Coffee Break: Charter School Leader Shaka Mitchell on TEDx Talks, Justice and Shaking Things Up in Music City

Shaka Mitchell, leader of Nashville's Rocketship schools, is a jack of all trades. The avid runner, former attorney and recent TEDx Talk presenter is shaking up things in Nashville—and parents and children are better for it. After opening two charter schools, Mitchell will be opening Rocketship Nashville’s third school, though not without a battle. Here's how the education dynamo takes care of business. What is your favorite morning pick-me-up? I start most mornings with a little coffee, followed by a run, then some more coffee. Honestly I think coffee is the placebo—the run is what gets me moving for the rest of the day. How did you go from practicing attorney to education advocate to charter school leader? For law school, I went to Wake Forest in North Carolina and the motto is "Pro Iustitia," or "In Service of Justice." Justice was always more interesting to me than practicing law, though I'm so thankful for that experience and my education. When I graduated I immediately went to Washington, D.C. and began working in education policy. It was right about the time when states and districts were feeling the first effects of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), so it was a great time to learn about which levers really move the dial in terms of providing more kids with better educational opportunities. Then I worked at a constitutional law firm, the Institute for Justice, that has a major school choice mission. We represented parents that sought to exercise their right to choose the best option for their children—that was an awesome role. Eventually my wife and I made our way back to Nashville and I got connected with LEAD Public Schools. LEAD was growing and it was all hands on deck. It was a great opportunity to put all that study and policy into practice at the school/network level. Then I helped launch Rocketship in Tennessee, and now we're set to open our third school in four years. Let’s talk Rocketship. Their model of blended learning has been extremely successful for thousands of children of color and students in poverty in California and Washington, D.C. But listening to the local news, one doesn’t get the impression Rocketship Nashville produces the same outcomes. What’s the real deal inside your school, and do you think it is fairly measured by district accountability for charters? Let me start by saying that our schools in Nashville are delivering the same gap-closing outcomes that we see in other Rocketship schools across our network, like California, Washington D.C. and Milwaukee. That's a testament to our faculty and families. A few other things to know: Our two Nashville schools were the largest (in enrollment) charter schools to ever open in Music City. We opened with all grades at once and the vast majority of our students start with us way behind grade level. Our first-year results tell you more about the performance of the schools our students spent the last several years in and it actually reaffirms the reason these families chose to enroll in Rocketship. That's a tough thing to hear and I don't think we benefit from needlessly dogging other schools. I mean it when I say I want all schools to be great schools but we should also call a spade a spade. In our case that means highlighting the fact that students came to us after suffering years of academic neglect and then achieved the second highest academic growth score among Nashville's 73 public elementary schools. In thinking about district accountability measurements I think it's important to measure a mixture of progress and absolute achievement. There are also several qualitative metrics that are important: parent engagement, disparities in student discipline, etc. Nationally it seems the best authorizers strike a balance between legal oversight and letting operators have the space to really hit their stride and show what they can do. What is your take on Nashville’s level of openness to new charter applications and expansions? From your perspective, what’s working and not working in the approval process? I think about that in two ways: Nashville's openness and the Nashville school board's openness. So much is changing in Nashville these days, but I constantly hear that the long-term problem people worry about is the K-12 education system. That’s not a new thing. Most of the people I speak with are not ideologues who only want one broad type of school. I think they're more like me: I have one daughter in a charter, one in a private, and another in a church school. Each girl is at a school that works for her needs. Does that make me a "charter parent" or "private school parent"? No, I'm just a parent trying to do the best I can for my kids. All that to say, I think Nashvillians are really open to innovation and the label doesn't matter so much. Show us that it works. My hope is that our public officials also feel the freedom to innovate rather than be beholden to this system or that system. You recently did a TEDx Talk here in Nashville, so congratulations are in order! What was the one thing you hoped your audience would take home with them? Thanks, it was really an honor to get to speak on the TEDx stage. My main point—but still go watch the whole video—is that parents of all stripes (rich, poor, Black, White, you name it) are more invested in the lives of their kids than in any other time in history. Schools have got to harness that energy in ways that are productive academically, not just in support of bake sales and such. If schools have a genuine orientation towards parent engagement, the sky's the limit.
Photo courtesy of Shaka Mitchell.
Vesia Wilson-Hawkins is a former Metro Nashville Public Schools student, parent and staffer. She is a staunch advocate for better public school options, particularly for the Black community in her hometown. She doesn’t care if that school is run through a ...

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