TO CHOOSE OR NOT TO CHOOSE

Is that the question for East Side Schools?

Picture it: two rowdy camps clad in brightly colored T-shirts, on opposing sides of the gymnasium, raising cain and seeing who can drown the other out. Whispered gossip and sideways glances in the hallways. Vague statements delivered in private moments expressing a fundamental distrust for those in charge.
     Sounds like the trappings of a typical day for a student of one of Metro Nashville’s Public Schools, right?
     Alas, it’s not the kids we’re talking about here. It’s their parents.
     At press time, even the principals involved — and no, we don’t mean those of the school variety — don’t seem to know where anything stands with the much-publicized plan to improve the performance of East Nashville’s public schools. And the one person who might be able to clear up the confusion, Jesse Register, MNPS’s Director of Schools, doesn’t seem to be chiming in much as of late, thanks to early- and-often pushback on his his ideas. Which are not part of a preconceived, already-in-place “plan,” according to multiple public statements by Register. Which is baloney, say his detractors.
     At the heart of the debate is what to do with East Nashville public schools — specifically, those in the Maplewood and Stratford clusters, which include four of Metro's 15 so-called “priority schools,” which are schools which grade out as being in the the bottom five percent in the state in academic achievement as measured by the state’s Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP), a timed, multiple-choice test.
     Register says he has a plan to fix these schools. Register’s detractors, like the folks in East Nashville United (they’re the ones in the Stratford STEM High School orange T-shirts) say that’s just the problem: that he has a plan already, despite his many protestations to the contrary, and despite his many meetings with parents and administrators at many of the schools that would be affected, he’s already got his mind made up and is charging ahead with a charter-school-heavy fix.
     The Carolina blue T-shirt clad group would be East Nashville Believes, whose slogan (“Choice Equals Power”) is also their Web site’s name. They’re a newer group, and first came to the attention of ENU when the latter showed up at a Metro School Board meeting only to find a slew of folks in light blue taking up most all of the available seats. The group’s rapid (not to mention quiet) formation and impressive show of force quickly got tongues wagging.
     “I would be interested in knowing who is funding East Nashville Believes and where the majority of their members live,” says MNPS School Board member Amy Frogge (District 9). “Some ENB members who have corresponded with me via social media said they came to our last board meeting to support a new lease for RePublic Charter Schools, and only one of the three RePublic charter schools is located in East Nashville. Others said they lived in Hermitage and Donelson. The ENB parents and students who spoke at our board meeting were sincere and thoughtful, and I believe we should always listen carefully to parent and student voices. However, while I am sympathetic to concerns raised by ENB parents, I think the conversation about the future of East Nashville schools should primarily involve those who live in the area or go to school there. The tactics used by the organizers of ENB seemed similar to those used by the Tennessee Charter School Center, which has different interests and a different focus than just East Nashville schools. The conversation should be about East Nashville, and by [East Nashville].”
     “I arrived at the board’s central office at 3:45pm on October 14 prior to the 5:00pm board meeting, and found that it was already mostly full of students and adults in blue shirts,” says School Board member Jill Speering (District 3).
     “I had no idea who this group was, or what they believed in. Because I had attended all but one of Dr. Register’s East Nashville community meetings, I was totally surprised that a new group had sprung up from [apparently] nowhere. It was interesting that no one represented this group’s viewpoints during the series of community meetings held at the priority schools in East Nashville. ENB seems to align itself with Dr. Register’s original East Nashville plan announced on September 9, and from the letters I’ve received, ENB appears to consist of many parents who send their children to charter schools. On the night of October 14, I saw several charter school teachers and administrators wearing the blue shirts. During public comments at the October 14 meeting, Dr. Register appeared to nod often in agreement with many comments made by ENB, whereas he often looked down during comments made by representatives of ENU.”
     District 7 School Board member Will Pinkston, a longtime thorn in Register’s side, says simple arithmetic (of the 2 + 2 = 4 variety) leads him to believe similarly.
     “A few months ago, Dr. Register abandoned his longstanding criticism of charter schools and aligned himself with the charter movement in the interest of political expediency. The East Nashville Believes crowd appears to be comprised of parents from Nashville Classical charter school and a handful of others who have been organized and funded by the Tennessee Charter School Center, which is helping Dr. Register map out his plan to destabilize schools in East Nashville. It’s hard to imagine there isn’t at least an indirect connection between the Register camp and East Nashville Believes.”
