As more organizations look to start charter schools in Knox County, we take a look inside the only one currently operating.
by jesse fox mayshark • October 31, 2022
Students in a math class at Emerald Academy. (Photo courtesy of Emerald Academy)
UPDATE 11:30 a.m. 10/31/22: This story has been updated to add that Emerald receives the average Knox County per-pupil funding level.
When Emerald Academy opened in 2015, it was in some ways a return to tradition.
Emerald Academy has shown gains in student improvement from year to year.
The site it occupies at 220 Carrick St. in Mechanicsville has been home to elementary school buildings for much of the past 150 years. Fairview School opened there in 1875, changing names twice over the years to the Ninth Ward School and then the Moses School, named for the prominent family that had originally donated the land.
The building Emerald Academy occupies was built during World War I and served as the Moses School until it closed in the early 1970s. The city used it as a community center and police academy until selling it to the Boys and Girls Clubs in 1995.
So when Emerald purchased and renovated the building for use as a K-8 school, it brought it back to its roots. Students and teachers once again occupy the hallways and classrooms, learning reading, writing and arithmetic much as their predecessors did.
But Emerald’s opening also marked the emergence of something new. Unlike the earlier occupants of the space, which were part of the old city school system, Emerald Academy is a charter school — the first and, so far, only one in Knox County.
“We are a different breed of school,” Cedric Jackson, Emerald’s family engagement director, said during a tour of the school in late September. “And we want to understand the families in our communities as best we can, and help them to understand the kind of opportunities that are afforded here.”
As the Knox County school board prepares to consider one or more applications for new charter schools in the coming year, Emerald’s experience to date may be instructive.
How Does It Work?
Charter schools are independent publicly funded schools that operate with a significant amount of autonomy but must meet the same state and federal standards as traditional public schools. Students at Emerald take the same standardized tests as students in Knox County Schools, and their results are included in the district’s data for state accountability purposes.
Emerald must accommodate students with disabilities under federal education law, and cannot discriminate on the basis of race, religion or any other federally protected category. According to its 2020-21 annual report, the student population last year was 67 percent Black, 26 percent white, and 7 percent multi-ethnic. Although it is open to any student in Knox County, about 82 percent of its students come from urban neighborhoods.
The school was launched as a project of the Emerald Youth Foundation, the religious nonprofit that has served Knoxville’s urban youth with recreation and ministry programs since 1991. Emerald Academy is a separate entity in order to maintain legally required distance from the foundation’s religious mission, but the two are deeply intertwined. Steve Diggs, the founder and CEO of Emerald Youth Foundation, is president of Emerald Charter Schools.
Diggs said his goal in opening the school was not to compete with Knox County Schools so much as complement them. Many of the students enrolled at Emerald will move on to either Fulton or Austin-East high schools. Having well prepared Emerald graduates will help those schools, he said.
“We want the individuals to do better here at Emerald Academy, but we need those (secondary) schools to do extremely well, so the neighborhoods do really well,” Diggs said. “We think it’s critical, and we think here in Knoxville we have a real opportunity to be different than a lot of other cities.”
Emerald Youth funded a study in 2012 to assess academic needs. It found that the achievement gaps between students in urban and suburban schools were growing.
“As a result of that, our board really felt like it was their moral imperative to start to investigate what would a charter school look like in Knoxville?” said Hannah Hopper, chief of staff for Emerald Youth Foundation.
Emerald Academy is currently at full enrollment — 450 students, 50 at each grade level K-8. It has a waiting list of about 160 students. That makes it relatively small by the standards of Knox County elementary schools, although larger than its closest neighbor, Maynard Elementary, which has just 130 students in grades pre-K through 5.
Emerald modeled its approach on Breakthrough Schools in Cleveland, Ohio, which has five campuses serving 3,600 students in grades K-8. (Like Emerald Youth Foundation, Breakthrough has benefited from donations from members of the Haslam family.)
Its academic year is longer than the state’s public schools — 190 days rather than 180 — and its school days are 45 minutes longer.
“So if you’re K through 8 here with us, you’re going to receive roughly an extra year of instructional time,” Diggs said.
Students wear uniforms — khaki bottoms and green polo shirts for the elementary grades, khakis and gray or black polos for the middle school. Girls can also choose to wear plaid skirts. The wardrobe costs $125-$150 for two full sets of clothes. It is the only extra expense for attending the school, and there is a scholarship fund to help families who want to attend but can’t afford it.
Tuition is otherwise free, since it is covered by public per-pupil funds. It receives the countywide average per-pupil amount in both state and local funds. That is the biggest knock against charter schools from supporters of traditional education, that they divert money from existing schools with existing needs.
In 2020, Emerald reported $4.4 million in public funding, plus another $620,000 in private donations. Overall, Diggs said, private funding makes up about 15 percent of the school’s budget.
The building was lovingly restored in the renovation before Emerald opened, earning plaudits from Knox Heritage. The original bell from the Moses School was brought back and sits on display in a central hallway, where it is illuminated at night and can be seen from the street outside.
“The whole building’s lit up at night, it’s beautiful,” Diggs said. “It’s really special in this community.”
The grade levels are separated, with the middle school classes on the second floor. Middle school students rotate between three different teachers for their core academic areas, preparing them for class-shifting in high school.
