In the stately Green Hills home of Mary Pierce, a dozen mothers (and one dad dressed in a suit) sip coffee and share pet stories on a recent weekday morning. These are families with means. Many send their kids to private schools. But they feel like they might be raising their children in a bubble, and they’d like to do something about it.
“Hey guys, we’re going to go ahead and get started,” Pierce says, talking over the hum of polite conversation. “I think most of you have had the chance to meet Todd Dickson.”
Dickson is the man of the hour – shaved head, gray facial hair and earnest eyes. The young father is the founder of soon-to-open Valor Collegiate Academy. He was recruited by Nashville Mayor Karl Dean to replicate a system of charters he helped start in California.
Charter schools are privately operated and publicly funded, and Summit Prep high school in the San Francisco area made national rankings. It was featured on the documentary Waiting for Superman for closing racial and economic achievement gaps. In a public school serving students from all income levels, nearly everyone was accepted into college. The figures were more like those of a private college prep school or an academic magnet in which students have pass a test before enrolling.
As a graduate student at Stanford University, Dickson became a big believer that rich and poor kids both benefit from learning in the same classroom.
“A hallmark of critical thinking is being able to deeply understand multiple perspectives,” Dickson says. “So it’s much more authentic and easy to learn to do that well if you are learning with kids who really have different experiences and different backgrounds than you do.”
A Change For Charters
But economic integration is almost unheard of in Tennessee charter schools. Until 2011, only disadvantaged students were allowed to attend, and charter school enrollment in the state remains almost solely low-income students.
Members of the Metro school board have been concerned that some proposed charter schools are interested in catering only to the affluent, but Valor is seen as something different.
“I’m a Valor fan. And more specifically, I’m a fan of Todd Dickson’s,” says Metro school board member Will Pinkston. “Particularly if it succeeds, there are going to be a lot of lessons learned.”
Nearly three-quarters of the students in the Nashville’s public schools are considered poor, and Metro Schools has had particular trouble attracting middle and upper-income families. In recent years, the district has made overt efforts to keep students from moving to suburban systems or private schools.
At the same time, the Metro school board fended off attempts to open Great Hearts Academy, which was broadly supported by affluent families.
Pinkston says Valor’s founder strikes a balance.
“He’s approaching it with the academic assumption that different groups of kids from different social and economic backgrounds can and will learn from each other. And that’s the right approach,” Pinkston says.
Dickson is aiming for a 50/50 split – half students who qualify for subsidized meals and another half from middle and upper-income families. That’s meant also splitting his recruiting time between working-class neighborhoods and some of Nashville’s wealthiest enclaves.
Leading With Diversity
“Diversity” is the first word on the Power Point presentation Dickson shows to prospective parents.
“I mean to me, education isn’t just about books. It’s about being well rounded in all areas,” says Jennifer Erickson, who has a daughter in private school and a son who attends a public elementary and may transfer to Valor.
Erickson says interacting with kids that don’t look the same or have the same life experience is better preparation for what she calls “the real world.”
“I think that is a very big piece that my daughter is not getting,” she says. “Of course, there are negatives that come with that.”
Students from low income backgrounds are more likely to also come from lower performing elementary schools, Dickson says. Reading is where it’s most noticeable.
“A kid from a really low income background often will be two to three years behind grade level,” Dickson tells parents.
Valor’s remediation plan would have struggling students doing double-time to catch up while still pushing those who already perform above grade level. Dickson assures families that if their kids are interested in an Ivy League education, Valor can get them there.
But Dickson also promises to get every kid to college, even those who would be the first in their family.
A Different Pitch
At another recruiting event – this time at immigrant community center Casa Azafran – an interpreter translates in a whisper to a Hispanic mother.
These parents are less fascinated by an integrated learning experience. Hafza Mohamed – originally from East Africa – wants a school that will give her son more opportunity. He attends a public elementary in Nashville where almost no one scores at the top levels.
“I want him to go forward, not backward,” Mohamed says. “Wherever he can get the best education, I will take him. If we have to walk, I will do it.”
The physical location of the school itself is important, Dickson says. In its first year, Valor will set up in an old Social Security Administration office on Nolensville Pk. Dickson hopes to expand into an old Lowe’s and Food Lion nearby and build a 5-12 grade campus.
The abandoned commercial buildings sit on what Dickson sees as the socio-economic fault line he’s trying to bridge. Within three miles of modest apartment complexes are million dollar homes.
Dickson can see lasting friendships developing between the son of a well-to-do family and a kid of modest means. When both go off to college, the low-income Valor grad whose parents never went to college calls up his buddy’s mom for advice.
“Those little stories are some of the things that are the most dramatic and exciting to us,” Dickson says. “And they won’t necessarily show up on a report card.”