     Katie Rizzone of East Nashville Believes says her group’s origins aren’t altogether different than those of ENU, saying the group formed to fill a perceived need, and to make sure all sides of the issue were studied.
     “We did not set out to create an organization,” Rizzone says. “Our movement began with the op-ed that my wife and I wrote [“Improve schools for ALL East Nashville kids,” Katie and Kathryn Rizzone, The Tennessean, Oct. 9], which resonated with many families who felt that their voices were not being included in the conversation about East Nashville schools. We gathered at the school board meeting [on Oct. 14] to share diverse voices and in doing so realized that there was a collective energy to do more. We are a strong group of parents, unified by our guiding principles and advocating for the dramatic change and urgency that we believe is necessary to improve the quality of educational delivery for all. We are completely parent-driven and funded.” And, it would seem, largely from areas other than East Nashville.
     ENB’s attendees spoke almost exclusively about the benefits of charter schools at the Oct. 14 meeting, taking a “choose or lose” stance — which is more or less inline with Register’s previous public comments on the issue.


     Register’s reorganization plan — if there is indeed one — for the two clusters has always included charter schools, if couched with the “choice” descriptive instead. It also includes closing some schools, and using the students from these schools to re-populate other schools. But which schools will become what, or which might be on the chopping block, remains unknown. As part of Register’s “all choice zone,” parents will be required to choose where they’ll send their student(s), instead of relying on zoned schools, which are those that serve a certain area or zip code.
     To ease the fears of those feeling left in the dark by his silence — or at least his reticence to speak directly to those affected — Register has announced that he’s forming a 20-plus member Community Advisory Committee, which will include parents, teachers, and administrators. Among those are a number of pro-Charter advocates.
     Many are still skeptical.
     “After serving more than two years on the Nashville School Board, I can say with some authority that Dr. Register’s style is to make decisions with limited input and then try to build community support after the fact,” says Pinkston. “It’s incredibly frustrating for board members who value real community engagement and input. I wouldn’t be optimistic that any ‘task force’ will result in a substantively different proposal from the Central Office.”
     I asked Speering and Pinkston if Register had backed away at all from his “all-choice” idea as some have intimated, and, if so, how the plan might be changing.
     “I don’t see that he’s come around,” says Speering. “I believe he is still considering a choice plan, possibly closing at least one school and converting one of East Nashville schools to a KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) charter.”
     “So far, Dr. Register seems to be sticking to his ‘all-choice’ concept,” says Pinkston. “However, he has yet to offer any evidence that all-choice will lead to improvement. In fact, there’s an abundance of evidence across the country that too much choice destabilizes schools and communities. Moreover, of the schools on the state’s “priority” list, as many as half of them already offer some level of choice. Choice is not a silver bullet, and what Dr. Register is proposing has the potential to make East Nashville’s schools worse, not better. The Tennessee Charter School Center and its leaders have long wanted to take over East Nashville’s public schools, and Dr. Register is opening the door to that possibility. A forced march toward all-choice will create a ‘Hunger Games’ situation in which more engaged families will win and students whose families aren’t as engaged could end up without options. Choice can be a powerful tool for driving education improvement when it’s wielded equitably and fairly. When it’s done hastily and recklessly, it can actually do harm to kids and communities.”
     As you might expect, Rizzone sees things differently.
     “First of all, there is no mandate,” she says. “Dr. Register presented a proposal — an idea. The fact sheet from the district is on our website. What we are expressing is openness to the allchoice proposal. The key ingredient for choice, however, is quality — and by quality, we mean schools in which every child shows significant academic growth. As the fact sheet describes, 25 of the 27 schools in East Nashville currently have some component of choice. But when many of the schools are low-performing and/or inaccessible to families, that is not real choice. Dr. Register’s proposal offers the potential to dramatically improve the quality of schools and accessibility to them, thus offering equitable choice to all families in East Nashville.
