Attorney and Secretary of ReThink Forward Thomas Lee Talks About the Power of School Choice and Nashville Collegiate Prep


Live from Music Row Monday morning on The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. –  host Leahy welcomed attorney Thomas Lee and Secretary of ReThink Forward to the newsmakers line to talk about the process of creating a charter school in Tennessee and the power of school choice for students and their families.

Leahy: We are joined on the line with us Tom Lee who’s a partner at Frost Brown Todd and he is also heading up a group called ReThink Forward. It’s a 501 (c) (3) that has been approved to do a charter school called Nashville Collegiate Prep. And that school is being managed by another group called the Noble Education Initiative. We had Sherry Hage and Richard Page here last week. Tom, welcome to the Tennessee Star Report.

Lee: Michael. Good morning. How are you?

Leahy: I’m great. So tell us about ReThink Forward and how the idea of applying for a charter school here in Nashville came about.

Lee: Sure. ReThink Forward is a Tennessee not-for-profit corporation. The board chair is Dan Boone who is the president at Trevecca Nazarene College and I serve on the board with him along with other educators and citizens here in Tennessee and elsewhere.

And our idea really was to offer a choice frankly to kids that don’t often have a lot of choices particularly with where they go to school. We know that the power of choice is real. We know it motivates parents. We know it motivates kids and we know it changes lives. And so we began working about three years ago. And it took us three years of work. (Leahy chuckles)

Leahy: I was hearing an adjective come in there. Three long years, right?

Lee: Well, that’s fair. We worked diligently and candidly. And our school got better the more we worked on it. So we did approve the application that we were working through Metro schools. But suffice it to say we had to fight pretty hard to get the final product through but we were unanimously approved by the State Board of Education. And we are looking forward to opening and to start serving students this August.

Leahy: So let’s talk about that process. So does the Metro Nashville Public School Board have any say in charter school approvals?

Lee: Yes, anybody who wants to start a charter school. And by the way, anybody can start a charter school if you are a not-for-profit organization. Under Tennessee law right now you’ve got to go through the Metro Nashville School Board first. Now, they can accept your application or they can turn it down. If they turn it down you have an appeal and that was to the State Board of Education when we did it just a year ago.

And now it will be to the Tennessee Charter School Commission. But that’s a second bite at the apple. And frankly, you get a different group of reviewers and we found the State Board to be not only open but encouraging. And we’ve been working with the staff at the state public charter school commission since. And they’ve been great. They’ve been terrific partners, and we are excited about what we could do together.

Leahy: What was the initial ruling from the Metro Nashville Public School Board?

Lee: Well, they said no. And what that no meant and why they said no was sometimes is hard to figure out. I’ll tell you the story. When we first took our very first appeal I spoke for the school at our public hearing and candidly about what I thought was going to happen was the school board would come to the public hearing and they would argue that they denied our application because there were so many other good schools in the area that another school wasn’t needed. That’s not what they did.

What they did instead was they brought a big chart that showed how many empty seats there were in all the schools in the area that we wanted to serve. And they said well because these schools aren’t full there’s no need for a school. Well, know that actually was evidence that the schools weren’t good. It’s not full. We knew that neighborhood. We know that neighborhood and we firmly believe that there are kids and families there who will respond to a quality choice option. And that’s why we’re so excited about Nashville Collegiate Prep.

Leahy: Now did the Metro Nashville Public School Board have a vote on it? And when did they vote? And what was the vote?

Lee: Yes. So there’s a cycle for approving these applications. The last vote was in August. It might of be July of 2020. And so we took our appeal from that vote of the school board to the State Board of Education.

Leahy: There are nine board members. And do you recall what the vote was and did any board members vote yes?

Lee: There are nine members. I believe every member of the school board voted no.

Leahy: Interesting. Well, we’re going to talk to Fran Bush about that. We are friends with Fran she comes in here every now and then. That’s a little surprising. I thought she probably would have voted yes on it. But going forward tell us why Nashville Collegiate Prep will be a good choice for K-8 students here in Nashville.

Lee: Sure thing. A couple of reasons. One, we’re excited about serving an area of Davidson County that is not in the Antioch neighborhood per se but a little more to the west but still in South East Nashville along Old Hickory Boulevard between Nolensville Road and Interstate 24. We think that area is underserved by choice options close by. That’s one. Two, we’re excited about our model.

We think that we can do more education from a teaching standpoint and we think we can do more with a model that brings kids into large groups and it separates them out so that they can learn according to their learning ability. We do not think that every classroom of 25 to 30 kids serves every kid well. We know that individualized education plans for every student are unnecessary, and then you have to build in the staffing and frankly the school architecture so that you can serve those kids according to their individualized plans.

So our staffing is a little different and our approach to making sure that every kid’s needs get met is a little different. We’re not just going to have a teacher in a room talking to a group of kids for 30 minutes 45 minutes or an hour at a time. We want to be able to focus on where the kids are so that we can bring them forward and then we can bring larger groups back together for group instruction.

And that works throughout the day and throughout the subjects. It’s a K through four school. That’s how we’re opening. And we do have plans and hopes to grow that, but right now K through four. And we’re working with our partners at the Noble Education Initiative who have a terrific experience. I’m glad you talked to Sherry and Richard the other day.

Leahy: Tom Lee, will you come back again and tell us more about Nashville Collegiate Prep?

Lee: Absolutely.

Leahy: Tom, thanks for joining us today. We really appreciate it.

Listen to the full first hour here:

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Tune in weekdays from 5:00 – 8:00 a.m. to the Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.
Photo “ReThinkForward with Tom Lee” by ReThinkForward.





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