By Sally Absher

Last week, between the various snow and ice storms that plagued our area, a letter made its way into the mailboxes of families of pre-school and kindergarten students from several local schools, including Christenberry Elementary, Green Magnet, South Knox Elementary, and Sam E. Hill preschool.

Under the bright green Emerald Academy logo is the heading “You Have a Choice – Emerald Academy! Enrolling Now – Kindergarten and 1st Grade”

Emerald Academy is Knoxville’s first approved charter school, slated to open for the 2015-16 school year. It is an offshoot of the successful Emerald Youth Foundation (EYF) ministry. Director Steve Diggs has been working miracles in the Knoxville urban school environment for years, but many are questioning why Emerald Academy, which would appear to work at cross purposes to everything EYF is doing in Knoxville’s urban public schools.

The letter begins, “Dear Parent Guardian, Do you know the grades for the school your child is zoned to attend next year and how they compare with Knox County School’s overall grade?

There is then a chart for the specific school showing the “achievement grade” for grades 3-8 math and reading compared to the KCS overall grade. The information is given for 2012, 2013, and 2014. For example, Christenberry Elementary had a grade of “D” for math and reading in 2012, and grades of “B” and “C” respectively for math and reading in 2013 and 2014.

What was strangely left off the chart was the fact that Christenberry had straight “As” in value added.

The letter continues, “Knoxville has a free, college preparatory K-8 school opening this fall, Emerald Academy. This new school has been designed to earn higher grades!”

“At Emerald Academy, a Knox County Public School, we believe that all students will achieve at high levels and that preparation for college begins at an early age.”

Hold it. Hold it right there. Yes, Emerald Academy is technically a “public school” – it is being funded by public tax dollars (that are being diverted away from Christenberry, Green, South Knox, and Sam E. Hill, among others). But nowhere in the letter does it say anything about it being a CHARTER SCHOOL.

That makes a difference. A charter school in Knox County falls under the oversight of the local education authority (KCS Board of Education) but the school is run by a privately appointed board. That board makes all the decisions about teachers, curriculum, dress code, discipline…and parents have NO elected representation!

Here are some of the features of Emerald Academy, again, from the letter:

High Expectations – Scholars, parents, teachers and staff will create and reinforce a culture of achievement and be held to college preparatory standards.

Personalized Learning Focus – Each K-5 classroom will have two certified teachers and one technology device per three scholars, with the goal of one technology device for every student in grades 6-8.

Additional Classroom Time – In a safe and structured learning environment, scholars will have a longer school year (192 days) and a longer school day (8 hours). Scholars who attend Emerald Academy K-8 will receive 2 additional years of instruction compared to students attending traditional public schools.

Other Features – Transportation, uniforms, nutritious breakfast and lunch, PE, art, and music.

The letter concludes by saying, “There are only 120 open seats, and we’re receiving applications daily, so I encourage you to enroll your child today.” It is signed by Jon Rysewyk, School Director.

Did you catch all the references to “scholars?” No ordinary students here! As if just calling them “scholars” will guarantee their success.

But that is not the troubling part about this letter. It is a slap in the face to all the teachers who have given their hearts and souls at Christenberry, Green, South Knox, and other schools. Those teachers work to provide for every student, whether they can make it through a rigorous application process or not. What will happen when the top students leave, test scores drop, and more teachers are labeled as “ineffective?”

And tax money will be diverted from the public schools while students, and teachers who remain at those schools continue to do without.  Educators have been saying for years that smaller class size will yield better results. Having two teachers in each class room effectively makes the class size smaller. Which yields better results (= higher test scores). The charter school is successful, and the poorly performing public school is now a failing school. And then more charter schools come in, and the cycle continues.

Knoxville now has four “priority” schools – defined as the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in Tennessee. These are Sarah Moore Greene, Greene Magnet Elementary, Vine Magnet Middle, and Lonsdale Elementary.  This designation gives the state or district the power to do something to fix it.

Often that entails firing the school’s principal or teachers, or handing the school over to a charter school management organization. Neighborhood schools are shut down, which has a negative impact on the community. Just look at Memphis, or Nashville. And New Orleans, which has zero public schools left. Is that what Knoxville wants?

Just as important, can Knoxville afford this? Charter schools may pose a drain on public school finances. MGT of America, a Florida-based research firm conducted a recent study in Nashville, and concluded that growth of charter schools will harm Nashville public schools overall. “The loss of even a single student will reduce the revenue received.” The report estimates that the net negative fiscal impact of charter school growth on the districts public schools would be more than $300M in direct costs over a 5-year period.

Don’t say we didn’t warn you.