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New Nashville parent advocacy group says its only agenda is high-quality schools

Parents collaborate at a 2016 Nashville Rise training event.
Parents collaborate at a 2016 Nashville Rise training event.
Project Renaissance

A new parent advocacy group is rising up from Nashville’s complex, and often divisive, education landscape as an offshoot of a nonprofit organization started by staunch supporters of charter schools.

However, participants of the new Nashville Rise insist that their only goal is to raise the quality of all schools in Nashville, not to promote specific options.

Nashville Rise was created in December by Project Renaissance, a nonprofit education initiative spearheaded by former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean. It is scheduled to kick off formally Tuesday evening during a community forum at a Nashville high school.

The group already has about 100 parent participants. Organizers plan frequent trainings to help parents advocate for their children at the school level, with information on navigating issues ranging from special education to teacher-parent conferences.

Nashville Rise is the latest in a nationwide wave of parent advocacy organizations rooted in the growing body of research that shows parental engagement is a key to academic success. Many are closely aligned with the school-choice movement, which advocates for charter schools and, in some cases, tuition vouchers to attend private schools. They are predicated on the idea that providing more school options empowers parents. However, unlike the PTAs that have undergirded K-12 education for decades, these groups have an eye on affecting local and state education policy, as well as advocating for their individual students.

For example, the year-old Memphis Lift is backed by John Little, a charter advocate active in both Nashville and Memphis. This spring, Lift parents traveled frequently to the state Capitol to testify in favor of the state-run Achievement School District, which uses charter networks as the primary vehicle to try to improve schools.

Nashville Rise’s parent organization, Project Renaissance, also has strong ties to the push for choice in Tennessee, although its leaders have been adamant that the organization supports both charter and traditional public schools that offer access to a high-quality education. In addition to the backing of Dean, who is credited with the recent proliferation of charter schools in Nashville, the nonprofit is led by the mayor’s former education adviser, Wendy Tucker, a current member of the State Board of Education, as well as the former head of the Tennessee Charter School Center, Justin Testerman. Project Renaissance also is launching a teacher residency program this summer.

Conversations thus far among Nashville Rise parents have centered mainly around the racial achievement gap and increasing equitable outcomes among Nashville’s schools.

Demi Owen is among parents who are on board. The mother of four children who attend Meigs Magnet Middle Prep and Thomas Edison Elementary School, she learned about Nashville Rise during an Easter egg hunt at her local community center. Owen said the group seeks to ensure that children receive the best possible education, no matter what school they attend.

Owen has her own inspiration for being an engaged parent. Growing up one of six children in a single-parent household, she struggled in school and had a speech impediment that was never diagnosed or treated. With help from other Nashville Rise parents, she recently advocated for her youngest child to receive a speech assessment and get early intervention.

“Their main thing is just about high-quality education — making sure my child or any child at any school is getting one,” she said.

Correction: May 10, 2016: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Memphis Lift supports tuition vouchers. The group has taken a stance against vouchers.

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