Last week, I, like the rest of the country, read the horrific accounts of the poisoning of the Flint water supply. It really didn’t shock me to find out that the architect of this tragedy was later appointed to oversee the Detroit Public School System. It seems he’s applying the skills he acquired in Flint to the Detroit School System, and now, teachers in Detroit are in the midst of “sick out” being staged to call attention to the deplorable state of Detroit school buildings. This sick out, created solely by frustrated Detroit teachers, has led to a horrified Mayor touring the schools in response. What he saw wasn’t pretty.
I watched this video created by a Detroit teacher, and I’d like to say I was shocked, but unfortunately it looked all too familiar. We have a tendency to click our tongues and say things like, “Well, Detroit schools have always been a mess. Glad we don’t live there.” But tell me, what’s so different between what’s in the video and what’s taking place at Tusculum Elementary School in Nashville? A school where last year one teacher was advised “to keep the heat on in her classroom overnight through the winter months. That way it will be warm when students get there the next morning, and it’ll stay heated throughout the day — though she admits that’s an art she hasn’t mastered yet. She’ll have to hope all her kids have jackets, hats, and gloves and don’t lose them during the day, as happens all the time in schools across the city. At her school, many parents can’t afford to replace them.” It seems what’s going on in Detroit might not be such an anomaly after all.
There are plenty of other similarities between Detroit and Nashville as well. Detroit teachers have long complained of mold in schools and so have Nashville teachers. The district here in Nashville claims to be responsive, but in the same response they claim “they have seen no visual evidence of mold.” The schools referenced are places where mold has been an issue for at least the last five years and shows signs of getting worse. Meanwhile, teachers and students continue to suffer health consequences. Nashville has built two new schools in the last five years, but in what neighborhoods were those schools built and for what demographics? Interestingly enough, plans for Waverly-Belmont were announced at the same meeting as Tusculum Elementary in 2013. Waverly-Belmont is now in the midst of their first year and Tusculum waits.
Tusculum Elementary School had been promised a new school this year. Initial plans had called for them to be housed in a temporary location, a former Lowe’s building, starting in August 2015 and then once construction was completed, moved back to their newly renovated school in August 2016. Delays in securing the Lowe’s property pushed that timeline back to January of 2016. Outcry from a neighboring school over the potential of rezoning scuttled those plans, and ultimately, the district gave up on securing the Lowe’s building. A new plan was formed, and the district was going to build on the existing location with the goal of a new school opening in January of 2017. Once again, costs changed that plan as all construction bids came in too high, and the new plan is now scheduled to begin in August 2017. Based on history, though, I’d be shocked if we didn’t see another delay.
Tusculum is a high poverty and high English Learners school that was last renovated in 2003. The school whose community members complained about the possible rezoning is not quite so challenged as Tusculum is. Crieve Hall Elementary School sit less than five miles from Tusculum and its demographics are quite different. Crieve Hall has a population that is 47.8% free and reduced lunch, while Tusculum is at 94.9%. Crieve Hall has a population of 24.1% English learners, while Tusculum is at 83.1%. Crieve Hall was last renovated in 2010. Crieve Hall has only one portable classroom on its campus, while Tusculum has 22 portables this year. MNPS is planning a renovation at Crieve Hall while Tusculum is waiting for a new school. This is the first year that Crieve Hall has even had portables, yet the district feels the impetus to provide them with a renovation that will add 10 new classrooms on the same timetable as Tusculum will get its new school.
Crieve Hall is touted as a shining star. It’s a high performing school, and its parents should be rightfully proud of its accomplishments. Former Mayor Karl Dean and his Project Renaissance recently toured Crieve Hall under the guise of a program called “Discovering Great Schools.” Tusculum’s tests results aren’t nearly as impressive, but based on the numbers above, are we surprised? We shouldn’t be since there is plenty of research that shows the effects of socio-economic status on educational outcomes. There are also studies that demonstrate the effect of inadequate facilities on academic performance. I’m not taking anything away from Crieve Hall, but is it really fair to label on as a model and the other as a serious under performer?
Tusculum has some of the finest teachers in the district. Though I would question how parents can expect that to continue. Why, as a high quality teacher, would I continue to work in a crumbling infrastructure, with children who are already facing challenges in their home lives, knowing that their test results will define me as a teacher? Why take the risk that the district will not just take my results as justification for turning the school over to a charter school or place it an improvement zone, thereby placing even higher demands on teachers. We have created a culture that completely ignores mitigating factors while holding a select few accountable. Thank God that there are teachers still willing to take that risk, and we should be ashamed of ourselves for forcing them into such a decision.
