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Bucking statewide trend, a Nashville charter school makes diversity a central goal

Valor fifth-graders discuss how they are going to make their school the best in Nashville during an all-school morning meeting, which is held daily.
Valor fifth-graders discuss how they are going to make their school the best in Nashville during an all-school morning meeting, which is held daily.
G. Tatter

During a morning assembly at the recently-opened charter school Valor Collegiate Academy, a triangle of fifth-grade girls –one Asian, one Hispanic and one white –discussed how they could help improve their learning community.

That sort of diversity in the classroom setting is a rare scene in schools across Tennessee and even rarer in the burgeoning charter sector where leaders have designed their curriculum and school culture to serve single-demographic populations.

For Todd Dickson, the founder of Valor in South Nashville, diversity is the starting point for his students’ education and the school itself. It’s printed on the wall. It’s in the mission statement. It dictated how he recruited students and why he came to Nashville in the first place.

Like many charter schools, Valor is decorated with posters of the school’s values.
Like many charter schools, Valor is decorated with posters of the school’s values.
G. Tatter

School desegregation was a hard-fought process in Nashville, starting off with white supremacists planting a bomb at Hattie Cotton Elementary in 1957 after 13 black first graders enrolled, and not ending for more a decade. In the late 1990s the obstacles to desegregated schools became more insidious than bombs and protests: housing patterns and lack of interest in the public schools from white parents. In recent years, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools has tried to create diverse school settings through transportation initiatives and a push to make public schools the “first choice” for all parents despite race or income.

This year, for the first time, the school board is requiring charter school applicants to submit a plan for achieving racial and socioeconomic diversity. Dickson hopes to contribute to the mission with his own small network of charter schools.

Dickson came to Nashville from California, where he helped head a popular charter management organization called Summit Prep, expressly to open a chain of charter schools with a racially and socioeconomically diverse student body. Dickson felt that, if done right, a diverse school had the potential to break down negative stereotypes students might hold, impacting how they view others and themselves.

Of Valor’s first class of 5th graders, 17 percent are Hispanic, 15 percent are African-American, 7 percent are Asian, 41 percent are White, and 20 percent are middle eastern or “other.” Forty-seven percent qualify for free and reduced lunch. Students come from traditionally low-income neighborhoods in South Nashville, as well as more affluent enclaves in Green Hills and East Nashville where parents often opt for specialized gifted programs or private schools, bringing with them varied life experiences, home situations, and academic track records.

A conversation about diversity in Nashville

Like most school systems in the Southeast, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools saw rapid racial resegregation following the end of federal oversight in the 1990s. Between 1983 and 1998, schools were required to maintain a student body that reflected the metropolitan area: about 60 percent white and 40 percent African-American, or within ten percentage points on either side.

Today, 16 years after a court declared that the Nashville school system was “unified” and thus no longer required to actively manage the demographics of its schools, many schools in Nashville have only a handful of white students, although white people still make up the majority of metropolitan Nashville’s population. At least 13 schools are almost entirely black with no white students at all. Unlike in the days of mandated desegregation, racial diversity can no longer be discussed in terms of white and black: Nashville has become a hub for immigrants from Central and South America, Africa, and Asia, and is home to about 30 percent of the entire state’s English-as-a-second-language student population.

Charter schools are among the most segregated schools in Nashville, largely because of the history of charter laws in Tennessee, which from 2002 to 2011 required charters to only serve low-income students. Many district schools are segregated as well—and were before charter schools opened—either because the neighborhoods they pull from are, or the affluent students zoned to them opt to go elsewhere, often to private schools. Studies show that low-income students can benefit from going to socioeconomic and racially diverse schools, in large part because they tend to have more resources than segregated schools. (Less commonly noted is that more affluent students often benefit academically from diversity as well, gaining more nuanced world views and becoming better problem solvers.)

But for some educators, racial and socioeconomic diversity is beside the point. The president of Rocketship Education, a charter management organization that opened an elementary school in East Nashville this fall, said the organization sees serving low-income children as central to its mission of closing the achievement gap, and that Rocketship schools are focused on providing high-quality choices of schools for those who don’t already have them, either because they don’t live near a high-performing school or cannot afford private school.

Unlike Shelby County Schools, which covers primarily low-income African-American neighborhoods, and virtually no wealthier suburbs, Metropolitan Nashville includes many wealthier suburban areas, making diverse public schools a more feasible goal.

The district has rebranded middle schools as “middle preps” and expanded course offerings to stem the exodus of white and middle class students from public schools after elementary school. The district also passed a resolution to prioritize diversity, with a list of tangible strategies such as making it easier for children from one neighborhood to be transported to school in another.

In 2012, the school board denied a charter school application supported by state officials because it feared the school itself would racially isolate affluent white students and cause the schools they left behind to be more homogenous, as well.

The district was fined $3 million by the state. This year the district will also ask charter applicants to provide a plan for diversity in their applications.

“The District views racial/ethnic isolation as an educational disadvantage since it does not prepare students to prosper as adults in a diverse society and is, indeed, an especially inappropriate setting for education in this richly diverse school system,” the guidelines for charter school applications reads.

The district asks that applying schools aim to meet or exceed the district’s percentage of free and reduced lunch students, 58.6 percent, and students with disabilities, 13.7 percent, as well as be racially diverse.

