Dr. Jesse Register calls on East Nashville to help build a plan for creating more high-quality school choices

Metro Schools to form community advisory committee

Metro Schools Director Dr. Jesse Register is calling for a formal community advisory committee to help build a plan for the future of East Nashville public schools. Together with on-going faculty and parent meetings, this committee represents a full commitment to community input and participation in the development of a plan for turning around low-performing schools and ensuring high-quality educational choices for all students in East Nashville.

Dr. Register is working closely with schools, leaders and stakeholder groups to form the East Nashville Priority Schools Advisory Committee. It will be made up of community-appointed representatives who can speak on behalf of their peers and unify East Nashville behind quality public education.

“This advisory committee is a natural outgrowth of the parent meetings we’ve been having for the last three weeks,” said Dr. Register. “I’ve already met with hundreds of parents. Many of them have different opinions, but we’re hearing common themes come up again and again – most notably their shared desire with us to have high-quality neighborhood schools. The next step for us is to bring together a group of representative voices to focus the conversation into substantive, usable recommendations from the community.”

The committee will be made up of 20 representatives, all appointed by important stakeholders in this issue. Members will meet regularly to receive a progress update on the planning process from the district’s administration and report the feedback and ideas of the community. The end goal is to develop general consensus on recommendations that represent community and stakeholder opinions that can be used in finalizing a proposal for the Board of Education.

Dr. Register added, “This committee will help ensure every voice in East Nashville is heard. Together, we can build a community of successful schools for all students.”

Committee appointments are expected in the coming days, with a meeting schedule to be decided soon.

Expected appointments:

  • Board member Jill Speering will appoint one Maplewood Cluster parent
  • Board member Jill Speering will appoint one Maplewood Cluster student
  • Board member Elissa Kim will appoint one Stratford Cluster parent
  • Board member Elissa Kim will appoint one Stratford Cluster student
  • Councilman Peter Westerholm will appoint one Stratford Cluster community member
  • Councilman Anthony Davis will appoint one Stratford Cluster community member
  • Councilman Scott Davis will appoint one Maplewood Cluster community member
  • Councilman Karen Bennett will appoint one Maplewood Cluster community member
  • Kirkpatrick Elementary principal Mildred Nelson will work with parents to appoint a Kirkpatrick parent; Ms. Nelson will also appoint a Kirkpatrick teacher
  • Inglewood Elementary principal Carrie Mickle will work with parents to appoint an Inglewood parent; Ms. Mickle will also appoint an Inglewood teacher
  • Bailey Middle principal Christian Sawyer will work with parents to appoint a Bailey parent; Dr. Sawyer will also appoint a Bailey teacher
  • Jere Baxter Middle principal Miriam Harrington will work with parents to appoint a Jere Baxter parent; Ms. Harrington will also appoint a Jere Baxter teacher
  • Register will work with the district’s lead principals to appoint a principal from one priority school
  • East Nashville charter school leaders will appoint one representative
  • East Nashville United will appoint one representative
  • Community PTO will appoint one representative
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Fact Sheet: What could an East Nashville “all choice zone” really look like?

Highlights: 

  • The goal of creating an “all choice zone” in East Nashville is to provide equitable school choice for all families
  • Transportation will be provided to any school a family chooses in the cluster
  • Students will still have a guaranteed seat at their zoned school, if that is the school they choose
  • All schools in the cluster will have open enrollment, if additional seats are available beyond zoned enrollment
  • No one will be automatically enrolled in their zoned school; all families must make a choice
  • The existing lottery system will be used to determine which students receive seats if they choose a school in high demand
  • School zones will not be changed as part of this plan
  • The Geographic Priority Zone (GPZ) for Lockeland will not be changed; families in the GPZ will still have first choice

Undecided details: 

The creation of an “all choice zone” in East Nashville is a plan in progress. Input from community members, school faculty, and consultants is being sought to decide a number of details, including:

  • “Stay-put policy”: The district administration’s goal is to greatly reduce student mobility (the number of students who frequently change schools), which is known to have a negative impact on student performance. A “stay-put policy” is being considered for the all choice zone in East Nashville, which would allow students to remain in their original choice school for a full academic year.
  • Cross cluster choice: Whether the “all choice zone” allows students in the Maplewood and Stratford clusters to choose schools in only their clusters or in either of the East Nashville clusters still has to be determined and will impact the transportation plan.
  • Transportation plan: While the district’s operations division indicates that the transportation component of the “all choice zone” is feasible, the exact costs and implementation strategy are yet to be determined. A transportation consultant specializing in this type of work has been engaged to help develop the transportation plan.

The Problem: School choice is not equal for all families

Metro Nashville Public Schools aims to provide every family “school choice,” meaning the opportunity to find the best school fit for their child’s individual needs and learning style. To that end, families may choose to send their child to their zoned school or apply to an optional school using the Optional Schools Application, which opens annually during the fall.

While there are many high-quality school choices available, transportation is a significant factor in determining which families in Nashville / Davidson County have the opportunity to exercise choice. In most cases, school bus transportation is only provided for families who choose their zoned school and live more than 1.25 miles from the school, which is the requirement by state law. This forces many families living in poverty and working-class families to choose their zoned school, even when it’s low-performing. 

