“You’re from Chicago—you can’t tell us anything about Nashville!” This is what I’m expecting to hear from the anti-reform people who read this blog.
But they’re wrong. Because, first, if you’re Black and from a low-income community, you probably share the same stories, experiences and struggles.
And I’m not saying that, just because I fit the above criteria, that I know all things Nashville. I have, however, come to learn that most major cities face the same educational challenges—with slightly different politics.
So I took a trip to Nashville to gain a better understanding of the environment and politics around their public education system. What I learned was appalling and heartbreaking—worse than what I’ve seen in my notoriously corrupt city, Chicago.
Here’s where it began.
Talking It Out
My first priority was to sit down with some Nashvillians and hear their stories and solutions. Understanding that this is a multi-layered issue and people’s perspectives may differ, I made sure that my conversations were with people from every background.
I met with a philanthropist, teacher, two school leaders, a community member who’s been on both sides of the conversation and two parents.
To my surprise and dismay, they all had the same thoughts: Nashville isn’t adequately serving all of its students and reform is an absolute must—but the contentiousness in the city and pushback they receive for voicing their concerns makes them want to throw in the towel.
Parent and longtime advocate Vesia Hawkins said, “I’m tired of fighting and getting beat up. There’s no support here, parent voice isn’t valued and anyone who’s bold enough to speak out is attacked on social media or run out of town.”
These conversations, however, were extremely insightful and I was able to piece together what was really going on.
In speaking with one of the school leaders, I learned that her charter schools were included in the group of 17 that received a Level 5 composite score—the highest growth score possible—on the Tennessee Value Added Assessment (TVAAS) exams. TVAAS is the state exam that measures annual student growth to that of their peers.
According to the Tennessee Charter School Center, “…Metro Nashville public charter middle and high schools stood out with 17 out of 21 receiving a Level 5 composite growth score.”
But, the TN.gov website says that the Davidson County district, which includes Nashville, scored a Level 1 as a whole, the lowest composite score on the exam.
Along with disappointing TVAAS scores, the achievement gap in Nashville happens to be one of the worst in the country.
According to research done by the Education Equality Index (EEI) in 2016, “…Nashville’s achievement gap between students from low-income communities and their more advantaged peers is larger than 75 percent of the nation’s 100 biggest U.S. cities, including Memphis. Between 2011-14, the gap grew by an alarming 11 percent.”
And despite the fact that the data is right in their faces and there has been a small base of people advocating for reform, the Metro Nashville Public School (MNPS) board still considers charter achievement “fake news.”
The same school leader from the high performing charter school said, “Every time we hit the target they set, they move it. It’s a never-ending battle.”
The Common Denominator
Here’s what I found alarming but most telling: Nashville has an elected school board! And one name that was a recurring theme in all of the conversations was that of MNPS board 7th district representative, Will Pinkston.
Will Pinkston has been on the MNPS board since 2012 and narrowly won his reelection bid in 2016—he literally won by just 36 votes.
He is a staunch anti-reform, anti-charter school advocate who was endorsed by Diane Ravitch. And if that doesn’t tell you something, look at his Twitter account.
Pinkston is a known bully who takes dirty politics to a new level. In speaking with the Nashville residents, some of them expressed apprehension in voicing their concerns because they didn’t want to end up on his hit list.
The Tennessean reported that Pinkston, “…has a reputation for hostility and intimidation. Abrasive social media messages, email and in-person interactions with Metro Nashville Public Schools board member Will Pinkston created a hostile work environment that made employees fearful of losing their jobs, a number of former and current workers have alleged.”
But when other colleagues fall in line with Pinkston’s agenda, it becomes an arsenal of people suppressing parent voice. When Nashville Rise—a parent advocacy organization—hosted a candidates’ forum in June of 2016, they met with this opposition, as shown in another Tennessean article:
Three incumbent board members are boycotting a candidate forum scheduled by Nashville Rise—a parent group led by nonprofit Project Renaissance—due to concerns about a perceived charter school agenda. The charge is being led by board member Will Pinkston, who asked in emails last week for numerous answers to his questions, including the group’s financial disclosures and affiliations ahead of the candidate forum scheduled for June 23.—Jason Gonzalez
After that, 1,000 charter school families signed a petition/letter, demanding that they and their choices be acknowledged. But it was a huge blow dealt to parent voice because Pinkston dismissed them as fake parents.
But the parents are still here
But parent and Nashville Rise lead organizer, Allison Simpson, said her agenda—to engage and empower parents around quality and school choice—is simple but critical, and she will persevere regardless of opposition.
So no, I’m not well versed on all things Nashville, but I am able to recognize a city that’s disinterested in providing a quality education for all students. The data points to failure, the intimidation points to suppression and the lack of high-quality options points to oppression.
I’m not saying that there should be a major upheaval of the traditional public schools and they should be replaced with charter schools. But I do think that maybe the traditional methods of educating students in Nashville should be examined and parent and community voice needs to be included in that process.
There may even be an opportunity for collaboration amongst the different providers in Nashville.
And last, but not least, if the school board is refusing to budge in its policies, then maybe it needs to go.