Nationwide, racial and socioeconomic diversity in schools is having a moment, as well. Since the end of bussing, discussion of race in schools was largely taboo, but in 2011, the U.S. Department of Education has released guidance on reducing racial isolation. In the charter sector, the National Coalition of Diverse Charter Schools represents a groundswell in charters across the country that are prioritizing diversity, as Dickson is. It hasn’t always been easy though, said Daniel Rubenstein, the principal of Brooklyn Prospect Charter School, which is in the coalition.

“What I think happened in the first wave of charter schools is that people recognized that the population that was struggling the most was low-income, often black and Hispanic students,” he said. “They were frequently targeted as the population needing the most help from the movement…What we’ve started to think about is how can we move that forward and not only bring those students up in student performance, but also give them the social benefits of sitting side-by-side from students with different backgrounds.”

Even a decade ago, Rubenstein said funders and charter authorizers were hesitant to lend resources to schools with seats for financially advantaged students. But that’s changing, Rubenstein said.

“We’re seeing funding community and authorizers to be much more open and interested in integration as a goal,” he said.

How Valor achieved diversity

Dickson and his team achieved the diversity of this year’s class by targeting recruitment in specific neighborhoods, like the area around the school and Green Hills. Ultimately, the students were chosen by lottery. Dickson said that he thinks that the Tennessee charter law can be interpreted so that in the future, Valor administrators can assure that at least half of the seats are reserved for low-income students. That way, even if the school takes off with a higher-income bracket — it’s already a popular choice in its first year— relative diversity will always be maintained.

Students start their day in single-sex mentor groups.
Students start their day in single-sex mentor groups.
G. Tatter

Mere diversity isn’t enough, though, Dickson said. He grew up in Denver, where he said the public schools he attended were diverse on paper, but segregated in practice. His honors and Advanced Placement classes were all white, while students of other races were relegated to remedial courses.

“It actually had a negative impact,” Dickson said. “They were diverse, but it left kids with more negative stereotypes than they came in with.”

To mitigate that, Valor offers one level of classes by the seventh grade—a college preparatory track—although they come to the school with different skill levels. Some are reading three grades below grade level for example, while some are reading two grade levels above, said Lauren Hayes, the director of talent and external affairs for the school. For the fifth and sixth grade, students are in separate math and English classes based on tests Valor conducted at the beginning of the school year, although the classes aren’t given labels like “gifted.” Students who need extra help get it after school in “homework club,” during the 30-minute “Learning Lab” period, and during two-week “expedition” periods throughout the year, when students participate in elective courses. (Like many charter schools, they don’t have typical electives each day, like band or orchestra. Instead, electives at Valor are in two-week chunks, while teachers undergo professional development). The hope is that by seventh grade, all students will be on about the same level.

Beth Jones said her son Parker, who is white, has always been a strong student. She said she is not concerned about her son not being challenged at Valor, even though he won’t be in separate gifted classes. “What’s so refreshing about Valor is they are personalizing every child’s education plan,” she said.

Teachers are also intentional about convening conversations about race and class. Students start the day in single-sex mentor groups, which are meant to be safe spaces for them to talk about issues many adults shy away from.

“In a typical big, public high school … they’re just in a school together and they pick up whatever they pick up,” Dickson said, “and generally it’s all the white kids are in AP classes and all the dark kids are not, and they draw their own conclusions from that and it’s left to chance what they take out of their diverse experience. We try to be much more intentional.”

Components like the mentor groups are a draw for parents, who chose Valor not only for its promise of high academic results, but also its focus on creating a happy school environment and helping students become well-rounded.

“It’s not only academic,” said parent Norka Leon, who immigrated to Nashville from Bolivia. Leon said her daughter Isabella cried of happiness when she got off the waiting list the day before school started. Leon cited the mentor groups as a big draw to Valor, as well as the many ethnic groups in cultures represented in the student body.

“Since I am from a different country, I want my daughter to have the knowledge of different cultures,” she said. “Not only my roots or just American roots, but I want her to have more vision of other cultures.”

Working with other schools

Some worry that Valor’s commitment to diversity might actually make the district schools it draws from less diverse. For example, Valor has excited a lot of parents in Green Hills, much of which is zoned for J.T. Moore Middle Prep School. The school board has already approved Valor to open a second middle school, as well as an elementary school. If enough parents in that neighborhood leave the district schools in that area of West Nashville for Valor, the public schools might become less socioeconomically diverse, they argue. And as always with charter schools, there’s a concern that only the most involved parents send their children there, meaning that the children at public schools that charters have drawn from are at a double disadvantage — poor and with disengaged parents — and teachers at traditional public schools are especially strained.

Dickson says that criticism is somewhat legitimate, and shouldn’t be dismissed as quickly as it often is in the education reform community. But he also said charter operators work hard to recruit low-income students of all types, not just the ones with moms and dads with time to look into school options. Dickson doesn’t want to expand Valor beyond six or eight schools, and definitely not outside of Nashville.

Dickson hopes that some of its techniques, like its mentor groups, might spread to other schools in the area, and is inviting Metro teachers to professional development at Valor during vacations. He’d like to pair with sister schools in the district to swap ideas, and has met with principals from the traditional public schools, including the one of J.T. Moore, to learn from them.

“I definitely come into charter schools a little more as innovation hubs, which was the original intention — to spread what was working back to public schools,” he said.

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