It gets even better when you add “choice” into the equation. Last Friday was “Selection Day” for the Metro Schools Choice program. How many families do you think chose to send their children to be educated in one of the 22 portables at Tusculum? Better yet, how many Tusculum parents who had the ability to participate in the choice program decided to send their child to a perceived “better school” that benefits from quality facilities? When it comes time to lobby for those in-demand renovation dollars, who is going to be able to muster more voices? As a politician allocating those dollars, who is going to get more response: the cacophony or the lone voice? Once again, the needs of our impoverished schools will be shuffled to the side.
The head of the MNPS communications office, Janel Lacy, once told me that school renovations weren’t all about politics. Yet somehow, our wealthier schools continue to see timely improvements while poorer schools get told to just be patient because everybody is doing the best they can. Funny, though, if a teacher were to say, “Just be patient. Everybody is doing the best they can,” they would find themselves vilified. Yet district, state, and federal officials remain unscathed. They just send the press out to write stories depicting things as not so bad, and then continue on the same path.
At the Crieve Hall meeting outlining the upcoming renovations, one Crieve Hall parent asked, “Where is the renovation money coming from? Wasn’t the money for the Lowe’s building supposed to go to Tusculum?” The district’s spokesman’s response was, “No, we are building a new school for Tusculum. That allows us to utilize this money to renovate Crieve Hall.” He forgot to mention that that new school was being delayed due to a financial shortfall. This is the way it works. Those that have the ability to demand action get it. Nobody ever tells the wealthier schools to be patient, everybody is doing the best they can.
It’s not enough that students, teachers, and administrators need to overcome the challenges of poverty; they now need to compete at the same level while overcoming a lack of resources at their schools. It is absolutely insane to me that we are taking children who have escaped from one deplorable situation, i.e refugee camps, and placing them in equally deplorable circumstances. When do we stop laying barriers in front of our most challenged students and start opening doors? When do we stop developing policies that encourage escape, vouchers and choice, and start encouraging investment?
Tusculum is not an isolated case in Nashville, either. I’m sure that if you were to tour our schools, you would find that the lower performing schools are all functioning in sub-par facilities. Parents in Philadelphia, Chicago, Charlotte and other urban area would most likely echo those charges. I have an interesting idea: let’s put our most challenged students in our most up-to-date facilities and our wealthier kids in the most outdated schools. I can, with almost 100% certainty, predict that two things would happen if we did that. One, academic performance would suffer for those wealthier students, and two, those schools would suddenly leap to the top of the list for improvements because of the outcry from parents.
I’m not trying to pick on our wealthier students, I know they face their own challenges and I am sympathetic. We do need to do more to challenge our high performing students. We do need to make sure that our public schools are safe. We need to give them as many reasons to invest instead of ones that make them want to escape. I’m also thankful that local high performing schools like Eakin ES, Granberry ES, and JT Moore MS recognize that the system works best when we all pull together. But you can’t solve problems until you recognize you have problems and we have problems. Our public school system is crumbling right before our eyes and its going to take all of us to save it.
It is easy to look at Detroit and consider it an outlier. The truth is, parents across the country need to pay close attention because what is happening in Detroit is the future of all urban systems if we don’t address the situation quickly. The NFL has a rules committee. This committee is responsible for making sure the rules provide all teams the opportunity to compete on a level playing field. Public education needs such a committee. Bernie Sanders recognizes it, and maybe it’s time the rest of us do as well.
If politicians in Washington were serious about improving schools for all children, they’d consider enacting legislation to ensure that students got the opportunity to learn in equitable facilities. The last couple of years people have called for increased spending on infrastructure, bridges, roads, and such. I don’t think its a stretch to consider our schools as part of that infrastructure. Investing in our educational facilities would do more for lowering the achievement gap than Common Core, Teach for America, or the proliferation of charter schools that regularly get dragged out and presented as innovative.
The problem has never been poor teaching, lack of accountability, or low standards; it has been and remains to be tied to poverty and socioeconomic levels. We’ve never not known how to solve the problems, we just often show a lack of will. It’s past time we change that.