle school girls, 28.2% are on target. At Chattanooga Preparatory School, only 16.7% of last year's first cohort of sixth graders scored on or above grade level.

In grades 3-8 math, only about 27.4% of the charter schools' students performed on or above grade level compared to 56.9% in Hamilton County and 40.8% statewide.

But CGLA students outperformed their peers in Hamilton County and across the state when it came to Algebra 2 — 53.6% of girls tested on or above grade level, compared to only 27.4% statewide.

It's something Swafford said CGLA hopes to replicate.

Swafford said CGLA's Algebra 2 teacher coaches growth mindset — the belief intelligence can be developed through hard work — to her students, and she will lead a professional development training for other teachers this year showcasing how she taught them.

"She believes kids can learn math and she loves to teach kids math," Swafford said. "She was feeding the human spirit in that classroom."

And Angie Markum at Ivy Academy said the schools have other things to celebrate. Ivy Academy is most proud of the early post-secondary opportunities that the school provides for its students, especially in specialized, niche fields targeted based on the school's curriculum, she said.

The school exceeded its annual measurable objective in the Tennessee Department of Education's Ready Graduate status by more than 12 points thanks to the number of students who took dual-enrollment, dual-credit and Advanced Placement courses or earned industry credentials.

"That was really hard fought, the state came down with that mandate without any additional funding, but it's a really worthwhile and beneficial addition to the the Tennessee graduation requirements," Markum said. "By [the] time a student graduates, when they have those early post-secondary opportunities, they have industry certifications and experiences that take them to the next step in life. We are proud of all our students' accomplishments."

Some critics of charter schools note that the schools are not required to keep problem students and are able to pick and choose students, potentially altering the atmosphere of achievement in their schools. Enrollment in Hamilton County's charter schools is an application and lottery process, and leaders such as Swafford say the district's charter schools serve the same children and the same communities.

Markum and other charter school leaders said that autonomy, flexibility and targeted programming allows charters to pursue success.

Since the launch of the school, Markum said, it keeps class sizes small and takes students on many field trips and real-world learning experiences each year. Outdoor lessons, double-block English and math classes and courses tailored to students' interests also help them excel, she said.

Swafford echoed Markum and said that charter schools do operate a little differently than traditional public schools. They can be more intentional about where their dollars go. For instance, CGLA invests heavily in ACT preparation for its girls in order to prepare them for the next step after high school.

Teachers and administrators at CGLA also lean heavily on academic achievement data and use it to inform their instruction and make adjustments.

"We are looking at every single piece of data," Swafford said. "Where did we get [students] at and where did we take them to?"

At Chattanooga Prep, Scott said each student has their own academic growth goals this year. For students who are already "on track," their sights are set on reaching the "mastered" level on TNReady.

"We are focused on mastery this year. All of our boys have mastery goals, and that's differentiated based on their scores [in 2019], so if they hit a goal last year then they have a higher goal for next year," Scott said. "Our boys have to be scoring mastery on TNReady, because if they are then they are being prepared for the ACT, the SAT, and post-secondary [work]."

In Hamilton County, charter schools and traditional public schools don't have contentious, competitive relationships like in other communities. Superintendent Bryan Johnson and his administration has been pro-school choice through opening enrollment at some under-capacity schools, launching more than a dozen Future Ready Institutes in traditional high schools and exploring ways to market and maximize the different options available to parents.

"We were just as thrilled that the district got a five because that's just a plus for our whole community," Markum said.

Ivy Academy's Executive Director Holly Slater praised all of Hamilton County's charter schools in a news release the day scores were announced.

"All the charter schools in Hamilton County fared well in state assessments. We know that a student is much more than a test score, but it is encouraging when the results confirm what we know to be true — that we serve students of great potential. It is a privilege and honor to serve the families in our communities by educating our next generation. Ivy Academy takes that task seriously and will continue to do so," Slater said.

"[The district] really adopts that we are part of Hamilton County. That's the biggest celebration that I've experienced, how well the county school system works with charter schools, through inviting us to their training, seeing us as part of the same neighborhood and really being innovative-minded for families," Scott said. "Charter schools being a part of that collective community have given parents choice — and we as a collective community are succeeding for kids."

Contact Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757- 6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.

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