Emerald Youth looks to Nashville charter school for inspiration

Emerald Charter Schools, a long-time advocate for Knoxville's urban youth, made their official pitch to the state to open Knox County's first charter school.

Emerald Youth Foundation is in the process of forming a separate non-profit called Emerald Charter Schools. The group submitted their letter of intent to the state department of education Friday. Monday, they plan to submit a letter to Knox County Schools.

READ MORE: Emerald Youth Foundation plans Knoxville's first charter school

Emerald Youth has worked with inner-city kids for two decades through sports teams, leadership, and faith-based programs.

In the 2013-2014 school year, there are 69 charter schools in operation in Tennessee. The Tennessee Charter School Center said the majority were formed since 2011 when the state legislature lifted caps on enrollment.

10News traveled to Nashville, where charter schools are booming, to see a school model that Emerald Charter Schools is studying. They chose to show us LEAD Prep Southeast, the newest of LEAD Public School's four charter academies.

From the second you walk in, it is clear that college is not just an option for the 5th graders, it's an expectation. Dozens of college banners line the walls. At only 11 years old, Ernest Perez has already chosen which banner is his favorite.

"I want to go to Vanderbilt University," said Perez. He said he just started thinking about college this year, when he transferred to LEAD Prep from a traditional school.

"Last year we rarely spoke about the topic," he said.

Ernest's parents said they were nervous about moving their son, but are grateful they made the switch.

"He's engaged. He enjoys school. He wants to learn. He wants to go to college," said his father Ernest Perez Sr. "Kids at this age, they want to be playing video games, they don't think anything about college. And that's what he wants to do, he talks about Vanderbilt."

"I said, 'Well you don't have to worry, son, we have a long way for that,'" said his mom, Isabella Perez, "He said, 'Mom it's never too early to be thinking about college.' It's great."

Looking in on a lecture, the school looks like many others. But CEO of LEAD Public Schools, Chris Reynolds, said if you listen in, you will notice the difference.

"Tell me, what was the most important thing and tell me why? You have to back it up with a why," a teacher asked her students.

That "why" is one reason Reynolds said their lecture is unique. The teachers are told to ask tougher questions and teach students how to dig deeper.

But those lectures are not the primary focus. Reynolds said teachers often only use traditional isolated teaching for one hour or so a day.

"In Tennessee, the charter school legislation allows us to be a little more creative than we would be otherwise under a district format," said Reynolds, a Farragut High Schools graduate.

Small group one-on-one teaching and team teaching are more the norm. Students use laptops and e-readers to do independent study much of the day to learn at their own pace with educators, including the principal, often nearby if there are questions.

Teachers are also on-call until 8 p.m. on school nights.

"If we need help in math, we can call our math teacher," said Ernest, who said he calls on a regular basis.

Reynolds said their teaching methods are important but their emphasis on college makes them stand apart.

"The unifying element of any LEAD campus is four-year college matriculation. That underlies everything that we do. It's the purpose for our work and it's the common ground for everything that we do," said Reynolds.

LEAD public schools will graduate their first senior class this May. Out of 44 seniors graduating, 42 of them have been accepted to four-year colleges.

Those numbers speak volumes to Emerald Youth Foundation's executive director Steve Diggs.

"I want to replicate this culture that promotes kids going to college. You can just look around the hallways and the classrooms and the messages are real clear this is the expectation. So let's replicate that expectation," said Diggs.

Diggs and his team has spent the past year researching schools like this one. Breakthrough Schools' E Prep middle school and Village Prep elementary school in Cleveland, Ohio are their ideal models.

Emerald Charter Schools wants to eventually open a kindergarten through 8th grade academy starting with the first two grades and add two more each year. The nonprofit hopes to find a building in North Knoxville around Fulton High School.

By the end of the decade, they hope to be serving 450 children in Emerald Academy. If approved, they would not open until fall of 2015.

"I think the data is really clear. We're seeing some progress in our urban schools, but it's also really clear that we need to accelerate that pace of achievement. New strategies, additional strategies are necessary to help close the academic gap faster for our urban kids," said Diggs.


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