     “No student under the new proposal would be forced to attend any school — charter, traditional or magnet. We acknowledge the academic gains made by effective charter schools and believe that they should be considered as a possible, but by no means the only, option for increasing the number of high-quality schools. Under the current system, many students have no choice but to attend failing schools.” In an email, I asked Register directly if he’d “backed away at all from, for lack of a better term, the ‘all-choice’ mandate” for the Maplewood and Stratford clusters.
     “No,” he responded. “We believe all children in East Nashville deserve equitable choice. Forty percent of [the students] in East Nashville already exercise choice. The way we do choice now, parents have to provide transportation to and from school if they choose a school other than their zoned school. For many families, that cuts out nearly all the options available to them. For example, families in the Cayce homes might be able to apply to a school like Lockeland or Dan Mills, but without a car, how do they get there every day? Our idea is to give all kids school bus transportation to any school they choose in the cluster so they can make the choices that are best for them. East Nashville is a small, compact geographic area, so we feel like we can do that pretty easily.” This seems to imply that the folks at Cayce don’t have cars, which appears contrary to the fact that on a casual drive through Cayce homes one can observe plenty of parking areas filled with cars, nor does it state the fact that high school students attending a Metro Public School can ride an MTA bus for free. Still, if the so-called "all-choice" plan wins the day, something will need to be done to address the transportation needs of many students living in Cayce Homes, especially those in grades 3-8.
    “We’re not doing away with zoned schools,” Register goes on to say. “If a family is zoned for Dan Mills or Glenn and wants to stay there, they will have a guaranteed seat at that school. What we’re really talking about is doing away with default school assignments. So instead of automatically being enrolled at Dan Mills because you live across the street, you have to make an active choice and tell us you want to go to Dan Mills. We’d like for everyone’s first choice to be their neighborhood schools. We need to strengthen the neighborhood schools so people feel good about sending their children there.”
    Even so, it’s likely that, under the new plan, choosing to attend one’s zoned school will require filling out a “choice” application with the requesite photo ID, birth certificate, and proof of residency. No big deal if one has a computer and internet access at home, since the applications must be filled out online.
    Register has said he still wants the matter settled by January 2015. Many folks — most notably those from East Nashville United — think the timetable is way too accelerated, especially seeing that MNPS’s per-pupil expenditure of over $10,000 per year means the two clusters represent an almost $100 million entity.
    There’s also this to consider: Register recently announced that he’s retiring at the end of the school year. This disclosure has led many to wonder aloud if Register’s impending retirement has had anything to do with the accelerated timetable.
    “At the community meeting at Neely’s Bend Middle School, Dr. Register shared that when he first came to MNPS, the board had previously passed a student assignment plan that he inherited,” says Speering. “Before he accepted the superintendent’s position, he had to ask himself if he could follow this plan. I interpreted this to mean that a plan passed by the board prior to his arrival caused him a certain amount of angst. I believe that the board job of hiring the next Director of Schools could be confounded by passing an East Nashville plan that lacks buy in from the director of schools who will responsible for its implementation.”
    Will Pinkston thinks it may simply being a matter of saving face — not by Register, per se, but by the Central Office as a whole.
    “Management’s ostensible reason for making changes before January is to give affected families time to plan in advance of the 2015-16 school year,” he says. “Ordinarily, that would be a sound rationale. The only problem is, community engagement around these low-performing schools could have and should have started months, if not years, ago. It’s not like the Central Office didn’t know there were problems in these schools. The only thing that changed is that they’re now showing up on the State’s ‘priority’ list and management is trying to appear responsive.”
    “I believe the urgency is based on beating Achievement School District to the punch,” says Jai Sanders of East Nashville United and a vocal parent at and for Inglewood Elementary, a school that has been named as a KIPP candidate.
    “I don’t believe MNPS wants to lose control of any more schools to that moderately successful and highly controversial organization. Taken independently, the retirement announcement is not interesting. But taken in light of the [socalled] Third Way Plan or East Nashville Plan [of Register’s], it becomes a very interesting pairing.”
    Register told us that the current time frame is in place for one reason: to move now on something that, he feels, perhaps should have been dealt with before.
