CharterFolk Contributor William Hill – When A Good Authorizer Goes Bad

Greetings, CharterFolk!

Today we are pleased to share a contributor column from William Hill, Executive Director of Rocketship Tennessee.

William Hill, Executive Director of Rocketship Tennessee

I provide William’s bio below.

William Hill is the Executive Director of Rocketship Tennessee. Will is an exceptional educator and school administrator who leads the team overseeing our Tennessee region and he also serves on Rocketship’s Network Executive Team. Will passionately believes in providing servant leadership and intentional support for school teams and educational equity for all students.

Will knows firsthand what it’s like when students face barriers to academic opportunity based on their zip code. Although he tested into his school district’s rigorous gifted and talented program during elementary school, he later faced racism and classism from both individuals and the system at large during middle and high school. It wasn’t until college that Will realized how far this set him back.

After starting his career as a classroom teacher in Baltimore City Schools – the same school district he attended as a child – Will felt drawn to school leadership in order to help shape the larger systems that impact students’ educational experiences. While serving as a teacher and rising leader in Prince George’s County Public Schools, a mentor saw Will’s desire to disrupt the destiny of demographics that far too often define a student’s academic potential and encouraged him to open a public charter school. Following his mentor’s advice, Will successfully scaled a network of high-performing charter schools where his fifth grade students regularly scored in the 90th percentile or greater on reading achievement assessments. He then joined a national consulting firm, overseeing transformation projects for schools and districts across the country, including literacy reform, strategic planning, human capital strategy reform, leadership and teacher development programming, school redesign, and using data to drive improvements.

Will earned his Masters of Arts in Teaching from Johns Hopkins University and completed post-graduate work in urban educational leadership at Loyola University in Maryland and Morgan State University. Will also holds a Masters of Divinity in Global Outreach from Grand Canyon University and is a doctoral candidate at Biola University.

When he’s not working, Will enjoys spending time with his wife and three children.

Karl Dean, the former Mayor of Nashville, Tennessee, frustrated with the lack of progress of Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS), courageously decided to shake up the status quo in public education during his term from 2007-2015. He convened a group of leading educators and stakeholders from across the city and then set out to bring innovative programs to supplement the offerings of the school district, which included recruiting high-quality charter schools to Nashville.

By and large, his efforts were successful, and Nashville’s students and families have benefited over the last decade from things like free aftercare for middle school students, free bus transportation for high school students, the presence of national teacher recruitment organizations, as well as the growth of high-performing public charter schools. Rocketship was one of the first charter school operators to accept Mayor Dean’s invitation to open and operate high-quality public schools focused on meeting the academic needs of the city’s impoverished and socio-economically disadvantaged students of color.

Given today’s political climate, it is challenging for many civic-minded people to believe that a Mayor in the Mid-South who is a proud Democrat would recruit charter schools with a track record of high performance to his city in hopes of sparking educational innovation and improvement. However, one of the first lessons a mayor – or any elected executive charged with delivering reliable outcomes – learns is that education, trash collection, safety, and exemplary customer service are neither Democratic nor Republican issues. In short, effective leaders are always concerned about the well-being of all the people they serve, ensuring that every aspect of the organization continuously improves.

Knowing that the city’s children didn’t have time to wait for school improvement through incremental progress, Mayor Dean promoted public school choice as an important step toward equity for families zoned for underperforming schools. While MNPS had to learn how to authorize schools and grappled with the inherent tension of providing contractual autonomy and earnest accountability, the relationship worked. Some of the country’s best non-profit, public charter operators opened schools in Nashville and their students and families have been thriving ever since.

Over the past decade, Nashville has become one of the leading cities in the Mid-South. During this time, rather than embrace the city’s vibrant charter school community and share lessons learned that could benefit all Nashville students, a rotating cast of characters on the MNPS Board of Education have sought to discredit charters through misinformation and openly hostile remarks fueled by partisan politics. The criticisms were quiet for a short time during and immediately after the Covid pandemic as all schools, no matter the type, were in the same boat of navigating unprecedented challenges. However, as schools have started to recover from historic learning losses, charters are again viewed as a threat to the bureaucracy of a large school system, and the current MNPS Board has once again declared war.

With this backdrop, our Rocketship Nashville Northeast campus was up for charter renewal in November of this school year. The school is the highest performing public school in its geographic cluster and was previously designated a Reward School – the highest honor the Tennessee Department of Education awards a public school. Although the MNPS staff recommended the school for renewal, the MNPS Board of Education went against their own staff’s recommendation and voted 8-1 to close our school.

Thankfully, we were able to appeal the MNPS Board of Education’s decision to the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission, which voted unanimously in our favor on January 26, 2024. We are now approved to operate for another ten years under our new authorizer.

Based on the state’s quality authorizing standards, a renewal decision should not come as a surprise. State policy clearly affirms that renewal decisions should be based on “thorough analyses of a comprehensive body of objective evidence”.

The information presented to and considered by the MNPS School Board did not reflect our entire 10-year track record. This is why the state appeal process exists. While School Board members are quick to criticize the appeal process as “state overreach” or undermining their authority as elected officials, their decisions would not be overturned if they were based on merit and the best interest of students rather than politics.

During the TPCSC meeting, Commission members echoed these concerns in their discussion, placing ultimate responsibility for an unfair process with the local School Board. One Commission member said the School Board “based their decision on lack of facts and lack of substance,” noting “it looks like targeted punitive action.” These were affirming words for our families and staff to hear, after facing an uncertain future for two months as the appeals process took place.

The families we serve too often face social systems and political decisions stacked against them – our local school board shouldn’t be one of them. When public school boards of education are committed to providing equitable opportunities for their students and families, they support the neighborhood public charter schools that consistently provide a high-quality education for its students in a vibrant learning environment.