Don’t Underestimate a Community

east nashvilleA couple weeks ago I sat in the meeting room for the Nashville School Board and listened as Superintendent Dr Register outlined his plan to combat a recent rise in priority schools in the district. Under Tennessee’s statute the bottom 5% of schools based on TCAP scores are classified as failing and therefore priority schools. The beauty of this plan is that there will always be a bottom 5% so there will always be priority schools for the state and privateers to work their magic on. This year Memphis closed 11 schools so that meant their were 11 slots open and some of those went to MNPS schools. Now Dr Register had a plan to combat that. A plan that if you’ve been paying attention for the last couple years is not terribly original.

Labeling his plan the “third way” and admitting that it was not fully formulated, Dr Register outlined his intentions that would turn a couple schools over to the state’s Achievement School District, allow a few conversions by charters, and give all east side residents choice. Granted some of these plans had been formulating in the shadows for several months but now he was bringing them to the light of day. Needless to say my jaw dropped and I sat there in stunned disbelief. I’ve not always agreed with Dr Register but I think he has done a tremendous job in bringing Nashville’s school district from the abyss to the brink of greatness. This plan had the potential to dismantle all that good work.

Sitting next to me was a founder of the Eastside’s community PTO, who minutes ago had listened as several of his fellow members described their commitment and support of their local schools to the board. This announcement by Dr Register flew directly in the face of what we had just heard. It was as if their testimony was never even entered. I think its safe to say he was equally as shocked.

I probably need to give a little backstory on some of the players here for those not familiar with Nashville. East Nashville was a long neglected area of town up until about 15 years ago. Prior to that it’s population was primarily African American and low income. The last several years have seen a great influx of people into the area. Its not only been people with money, but also young families, many artistic and entrepreneurial, all committed to community. The transformation has been remarkable and the schools have reflected that change. However, change takes time and some schools have lagged. I don’t believe thats a permanent condition but it does provide carrion for the vultures.

The chief vulture being the State Achievement District. They were created from Race To the Top money to take the bottom 5% of schools in the state and transform them into the top 25%. Three years in and success is a little elusive. In Memphis, where the majority of  their schools are located, reading scores haven’t even risen back to where they were when they first took over. (http://garyrubinstein.wordpress.com/2014/07/31/underachievement-school-district-2014-edition/) Apparently they’ve been licking their chops to come get a couple more schools in Nashville (http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/education/2014/07/30/state-led-district-expects-take-nashville-schools/13357951/) despite having plenty of their own challenges (http://tn.chalkbeat.org/2014/09/09/lawsuit-alleges-achievement-school-district-favored-barbics-schools-over-competitors/#.VCgWQku-Ny8). In his remarks Dr. Register said the expansion of the ASD is already a done deal and that we’re just trying to have a say in the conversation, but isn’t that what they always say?

Nashville is also the home to a growing number of Charter chains, KIPP and now Rocket-ship. I think everybody is pretty familiar with their work. KIPP has had a degree of success in Nashville (http://www.kipp.org/school-content/kipp-academy-nashville). Rocketship recently had Andre Agassi in town to speak about the investor model of education. (http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/education/2014/09/16/andre-agassi-nashville-embraces-investor-led-approach-help-schools/15743641/) That doesn’t seem congruous with the community spirit being built in East Nashville.

When word of Dr Register’s plan filtered out, needless to say East Nashville parents were less then thrilled. They quickly organized using both traditional methods and social media. A organizational meeting was quickly scheduled to discuss ways to stop this plan and ensure that parents and community members have a say in any plan going forward. Reaction to Dr Register’s plan was so fast and furious that the administration quickly took notice. They dispatched Chief Officer of Innovation Dr.Alan Coverstone to ask if he could address the group to dispel any rumors. In my opinion the only rumor needing dispelling was that Dr Coverstone worked for MNPS and not the Charter Incubator. Watching this from afar I was a little concerned that he would be able to persuade them that the plan was as bad as they thought. I shouldn’t have been.

While  I wasn’t in attendence at this meeting, the reports I got back were nothing if not amazing. Parents and community members didn’t fall for the slick talk for one second. They were informed and unafraid to ask the hard questions. They showed a concern for all students on the east side, not just the ones at the high performing schools. They were unwilling to sacrifice any child of the community to outside interests. I think Dr. Coverstone was taken a back by the reaction. At one point he tried to counter an argument that there would always be a bottom 5%. If thats not a sign of being flummoxed I don’t what is.

MNPS has scheduled a series of meeting with parents. Touted as listening tours, its safe to say they’ve gotten an earful. Every single one of these meetings has been well attended despite some interesting schedule times. Over 150 people showed up at the meetings scheduled at two of the more challenged schools. The message has been  unified, we are proud of our schools, we know there are challenges but we are willing to accept those challenges as a community and we don’t want any solutions that don’t include our input.

The East Nashville community has been nothing short of inspirational in the way they’ve come together to get their voice heard. Volunteers offer child care so that others can attend the meetings. Members have gone door to door to inform the community about whats going on. Other members have reached out to targeted schools to assess what their needs are and how the community can assist. The goals they are pursuing are long term instead of quick fixes. Discussions involving student mobility, discipline, purpose of pathways and empowering teachers have all been vigorously discussed.

When plans like the “third way” were launched in NOLA, Denver, Detroit, Memphis, parents weren’t prepared. They were instantly put in a position of playing catch up. East Nashville parents are caught up. They’ve studied their case histories and are prepared with the essential questions. This isn’t going to be a slam dunk. Reformers are going to have to work for this one.

I’m not sure where it will all end. In the end perhaps the forces of the establishment will prove too strong. Perhaps just a portion of the plan goes through. Perhaps in the end community members will prevent a plan from going through without their input. Time will hold the answers. This I do know though. East Nashville is laying the blueprint for how a community comes together and creates their vision for what education looks like in their community. Its a blue print not just for East Nashville either. Its a blue print for all of Nashville and in fact all of the country.

There will be more of these battles in more communities across the country as more parents get a better understanding of what reform means. Communities will come together to demand that schools be as much about community as they are about reading, writing and arithmetic. I believe they will study the East Nashville blue print like many of us have studied Memphis, Denver, NOLA, Camden, Detroit. If I was a reformer, that would make me very very nervous.

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