UPDATE: The official dedication of the new Isaac Litton Middle school brought out Rep. Jim Cooper, Mayor Karl Dean, Councilman Anthony Davis, and more! See a slideshow of photos from the ribbon cutting below.
When I arrived at the newly renovated Isaac Litton Middle School, principal Tracy Bruno was fleeing the spray of a lawn sprinkler deployed to help the parched and newly planted landscaping. The grass may not have been prepared for the drought, but the school is prepared for more students and a higher profile in its East Nashville neighborhood.
“We are the epitome of a neighborhood school, right here in the middle of all these houses,” Bruno told me. And it’s true. Litton sits nestled between small, residential streets like Winding Way and Littonwood Drive right off Gallatin Pike.
The renovations that have taken place over the last year and a half have transformed the school into a building that looks practically new – and that’s because a lot of it is. The main office has been expanded. The library has a massive bank of new windows opening to the front lawn. The cafeteria is brand new and full of natural light. And the gym – once completely disconnected from the main building – has now been built out with new entrances, a new concession stand, and a host of new classrooms underneath it for fifth grade and related arts classes.
The rest of the building has been so spruced up, refinished, and painted that there is no disconnect between old and new. It all feels new to 2012. Just in time, too, because Bruno and his faculty have made it their mission to make Litton the neighborhood middle school in East Nashville.
“You can’t just sit around in your office and wait for kids to come to your school. You have to go out there and market your school and sell it, tell people the great things that are going on at your school because nobody’s going to do it for you.”
One of those great things happening at Litton is a strong focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education. With new computers and projectors in every classroom, multiple iPad and netbook carts, and thousands of dollars in new STEM technology at the ready, Litton will prepare students to head right into Stratford STEM Magnet High School – another East Nashville neighborhood institution.
And Bruno’s mission to market his school isn’t self-serving. He sees in Litton the opportunity to bolster the sense of community that draws many people to East Nashville in the first place. He and his teachers have been working hard for the last year to make that happen, organizing events at feeder schools like Dan Mills Elementary and even going door-to-door to introduce themselves and build support for their school.
Fifth grade teacher Ashley Croft worked with the Martha O’Bryan Center on the Promise Neighborhood survey and used the opportunity to start building one-on-one relationships with the community.
“The whole idea was for parents and the community members to know that the teachers and the staff here care about the community,” Croft said. “And so showing up at their door for this survey – not even directly representing the school, but just for building community – I think it meant a lot to some parents.”
Bruno sees Litton’s zoned population, neighborhood placement, and STEM focus as advantages in an area filled with school options. Students in Litton’s neighborhood can choose among magnets, charters, and private schools. That’s a lot of competition in such a tight radius. But he sees plenty of reasons for parents to choose Litton.
“They live around the school. There’s familiarity. You have kids down the street that go to the same school your kids do. It’s just more of a community feel.” Indeed, listening to Bruno talk about what a neighborhood school can offer, he sounds a bit like a principal from a different era, working next to a doctor who makes house calls and a butter and egg delivery truck.
“I have no problem making a visit to a child’s house. I’ve had parents before who would call and say ‘Hey, my child missed the bus. I can’t get them there’ and I’ll go pick them up. It’s not a big thing, but the parents appreciate it. It could be a child who just doesn’t want to go to school. I will go to your house and talk to your child and tell them they need to go to school because sometimes parents need that help.”
And he expects a bit of reciprocity from parents; his open door policy means he is readily available to speak with parents, hear their concerns, and take their suggestions. “It helps the neighborhood take more ownership in the school and feel like they have a bigger part in the school and share as a stakeholder in the school.”
If Litton is the “epitome of a neighborhood school,” as Bruno boasts, then Bruno himself is the epitome of a great neighborhood principal, just like ones found all over Nashville in Metro’s other neighborhood schools. Principals from Joelton Elementary to Oliver Middle, Hermitage Elementary to Hillwood High build their schools the same way: to serve as resources and points of pride for their communities. Neighbors come to Overton football games donned head to toe in red and black. Long lines of early arriving parents gather outside Lakeview Elementary to chat and share stories from the school and the neighborhood.
That’s because our neighborhood schools are the neighborhoods they serve. Students live down the street, families play on the playgrounds, and school faculty and staff strive to better their communities through education.
Tracy Bruno can already see the change happening. “We have volunteers who were asking for things to do. That never happened three years previous. We had people at the doors asking, ‘What can I do to help Isaac Litton Middle School?’ That is a huge step in the right direction.”
With the new renovations, Litton has room to grow. And Bruno plans to fill it up.
“I want to see every classroom in this building filled with neighborhood kids. And I believe we can get there. There are enough students in East Nashville, in our cluster, in our zone, to fill this school up.”
His goal is to build a future for Litton where the young families now populating East Nashville feel great about sending their children there.
“I had a teacher in here last Monday who said ‘I will do whatever it takes to make my kids successful this year.’ When you have that kind of enthusiasm, the sky’s the limit.”