    “We feel a sense of urgency to address the issues at our priority schools. Students are being educated today in schools that we know are not preparing [them] for opportunity and success in life. That’s unacceptable and has to change. At the same time, we value the community input that is needed to create a successful plan for East Nashville schools. Ultimately, it’s the families of Nashville who have to have confidence in our public schools in order for them to succeed, and so involving them in the development of major changes to our schools is incredibly important. So our challenge is to balance the sense of urgency to respond to the academic needs of our students today with need to have community buy-in on long-term changes, and that’s what we’re aiming to do.”
    Regardless of the reason for the timetable, everyone agrees on one thing: that the majority of East Nashville’s schools need work, some remarkably so.
    The thing that no one’s really talking about — but plenty are asking — is where all the money’s going to come from, no matter which plan is ultimately decided upon.
    “Dr. Register has brushed off questions about the rapid-fire nature of proposed changes, and he hasn’t addressed the budget implications,” Pinkston says. “The fact is, there’s a lot we don’t know about what this idea could cost taxpayers. Everything from revised bus transportation routes to different staffing patterns to changing the letterhead in the schools’ front offices — it all costs money. Confronting the cost is a conversation we’ll have to have if this proposal gets real traction. Taxpayers will want to chime in as well.
    “The fiscal implications of what Dr. Register is proposing are unclear. That’s a major problem with MNPS. Dr. Register and his team sometimes advance ideas with little regard for how much they ultimately could cost Davidson County taxpayers. We’ve seen that play out time and time again with the Central Office’s failure to get a handle on the proliferation of charter schools. The reality is: You can’t have unabated growth of new schools of any type — charter, traditional or magnet — without significant amounts of new revenue or deep cuts to other schools. And you certainly can’t engineer the kind of structural change, in a cost-neutral way, that Dr. Register is proposing in East Nashville. If I were the Mayor and the Metro Council, I would be asking lots of tough questions right now. All taxpayers should be concerned.”
    “Another important consideration for taxpayers is the fiscal impact of charter schools on the system as a whole,” says Frogge. “Cash outlays for MNPS charter schools are growing at an average annual rate of 45 percent, versus only 4 percent for the system as a whole. Furthermore, all available new revenue is now going to our charter schools, which serve only 7 percent of our population. We must ensure that all schools are provided adequate resources.”
    Sanders — who cautions he’s more comfortable at speaking from an educational perspective, and moreover states that his skepticism regarding charter schools is his alone and doesn’t reflect ENU’s mission — believes that, at the very least, Register’s “all-choice” idea, if implemented, will prove to be an extremely expensive one.
    “There is a potential influx of charter schools to take over low-performing schools either via MNPS or ASD,” he says. “If such an influx happens, low-performing schools will lose students. Students leaving low-performing schools leaves emptier neighborhood schools, which gives fiscal minded administrators and elected officials a legitimate reason to close, at least temporarily, said half-empty neighborhood schools. Charters are public schools, which means MNPS must make efforts to supply transportation to the displaced students so that they can attend the charter schools. So that is additional transporation cost.
    “The charters will need to be [installed] in a school,” he continues. “And [MNPS] hasn’t made a habit of building their own, so there are renovation costs too. Costs which, for better or worse, probably wouldn’t have happened while the school was occupied by the neighborhood school. There are also issues with the per-pupil cost during transferral from neighborhood schools to charters. I know, some of this sounds anti-charter. [But] I am very conflicted about the charter model of high discipline, lots of drilling, and teaching to the tests. I do not believe this is actual education. At the same time, I do recognize that we live in a world where standardized tests are necessary. But I also have a moral problem with the fact they are only allowed in low income, mostly black and brown areas.”
    “If they are such a panacea for our educational ills, then surely affluent neighborhoods would be clamoring for such a cheap way to educate their kids, too.”
    Register has said multiple times that East Nashvillians can’t afford to wait any longer for its schools to improve, and that the time to move was yesterday. His opponents argue that such quick action could lead to further turmoil down the road, and that movement, without a fixed destination in mind, could lead to our “priority schools” becoming further lost.
    To his detractors, Dr. Register’s “choice” plan seems oxymoronic. To Register and his camp, “choice” is the only real choice there is to improve our schools.
    Language is important, and to be properly informed in this debate reguires one to understand the meaning behind “choice” as it is floated by those in favor of it.
    All of which has led us to where we are now: choosing sides, a pep rally from hell, full of chants and cheers and jeers.

The only thing missing? Our students.