Emerald bills itself as a “college-preparatory school,” and prominent placards outside the classrooms reinforce that — each is branded with the name of an Ivy League, historically Black or Southeastern Conference university. More significantly, it builds academic rigor into the curriculum, promising “challenging courses” and demanding “high-quality work” from students.
It has 75 staff members, nearly 50 of them certified teachers. Diggs said the school has hired teachers from several places, including Knox County Schools, but it prefers to hire people who already have charter school experience. (One of those who came from KCS was its first school director, Jon Rysewyk. He returned to the county after seeing Emerald through its first two years, and is now the district's superintendent.)
What Are the Results?
In teacher Emily Bates’ first-grade classroom, students are finishing up reading and moving into a daily period called “Grit” — time set aside for teachers to work directly with students on any areas they’re struggling with.
“Zoe is cleaned up and she is ready to get started,” Bales tells her students, pointing to one of their classmates who was quick to put away books and materials. To another, she says gently, “Can you return that book right now and maybe we can read it again later today?”
There are two classes at each elementary grade, and during Grit — even at the first-grade level — students shift between them depending on which teacher they’re working with that day. Today Bales is leading them in phonics and sight-word exercises, starting with the word “here.” After one girl correctly identifies it, Bales has them chant it — altogether, then only girls, then only boys.
If that sounds like activity you might find in many elementary school classrooms, the same is true of much of what goes on at Emerald. The instruction is focused and specific but hardly radical.
School Director Carlissa Martin, who began at the school as a teacher, said what differentiates Emerald is its attentiveness to each individual student. Each classroom has one state-certified teacher and an assistant, and there is also a “scholars coach” for each grade band (K-2, 3-5 and 6-8). The coaches spend most of their time in classrooms providing extra support to students who need it and also conduct pull-out sessions for those who are struggling.
The coaches are part of an expanded “culture team” at the school, headed by a dean of scholars. Martin said their efforts have already paid off in reduced suspension rates, which were down 85 percent from the prior school year through the end of September.
Jackson, the family engagement director, will follow up with parents in cases where students are chronically absent or clearly struggling at school, to see if there are specific needs the school can address.
“A lot of times I go and do home visits with parents to try to help them to understand, ‘Here's what's going on with your child,’” he said. “Is there any way that we can try to figure out what's a type of support that you need to be sure that you're getting your child to school?”
The school has struggled with both of those metrics — suspensions and absenteeism — but not notably more than Knox County Schools serving similar socioeconomic populations. In 2020-21, Emerald said it had better attendance rates than any of the county’s urban middle schools or the four elementary schools that it draws the most students from.
In the crucial realm of academic achievement, the performance of charter schools across the country has been the subject of much analysis and debate. An oft-cited 2010 study by the U.S. Department of Education found that charter middle schools “are neither more nor less successful than traditional public schools in improving student achievement, behavior, and school progress.”
A Stanford University study in 2013 found that charter school performance varied significantly, with about a quarter of charters outperforming their local schools, 56 percent performing at about the same level, and 19 percent performing worse.
On the other hand, a Harvard University study published just last year showed that “student cohorts in the charter sector made greater gains from 2005 to 2017 than did cohorts in the district sector.” The greatest gains were for African-American students and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds — two groups Emerald aims to serve in particular.
In raw numbers, Emerald Academy’s performance on state tests looks low, with only about 20 percent of students typically scoring “proficient” or better in reading and math. But that is also true of most of Knox County’s other urban schools, and Emerald’s scores generally match or exceed them.
Where Emerald has distinguished itself recently is on the state’s “growth” or “value-added” score, which measures individual student progress from one year to the next. For the first time in 2020-21, Emerald had a top score of 5 for growth, tying it with 13 other elementary schools in Knox County. The performance led to Emerald being designated Tennessee’s “Charter School of the Year.”
It had another good year in 2021-22, improving its proficiency scores overall by 3 percent. It was named a “Changemaker Charter School” by the Tennessee Charter School Center, for growth in math scores from 2019 to 2022 — raising its percentage of students scoring “proficient” or better from 17.4 percent to 21.5 percent. That placed it in the top 25 percent of all public schools in the state for improvement.
Of course, test scores only go so far in selling any school. For Miracle Upton, Emerald is about a culture that is both welcoming and demanding. Her daughter, Imani, enrolled as a kindergartener in 2015, the year the school opened. She is now in seventh grade and next year she will be part of the first cohort of students to graduate having spent all of their K-8 years there.
“She could read in kindergarten!” said Upton, who was so impressed with the school that she ended up going to work there as a scholars coach. “She’s loved it.” She added, “I believe being here helped her fine-tune some things and some skills that going to a public school would not have allowed her to do.”
After some ups and downs in the early years of learning how to run a school, Diggs said he thinks Emerald is now well positioned for the future.
“We’re on the trajectory toward what we envisioned early on,” he said. “I equate it to starting a new business. The first few years, you're trying to get your people in place, trying to get the systems in place. I think we have a real opportunity for impact now.”
So much so that he leaves open the possibility of future expansion. The legal entity that runs the academy is called Emerald Charter Schools — plural — for a reason.
“Right now we are relentless on, we've got metrics to achieve that we're not there yet,” Diggs said. “We're staying grounded in trying to ensure achievement. But we are thinking ahead about one day another K-8 school in Knoxville, or added enrollment to this school. The key for that will be we're hitting our metrics and we've got demand from the community.”