The Solution: An “All Choice Zone” in East Nashville

The district administration is working towards providing families in the Stratford and Maplewood clusters with an “all choice zone” starting in the 2015-16 school year, allowing them to choose their zoned school or any other school in their area with transportation provided to the school of their choice. This means students will not be automatically enrolled in their zoned schools. Every family will be presented with their school options and asked to choose their school before their child is enrolled.

This change is being brought about as part of the district administration’s goal to have no priority schools in three years when the Tennessee Department of Education recalculates the state’s bottom 5% of schools based on performance. The concept of the all choice zone is to allow families to “vote with their feet.”

Creating an “all choice zone” for the Stratford and Maplewood clusters will not involve changing the boundaries for zoned schools, which are the schools assigned to every school-age child in Nashville / Davidson County based on the location of their primary residence. This means families will still have a guaranteed seat at their zoned school if that is the school they choose for their child. Remaining open seats at zoned schools will be made available to other students in the cluster using the Optional Schools Application.

In addition, the plan does not involve changing the boundaries of the Geographic Priority Zone (GPZ) for Lockeland Elementary, which is a magnet school. Magnet schools with a GPZ like Lockeland give families living within a certain proximity to the school first choice before seats are made available to families outside of the GPZ through the selection process. By keeping the current Lockeland GPZ intact, families already in the GPZ will remain there and will not be competing with a larger pool of potential applicants for their child’s seat due to the creation of an “all choice zone.”

The district administration recognizes that opening enrollment and offering transportation to any school in these two clusters will create unprecedented demand for existing high-quality schools, some of which already have long waiting lists. Therefore, for this concept to be meaningful and work, more high-quality choices must be made available to families. This is why the “all choice zone” is just one part of a larger plan being developed to address the list of priority schools and improve school choice in East Nashville. The ongoing planning process will involve extensive community input and aims to address the unique issues of each low-performing school, as well as the creation of more high-quality schools in East Nashville through converting or repurposing existing schools.

Your Questions:

If you are keeping the boundaries for zoned schools and the magnet school GPZs the same, how is an “all choice zone” different than the system that exists now?

There are three significant differences between the “all choice zone” proposed for East Nashville and the way school choice is handled currently in the district:

  1. Transportation:
    The “all choice zone” will make school choice meaningful for families who are otherwise limited by transportation options by making school bus transportation available to any school in the area. This will require an innovative approach to school bus operations in East Nashville, which is already being explored with the help of a transportation consultant.
  2. No automatic enrollment in zoned schools:
    Each school-age child living in Metro Nashville / Davidson County is assigned to a zoned school based on their primary residence and grade level. This is the school where a student is automatically enrolled when their parent registers them for school.

    Under the “all choice zone,” students will still have a guaranteed seat at their zoned school if that is the school of their choice. But they won’t be enrolled in any school until their family meets with a family outreach specialist who will explain their options and assist them in making the best choice to meet their student’s needs.

    A similar plan was successfully carried out during implementation of the 2009 student reassignment plan. Every family in the Pearl-Cohn cluster had a conversation with a district representative and made an active school choice for that school year.

  3. All schools become “optional schools”:
    An optional school (sometimes referred to as a “choice school”) is any school with an open enrollment process, meaning families can apply to send their child to that school regardless of where they live. Magnet schools and charter schools are optional schools, as well as zoned schools with available seats.

    Out of the 27 schools in the Stratford and Maplewood clusters, 25 are currently optional schools. Under the “all choice zone,” all 27 schools will have open enrollment. Like now, students will have a guaranteed seat at their zoned school, if that is the school their family chooses. Also, students within a magnet school GPZ will still have first priority to attend that school. Remaining open seats will be made available to other students in the cluster using the existing selection process.

Is it realistic and affordable to provide school bus transportation to any school in the cluster that a family chooses? If so, why isn’t this being done all over Davidson County?

The Stratford and Maplewood clusters cover smaller geographic areas and are more densely populated than the other school clusters in Davidson County, making them the ideal area to pilot an “all choice zone.” It will require an innovative approach to school bus operations, which may include solutions such as having students from multiple schools ride the same bus.

While there is still much work to be done to determine the exact costs and implementation strategy, preliminary study by the district’s operations division indicates that it is feasible. A transportation consultant specializing in this type of work has been engaged to help develop the transportation plan for the “all choice zone.”

East Nashvillians want a sense of community within their neighborhoods, which for parents, includes having kids who attend school together and preferably a school nearby. Won’t this plan damage that sense of community by having kids on the same street attend multiple schools all over East Nashville?

If the larger effort for priority schools works as intended (and note that the “all choice zone” is just one component of the larger effort to address priority schools and provide more high quality choice in East Nashville), the zoned schools in East Nashville neighborhoods will be strengthened, making them a more viable choice for families. Currently, 40% of students in East Nashville are in optional schools, versus 25% district-wide. The district administration’s goal is to make all zoned schools high-quality schools so they are the first choice for most families.

If schools eventually close as a result of this plan, won’t it damage neighborhoods to have school buildings sitting vacant?

If any schools are closed, the district administration’s priority will be to repurpose the building for another use that will further provide high-quality school choices in East Nashville. School buildings could be made available for lease to a charter school operator or reopened by the district, such as the Ross Pre-K Center which was formerly Ross Elementary.