VIVA LA EDUCACION

The founders of Lockeland Elementary Design Center celebrate 10 years in a new East Nashville

At Las Fiestas Café on a Thursday night, the inner circle of a radical coup celebrates the 10- year anniversary of the revolution over chips and salsa.
     These are battle-hardened vets, four men and one woman, that sit around the table, and while they may appear unlikely as a projection of social discontent—after all, no one has a Che Guevara-like beard, and we’re not exactly camped in the mountains of Cuba—these five individuals defiantly claim that the uprising they led has allowed East Nashville to become what it is today.
     You feel safe to walk the streets? They birthed it without a gun. You enjoy the renovated homes and boosted property values? They built it without a hammer. And do you see the children? Doff your caps in respect to the men and women who together created Lockeland Elementary Design Center, the castle-like brick building at 17th and Woodland, now in its 10th year of existence.
     David Briley is a small, studious man with thickframed glasses and a tractor-beam presence. He comes in late to the Café but takes the story back to the beginning, in 2002, two years before Lockeland’s start. At the time the building, built in 1937, was a middle school, and Briley, an Inglewood native, was an at-Large member of the Metropolitan Nashville City Council with the vision for a community primary school.
     The Kelley v. Board of Education lawsuit had stretched on for over 30 years when it was finally closed in 1998. This was Nashville’s version of Brown v. Board of Education, the federal case that ended public school segregation. One of the conditions at the lawsuit’s close was the drawing up of school zones to comprise an integrated student body. But these mandated boundaries, well intentioned, didn’t always make practical sense. The Lockeland Springs neighborhood was split down its center, with half the community going to the newly proposed Lockeland school and the other half to Ross Elementary across Gallatin. In theory this was supposed to diversify, but in reality it would have turned Ross into an almost exclusively black school and left the infant Lockeland to wither on the vine. The solution was the delicate redesign of those boundaries to the current system of Global Priority Zones (GPZs), which united Lockeland Springs while achieving an integrated classroom of which the community could take ownership.
     But to rewrite boundaries wasn’t as simple as it sounds. The initial boundaries were part of the closing of a federal lawsuit, and much credit, Briley says, goes to Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools superintendent Pedro Garcia and District 5 school board member Patricia Crotwell, who navigated the red tape and racial tension in response to the Lockeland parents’ outcry to give the community what it so desperately needed.
     “That had been the consistent problem previously,” Briley says. “You didn’t have the ground prepared for the village to come and grow something.”
     But the key moment in all this, he says, is when Garcia, narrowing down the new school’s principal candidates to two, invited several of the parents in the GPZ (already committed to sending their children to the school in its first kindergarten class) to join in the selection process. “That was like, ‘Hey, we’re listening,’” Briley says. “That’s one of the moments where a big, bureaucratic system said, hey, we’re not going to be big and bureaucratic here. We’re going to find a way to let people who care participate, make decisions, and invest.”
     There was always nervousness about race. It couldn’t be avoided, because Nashville’s school system is terminally tied to the issue. But the baton was then passed to the school’s first principal, Ms. Kimber Halliburton, who would handle enrollment like a grassroots political campaign, beating the pavement herself in door-to-door recruitment efforts to both ethnic groups. And it worked: that first class was a mirror image of the diverse neighborhood it represented, and it preserved this balance for the next six years.
     Richard Tennent, Lockeland’s first Parent Teacher Organization president, was one of the parents on the principal selection committee, and he remembers the preliminary meetings vividly. He’d moved his family from a neighborhood near Vanderbilt to East Nashville after the tornado in 1998 for the same reasons many did: He could afford to buy a house. He’s a clean-cut, shorthaired criminal defense attorney with a carefully knotted tie, and his son, the fourth of his children to attend Lockeland in the last 10 years, sits next to him.
     “Families who could left Lockeland Springs when their kids got school-aged,” he remembers. “I dare say every single family with kids showed up for this meeting [in 2002]. So we’re all in there, and we’re all excited that this middle school was going to turn into an elementary school, and that it was going to be our elementary school.”
     If there is one sentiment that universally describes this revolutionary group, it’s that last part: Each parent chose to take ownership of this fledgling experiment. They were the ones who, when Lockeland was presented with the original divisive boundary lines, were “wonderfully eloquent in how pissed-off they were about being told that the school they could see [from their home] their kids wouldn’t be able to go to,” Tennent says.
     A core group of the parents of 16 kids, including Tennent’s eldest, were all acquainted through Holly Street Daycare, and they comprised a quarter of the first kindergarten class. Tennent, a skilled tactician, says the rest of the students came through subterfuge.
     Before she committed her child, the mother and future successor as PTO president asked him, “Is this school really going to be good?”
     “And so I lied to her,” Tennent says, laughing. “I said I knew it was going to be great, and she believed me. That was the sort of thing I did, was just lie to people and tell them that I knew that it was going to be great, and then these guys”—he nods around the table—“actually went and made it great.”
     Mimi Gerber was one. She describes her daughter’s experience as a “fairytale” and “magical”; “It’s hard for me to say how it affected my child academically—and I’m sure it’s positively—but emotionally, it was a very secure, loving environment,” she says. “We can’t pass the school without looking back fondly.”
     A nurse practitioner, Gerber volunteered at first aid booths for school events. A PTO representative would man the front door on school mornings and almost forcibly accost other parents into participation. Do you have a big pop-up tent? Because we’re going to need one. You look musical. Can you run a soundboard for the storytelling festival?
     In the end, the five that sit around the table, along with countless others in the Lockeland parent teacher guerilla movement, built the school they wanted. Theirs is the only non-immersion school in Metro Nashville that has its K-2nd students inoculated with a daily dose of Spanish. The 3rd and 4th grade students receive it every other day. These parents constructed outdoor classrooms with their bank accounts and the sweat of their brows. They wandered their children’s school hallways simply because no one said they weren’t allowed.
     Jeremy Taylor, a second-generation Inglewood resident whose child was in that first class, describes the time his friends asked him which Metro school their kids should go to for the best education. “I said, ‘You know that school you go into and you read to your kid’s kindergarten class? That’s the one you want to go to.’ And their answer back was, ‘OK, which one is that?’” he says, laughing.
     Look out onto the school’s lawn after the parents walk their kids to school on any typical morning, Taylor says, and you’ll see realtors in ties talking to musicians with full-sleeve tattoos: “It’s just this eclectic group of people out there that all have this common goal to make this school work. It gives you goose bumps.”
     If there’s a salesman in the group, it’s literally Alex Sigg, a realtor who moved to East Nashville in ’96 “on a lark” from near Centennial Park. One of his children was in that first kindergarten class, and his son is currently in second grade there.
     “From a realtor standpoint, the key that made the whole neighborhood work was having a good elementary school, a good option for them to go to,” Sigg says. “And people move into the neighborhood to go to Lockeland.”
     Actually, it’s for the possibility of going to Lockeland. There’s been a waiting list for three years now, and not only do you have to be in the GPZ, but you have to get lucky in the lottery-based system. It’s worth the risk: For the second year in a row, the Tennessee State Department of Education has ranked Lockeland Elementary Design Center a “Reward School” for both performance and progress, which means they rank in the top five percent of the state. They were the only elementary school in a Metro district with the distinction. Without Lockeland, Sigg estimates property values in East Nashville would be half of what they are now.
     A lot has changed in East Nashville in the last 10 years. The neighborhood, sure. But progress has its detractors, and no revolution is without collateral damage. Where once there was a diverse ethnic makeup of classrooms, Lockeland’s classrooms are now predominantly white, the price tag of gentrification. Most of those seated at the table are hopeful Lockeland’s example will become a model that can be exported to other neighborhoods—perhaps Dan Mills Elementary in Inglewood or across Gallatin in Cleveland Park.
     Briley isn’t optimistic that it can happen again. Back then, he says, the bureaucracy was willing to listen to the community., but now it’s being splintered by too many divisive voices on the school board, all pandering to their constituents. “That’s what needs to change for more Lockelands to grow,” he says. “People can come together—and want to—but it’s harder.”
     Focusing on the loss of diversity at the school they built is missing the point, Briley says. “To me, the success of Lockeland is that for 40 years the middle class, white families abandoned the public school system. And that’s not an exaggeration. So the more Lockelands you can grow, the more school system itself looks like the community that supports it. “There’s a risk that you have to go do it again, but there’s not a risk that Lockeland is a failure because of [the lack of diversity]. You have to go build another Lockeland somewhere else to keep the momentum going forward.”
     Revolutions are never clean. But for their detractors, The Five and their supporters have changed East Nashville indisputably through the birth of Lockeland Elementary Design Center 10 years ago. Property values are up, crime is down, and families are in. It’s for the better.