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60 Years After Brown: Nashville charter school looks toward students’ futures while celebrating schools’ past

Cameron College Prep’s ethos, according to its website, is to do “whatever it takes” for one hundred percent of its students to attend a four-year college.

But leaders of this Nashville charter middle school recognize the importance of looking back, said Tait Danhausen, the director of College Prep, the equivalent to school principal.

College Prep is only three years old, but its home on 1st Avenue South, a stately pre-war building, is steeped in history. The building once housed Cameron High School, one of two black high schools in the city before desegregation, and continues to be a community symbol. Leaders at the school are committed to infusing students’ experience with the history of the building as they try to transform the school within. They hope to provide students, all of whom live or have lived in the surrounding neighborhood, with a sense of pride in the building’s history and the progress made since some of the later iterations, which were not so successful.

“Making that connection backwards is very important to bringing [the school] forward,” Danhausen said.

A large, framed picture of Cameron’s namesake, a science teacher at Nashville’s black high school at the turn of the 20th century, is featured prominently in the entryway to the school amidst posters from College Prep’s charter network.  Although the final all-black high school class graduated in 1971, the Cameron High School alumni association remains active, joining with students to put on a fair for alumni of the high school each December. One alumnus provided Danhausen with an old recording of the Cameron High fight song, and Danhausen plans to teach it to the student body. And each year, fifth grade students do a project about the the history of their school building, called “Me to We,” about Cameron’s many iterations between desegregation and charter school.

“It really helps them understand the significance of the project we’re undertaking, to make Cameron a beacon in South Nashville, which can be a difficult neighborhood,” Danhausen said.

Chalkbeat recently visited College Prep as part of this year’s Education Writers Association seminar. The school was featured because it represents the first time joint venture between a charter management organization and Metro Nashville Public Schools to turn around a failing school.

Before College Prep, the building most recently housed Cameron Middle School, which will finally be phased out at the end of the school year.  In 2009 and 2010, Cameron Middle School received an ‘F’ on student results for every TCAP subject. In 2010, using funds from a School Improvement Grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools issued a request for proposal to transform the school. The charter management organization LEAD Public Schools, burgeoning and locally based, won the bid, and the following year, opened College Prep.

Today, Cameron College Prep is co-located with Cameron Middle School, which is being phased out year-by-year, as College Prep is being phased in. (Currently, College Prep only has grades five through seven; an eighth grade will be added next year.)

Connections to former schools in the building don’t end with history lessons. College Prep has hired all of the teachers from Cameron Middle who applied to teach at the charter school, said Adrienne Useted, the chief operating officer of LEAD schools.

They bring knowledge of the neighborhood and students’ siblings and friends, although that’s not why College Prep added them to the team .

“They were all great candidates that we’d be crazy not to hire,” Useted said.

 Ernest Rodriguez, the student services coordinator, was one of the first teachers to move from Cameron Middle School to the other side of the building, College Prep. He said the principal of Cameron Middle School teases him good-naturedly for being a defector, but the relationship between the schools is congenial. And he’s glad he made the switch.

 “I love what we’re doing here,” he said.

 Cameron College Prep’s student body bears little resemblance to the schools’ earlier iterations. The school was primarily African American for decades, but today, it is primarily Latino, and several nationalities and ethnicities are represented among its students, 98 percent of whom qualify for free and reduced lunch. Among the student body of about 450 students, 30 languages are spoken, and 75 percent of students speak a language other than English at home, Mitchell said. “Sometimes diversity is a euphemism, but we have an actually diverse school.”