The Choice: A School Fight Over Middle Class Families

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MNPS has been heavily promoting the choice period which ends at 5:30 pm Friday. Image courtesy MNPS

MNPS has been heavily promoting the choice period which ends at 5:30 pm Friday. Image courtesy MNPS

Students in Nashville have until the end of Friday to apply for a seat in the ever-growing list of “option schools.” Like other large districts nationwide, Metro has been expanding choice to make the system more attractive to families. But even with a menu of charters, magnets and language immersion programs, Metro still has convincing left to do.

At a recently school choice fair – the first of its kind for the district – principal Gary Hughes shakes hands with private school parents interested in hearing about JT Moore. For years, Hughes says his Green Hills middle school – nestled among some of the city’s priciest real estate – has been waving goodbye to students like clockwork.

“At the beginning of seventh grade,” he says. “That’s when we lose 20 or 30 kids every year.”

Unsure about the quality of their zoned high school, many head to private academies, he says. Others move to one of the state’s highest performing districts just a few miles south in Williamson County. And Hughes says each exit is a blow, because they’re often good students with engaged parents.

“When we have great families like that, for kids who don’t have parents involved, I ask those parents to be surrogates for kids who have no one,” he says.

A New Way of Thinking

And there are plenty of disadvantaged students who tend to need extra attention. More than 70 percent come from poor families. The system also has more non-English speakers than anywhere else in the state. Both statistics have been blamed at times for the district’s less-than-stellar academic performance.

For families with the means to send their kids elsewhere, there’s hope that allowing them to pick just about any school with an open seat will keep them around. The district has also made schools more distinctive, with specialties in world studies, science, and even the entertainment industry.

Metropolitan systems have been progressively using size to their advantage.

“If you have hundreds of schools, its much easier to think about how the schools could be unique and differentiated from one another to serve the needs of the community,” says Dr. Ellen Goldring of the National Center on School Choice at Vanderbilt.

It’s a new way of thinking that – in Nashville – has coincided with looser restrictions on bussing previously required to make schools more diverse.

Until recent years, families had to jump through hoops to get a zoning transfer.

“The relationship between districts and parents was very paternalistic. ‘I’m going to tell you, you live there, your kid goes here.’” Goldring says. “But now it’s beginning to shift.”

And the possibilities have parents like Laura Fott of the Whites Creek area reconsidering for her son.

“When we were first looking for a home, we tried to buy a house in the best public school zones, and we couldn’t afford a house the size we needed in the three or four best public school zones in the city, so we were forced to put him in a private school, we felt like,” she says.

Making Schools a ‘Plus Factor’

Nashville is heavy on private schools, with more than 50 in the area. Mayor Karl Dean put his own kids through the city’s most elite. But he preaches the need for public education that has the potential to be a powerful economic development tool.

“We have gotta have our schools be a plus factor in people making decisions of where they’re going to locate and live and raise their families and where people are going to locate their businesses, he says. “We have to.”

Stay-at-home mom Elizabeth Davis walks her school-age children to their home on the Davidson/Williamson county line. Photo credit Blake Farmer/WPLN

Stay-at-home mom Elizabeth Davis walks her school-age children to their home on the Davidson/Williamson county line. Photo credit Blake Farmer/WPLN

In neighboring Williamson County, education already is that plus factor.

Each afternoon a sparkling yellow bus deposits the two school age children of Elizabeth Davis, who often meets them at the corner of their picturesque neighborhood.

The community of big front porches and wide sidewalks straddles the line between Davidson and Williamson counties. The line is – of course – invisible, but it shows up clearly in property values. Otherwise identical homes go for $30,000 more on the Williamson side. Davis’s home sits squarely on the border.

“So you can see [the line] goes directly through our house, through our dining and living room,” she says.

Being on the county line puts the Davis family in a unique position with more public school choice than just about anybody. State law allows them to pick which district to attend, but Davis says the decision was easy.

She taught in Metro Schools prior to having kids, so Davis feels like she has a pretty good read on the district, at least from a few years ago.

“There are probably some schools that would have been a yes, but the schools I taught in and the teachers and principles I experienced, I knew I would not want my children in Metro,” she says.

Metro hopes that if mothers like Davis had to make that decision today, at least one of the option schools might be a ‘yes.’

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