Earlier this month, a new kind of charter school opened in Nashville. Valor Collegiate Academy has an innovative model that incorporates an impressive mix of racial and socioeconomic diversity—as well as ambitious academic goals—at the heart of its strategic plan. It is an exciting development for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, and one that comes after several years of trial and error with a new charter school law.

The Changing Role of Charter Schools in Tennessee

In 2011, a change in Tennessee’s charter school law allowed charter schools to serve students of all backgrounds and abilities, rather than focus solely on students in at-risk situations, as the previous law had required. But the first applicants under this law raised concerns that new charter schools would become havens for white and affluent families, rather than serving a broad cross-section of students.

In 2012, The Metropolitan Nashville Public School Board rejected a charter application for a different school, Great Hearts Academy—for the fourth and last time—because their diversity plan was insufficient. This left other charter schools hoping for the board’s approval with a very clear message: either have a concrete diversity plan or don’t bother.

Todd Dickson, Valor Collegiate Academy’s founder and CEO, heard the message loud and clear and set out to create a charter school with thoughtful attention to serving students from a variety of backgrounds.

How Valor Raises Academic Standards

Dickson moved to Tennessee in 2012 after serving as executive director at a successful charter school in California. The state’s charter school legislation and federal Race to the Top funding created new opportunities for education in the state, and Dickson wanted to be part of that by starting a charter school.

The first step, however, was getting to know the city. According to Lauren Hayes, the school’s director of talent and external affairs, it was Dickson’s time spent in Nashville that allowed him to create a plan for Valor that specifically catered to the needs of the city. “Todd spent a year [in Nashville] before he proposed the plan to the district…he did an incredible job of meeting with people…[he spent] time on the ground, getting to know the city,” stated Hayes.

Dickson had to develop an academic plan that would best serve Nashville’s students, while paying close attention to the diversity initiatives MNPS was attempting to pass. Socioeconomic and racial integration became a core principle of the school model.

Valor is located in southeast Nashville, the most diverse area of the city, as part of the strategic effort to create a racially and socioeconomically balanced school. (The benefits of such integration are explained in greater depth by Halley Potter, a fellow at TCF, who has written on why we should support integrated charters.)

Map showing location and demographics of Valor Charter School

Map showing racial diversity in Nashville. Valor Collegiate Academy (indicated by the star) is located in one of the most racially diverse areas in the city.

Dickson’s academic plan—which is quite innovative, and draws from his previous experiences at Summit Public Schools charter network—includes:

  • An enrichment block, in which students can stay after school for extra help or additional opportunities. From 4:00 to 5:00 p.m. each day, students can work on homework, take additional online classes (such as language classes), visit teachers during their office hours, or explore clubs and extracurricular offerings.
  • Mentor groups, where a mentoring teacher monitors groups of twenty to twenty-five students; the mentoring teacher will change every four years, while students will stay together from fifth to twelfth grades.

Overall, Dickson envisions creating an environment where struggling students are able to reach average levels of achievement by the seventh grade.

The enrichment block is designed to help students close the achievement gap, but Valor also offers a unique blend of core and elective courses to help reach this goal. Valor’s expedition curriculum places students in core academic subjects for eight to nine weeks at a time, without a choice of electives. In the following two weeks, students take two “expeditions”—which function as electives. This semester, some expedition options include art and culture, fitness, and computer coding.

Students who are behind academically take one expedition instead of two each day in order to make time for small group remediation in the morning. Hayes explains that this model provides these students with an extra 10,000 minutes of instruction for core subjects per year.

Other Charters Should Take Note

Although charters are a promising model for school integration, in practice they are often more segregated than traditional public schools. Valor Academy officials have made a strategic effort to recruit a diverse group of students—racially and socioeconomically—and they’ve been successful in their first class.

Through strategic recruitment, Valor has been able to pique the interest of families from across the city. This is reflected in the diversity of the student body: 38 percent of students are white, 19 percent Latino, 20 percent black, 7 percent Asian, and 14 percent Kurdish or other—with approximately 49 percent eligible for free and reduced price lunch.

Racial and socioeconomic integration at Valor has allowed the school’s student body to reflect Nashville’s population and—combined with a strong academic plan—has positioned Valor Collegiate Academy to become one of Tennessee’s top performing schools.

About the Smarter Charter Series

This series highlights ideas for promoting effective charter schools that empower teachers, integrate students, and share lessons with other schools. For more on these ideas, check out A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education, by Richard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter.