Nashville Communities Rally for Neighborhood Schools

madisonmiddleschoolA public school is the anchor of its community. And that’s exactly why parents and educators in East Nashville, Tennessee have teamed up to fight for the resources their public schools need to improve, rather than giving them away to national charter school chains.

“We fight to make sure there is a quality school to educate our children in the communities where they live, warts and all,” said Jai Sanders, father of a 1st grader at Inglewood Elementary School in East Nashville and active member of Inglewood’s Parent-Teacher Organization. “Charters can be neighborhood schools but they are also schools of choice and that choice goes both ways. It’s not just the parents choosing the school, it’s the school choosing the student.”

After news broke this past summer that the number of Metro Nashville Public Schools operating in the bottom five percent in statewide performance more than doubled, Director of Schools Jesse Register announced a plan that relied on converting struggling schools – where the real issues are poverty, homelessness, mobility and lack of resources – to charter operators, closing others altogether, and turning East Nashville into an “all-choice, no-default zone.”

Being on the bottom five percent list also means a school can be taken over by the state. Tennessee is home to the statewide Achievement School District (ASD). The ASD selects schools, measured solely on test scores, and then turns them over to charter school operators to manage. Operating mostly in Memphis with mixed results, ASD has selected two middle schools in Nashville, Madison and Neely’s Bend, for potential takeover even though data shows the number of students scoring proficient or advanced at the schools are nearly seven points higher than the ASD average.

Missing from these plans has been input from staff and families from those struggling schools. So what did they do to make sure their voice got heard? Organize!

At two recent meetings with ASD leaders at Madison and Neely’s Bend, parents packed the room to praise their neighborhood schools and denounce hostile charter takeovers. Educators from all over the country in town for a conference held a candle-light vigil outside the meetings to support the parents’ requests to boost neighborhood schools with proper resources rather that give them away to charter operators.

NEA President Lily Eskelsen García (third from left) and educators attending an NEA conference in Nashville show their support for the Madison and Neely¹s Bend Middle School communities.

NEA President Lily Eskelsen García (third from left) and educators attending an NEA conference in Nashville show their support for the Madison and Neely¹s Bend Middle School communities.

At Inglewood Elementary School, once the Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO) got wind that their school was up for possible charter conversion for the 2015-16 school year, they immediately started a letter writing campaign and petition drive to request any changes be “community-driven by each school for its own scalable solution.”

The PTO kept doing PTO things like a Fall Festival and movie nights, and added responsibilities like enlisting community support for bringing volunteers into the school on an unprecedented level. They’ve also turned to social media to share news about Inglewood and school board happenings, as well as connect with parents at other schools in the area.

“We, the ‘priority schools’ of East Nashville, have started a dialogue to see how we can help out each other,” said Sanders, who is also active with East Nashville United.

Parents and community members in East Nashville have also organized a group called East Nashville United (ENU), with three objectives: to empower the entire East Nashville community, to revitalize East Nashville schools through true investment and resources and to foster community engagement. With the Metropolitan Nashville Education Association (MNEA) as partners, educators are feeling that support. Susan Rider, a 2nd grade teacher, has been at Inglewood for 30 years and has never seen this level of involvement at the school. “I’m really proud of how the community is pulling together for us,” said Rider.

Though not out of the woods until student achievement rises, the organizing efforts at Inglewood seem to be working. The district has decided not to convert Inglewood into a charter school next year and has provided the school with some much needed resources. In the past few weeks Inglewood has gained an assistant principal to help handle discipline problems, giving teachers more time to focus on teaching, and a full time interventionist to provide extra instruction for students with learning and behavior needs.

It’s resources like this that can turn a school around rather than seeking a non-existent silver bullet solution. “Give us two years to work with these extra resources we just got,” said Rider, adding that nobody has a right to make a decision until they spend a day at the school to see how hard the educators are working for their students.

This is What Happens When A School Gets Resources it Needs

Isaac Litton Middle School, where Inglewood feeds into, is a great example of what financial investment and community involvement can do to build a school up.

During a visit to Litton, NEA President Lily Eskelsen García hosted a panel with parent Virginia Carter, Principal Tracy Bruno and Rider. The crowd learned the steps Litton has taken to become a strong neighborhood school that’s a true asset to the community.

As Principal Bruno explained, “When I first got here, parents would sell their houses when their children were about to enter middle school. They didn’t want to come here.” But he started to invite parents to come visit the school to check out the changes, and three years later, enrollment is growing. Carter, who has two kids in Nashville schools, said she is excited to have her eldest child at Litton. “We’re really happy with our middle school experience, and I feel lucky to be able to say that.”

She credits a culture where kids feel safe and encouraged to be smart, the rewards system the school implemented for making good character choices, and the teachers for being creative in the classroom with what’s working at the school.

“Here are the words I’m hearing: creative, community, relationships, positive, love,” said Eskelsen García during her visit. “There’s a loyalty here not just to the school, but really to the students.”

What changed for the school that received an “F” on the state achievement report card for every subject, every year from 2009-2011? For starters, the city invested $7 million to renovate the school. Principal Bruno then worked with parents to change the school culture and implemented a school-wide discipline plan that focuses on positive reinforcement.

Litton also adopted a STEM program, and every nine weeks students participate in an interdisciplinary research project to better their community. In the STEM related arts class, students interact with Vanderbilt scientists once a week for hands-on learning. Litton gained after-school programs and “club” periods once a month where students choose a teacher sponsored, nonacademic club to go to.

There is also a commitment at Litton to teacher development. The school added literacy and numeracy coaches, and teachers participate in weekly walkthroughs and peer review. While one measure of progress may be student achievement data, for 6th grade reading teacher Ashley Croft, another telling measure is that “for the first time ever, every time slot for parent-teacher conferences was filled this year. We even had a waiting list.”

For Litton, the list of successes will keep growing with continued investment from the district and involvement from the schools’ families. For other neighborhood schools in East Nashville, the fight for the right resources will continue. But there is something to be optimistic about.

“The conversation here is changing to ‘how can we improve things for kids,’” said Croft. “Instead of talking about other things in politics, they are talking about education.”