Tennessee charter schools a potential model for Alabama

Tennessee charter schools a potential model for Alabama

NASHVILLE, TN (WAFF) - Charter schools are finally coming to Alabama after getting the okay in this legislative session, but a lot of parents still don't understand what they are.

We took a trip north to spend a day inside of a Tennessee charter school.

What we learned is that the same arguments we heard to keep charters out of Alabama are the same ones they heard 13 years ago.

MORE: AL House, Senate pass charter school bill

Tennessee's first charter school opened in 2002, and since then, a recent report says the states charter schools rank among the highest-performing public schools in the country.

In fact, Metro Nashville has seen huge improvement in their schools and some believe it's directly related to charters.

"If choice were all you wanted, that would not harness the power of what these schools do," says Carol Swann, the Coordinator of Charter Schools for Metro Nashville Public Schools.

She also says, "They have to achieve academic outcomes that are greater than what the children were achieving before."

When you first walk into STEM Prep Middle School in Nashville, the bright lime green and blue are the first clues that you're not in a typical public school. The quiet hallways are another.

They believe it's less intimidating for younger students when walking the hallways of older students who are not only bigger, but with changing booming voices.

Then you take a peek inside a classroom.

STEM Prep Director Hillary Sims says, "The first comparison would be the school size. We have 417 students; we have some middle schools that are in very close proximity to us, that are around 800 to 1,000 to 1,200 in range in students."

Charters are autonomous, and have the freedom to think outside of the box. For instance, a lot of charters have longer school days. Studies have shown that kids do better the longer they're in school.

Even things like the lunch menu can be different. STEM Prep doesn't get their food from the district - they contract out, and the kids and teachers agree it's better.

Also, since STEM has their own busses, they're not bound to district guidelines on field trips. Their students will get experiences that kids in your traditional public school won't get.

"By the time our 5th graders that came in in 2011 graduate, they will have seen at least 26 universities, and when I say 'see,' I mean spend the night at them, eat at the University centers there, go into the classrooms," says Sims.

There have been some Charter schools in Nashville that have failed. They've had to close four. But the district says that's part of having a successful system, knowing when it's just not working.

Swann says Alabama's Charter bill will have the advantage of learning from neighboring states like Tennessee.

"It looks to me as if your legislators had some excellent input, and they have a very very good start."

It's new territory for Alabama, but a lot of educators agree, charters are essential to modern education.

What do parents with children enrolled at STEM Prep have to say? Click here for part two of our report.

Copyright 2015 WAFF. All rights reserved.