From Memphis, Philadelphia and Mesa, Ariz., to economically ravaged Rust Belt cities in the Midwest, student enrollment at some of the nation’s largest public school districts has declined dramatically over the past five years.
In Nashville, however, a projected 81,000 Metro students are expected to head to class for the first day of school this Wednesday, Aug. 1, the district’s highest figure of any year since 1976. It’s the culmination of a 16 percent Metro student population rise over the past decade.
In a story that generated widespread discussion among educators, The New York Times recently reported that enrollment at approximately half the nation’s 100 most populated school districts plummeted during a five-year timeframe that largely coincides with the nation’s Great Recession. The report attributed some of the decreases to the mass exodus of residents from cities such as Cleveland and Detroit.
Yet the Times also referred to a “record-low confidence in our public schools,” as suggested by Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson (husband of education reform advocate Michelle Rhee, former schools chancellor of Washington, D.C.), along with the rapid arrival of privately operated, publicly financed charter schools, which has diverted students from traditional schools.
Applying its findings to the situation in Nashville raises questions: Is Nashville really bucking a national trend of school-district shrinkage? In a city with a sea of private-school options, are more families making the much-maligned Metro Nashville Public Schools their No. 1 choice? Or is Metro’s enrollment spike simply a reflection of a growing city, one that saw its population swell 10.2 percent between 2000 and 2010?
Statistics seem to point primarily to Nashville’s population growth, fueled in part by an influx of new immigrants. But Metro Director of Schools Jesse Register said the answer lies in multiple factors.
“We have a growing population here, and I think the growth in Nashville is somewhat different,” Register, at the helm of Metro schools for three-and-a-half years, told The City Paper. “We also think that more people are choosing public schools.
“I can’t really break down how many are coming from private to public or from home-school to public, but we know there’s some of that,” he said. “It’s hard to trace back. Sometimes it’s hard to really know where everyone comes from, but we know we get some of those children. And then we also have people who are moving into the area who are choosing us in somewhat larger percentages.”
Mayor Karl Dean, who routinely reminded Nashvillians of the city’s growing school population in his recent successful push for a property tax increase, had a similar take. He said the city’s enrollment bounce “reaffirms” Nashville as “thriving city,” while calling it a “good sign that our school district is moving in the right direction and offering more families quality choices for the education of their children.”
The trajectory of Metro schools’ growth over the past half-century resembles many Southern cities that experienced “white flight” in the 1970s following federal desegregation mandates.
According to MNPS data that The City Paper reviewed, the school system reached its all-time enrollment peak in 1970, when the district grew to boast a student body of 95,542. One year later in 1971 came the landmark Supreme Court decision in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg of Board of Education, in which the court weighed in on the school system in Charlotte, N.C., and found busing to a remedy for school segregation.
After desegregation efforts, Metro enrollment began to drop precipitously each year, reaching a low point in 1985 when 63,162 students attended Metro schools after families had flocked to the suburbs. In the following years, Metro’s student population started its ascent. And from 2002 to 2012, the district’s enrollment increased from 69,700 to an estimated 81,000 today; a 16 percent tick overall.
Metro’s student body, however, hasn’t experienced growth among all demographics. From 2007 to 2011, according to Tennessee Department of Education data, Metro’s white population decreased in both numbers and percentage, accounting for one-third of the district’s student body today. Over that period, the district’s black population remained largely flat.
In that duration, Metro’s Hispanic population rose from 13.3 percent to 16.6 percent today. Metro’s current black population stands at 45.8 percent currently, while its white student body is 33.3 percent. Metro’s Asian population has increased slightly to 4.1 percent. “Overall, the Hispanic population seems to be the one that’s going up,” Register said.
In fact, Metro has the largest English Language Learner population in Tennessee, accounting for more than one-fifth of the entire district. It has created challenges and hurdles for Metro. New state graduation requirements for ELL learners — they now have to earn a diploma in four years instead of five — partially contributed to the district’s graduation rate dropping last year from 83 percent to 76 percent.
The student population, reflecting a larger national trend among public school systems, has also become poorer: While 71.8 percent of Metro students were considered economically disadvantaged five years ago, 75 percent are today. Statewide, 60 percent of public school students fall within the same category.
Critics of the Times piece hammered its underlying premise, pointing out that enrollment at all U.S. schools grew by 0.3 percent between 2005 and 2010, according to U.S. Department of Education data, while the largest 100 school districts declined by just 0.4 percent. Some say what has really transpired is simply a population shift from the Northeast and Great Lakes region to the South and West.
Indeed, public school districts in Charlotte and Denver, Colo. — two of Nashville’s commonly designated peer cities — have also experienced enrollment increases, in some cases at a faster pace than in Nashville.
The Times also pinned declining enrollments in some cities on “competition from charter schools.” The story cited statistics that suggest enrollment at traditional public schools nationwide has declined by 5 percent, while charter enrollment has jumped 60 percent. But unlike cities such as Columbus, Ohio, where charter enrollment is differentiated, charter school students are included in the statistics for Metro’s overall student body population.
Register said different states fund charter schools in different ways. Tennessee school districts receive per-pupil funding from the state, then deliver it to charter schools; hence, the inclusion of charter students in district-by-district enrollment calculations. “We’ve always included charter school students in those totals,” Register said.
Charter schools are in the middle of a well-documented growth spurt in Metro. With the opening of two additional charter schools this year, Metro will have 15 operating charter schools. (Three more schools have been authorized to open in 2013.)
Approximately 2,150 students in Davidson County attended charter schools during the past school year. As existing charters usher in additional grades, combined with new charters opening, that number is expected to jump to 3,190 this year.
Alan Coverstone, who oversees charter schools at Metro, isn’t worried about the rate of charter expansion. “I feel like it’s been a pretty deliberate and steady path based on what seems to be the demand,” he said.
“We need to be having transformative improvement from our charter-school sector and our zoned-school sector,” he said, adding, “The focus cannot be on numbers.”
Perhaps undercutting the notion that Nashville’s enrollment spike is the result of parents discovering more choice and satisfaction with MNPS is the movement behind one charter proposal: Great Hearts Academies.
The Phoenix-based charter organization arrived in Nashville after a sizable group of parents, primarily white, grew frustrated by the district’s current options and expressed interest in a charter on the city’s generally more affluent west side. Not all students are admitted to Metro’s popular academic magnet schools, they pointed out, and private schools are expensive to many. Denied twice by the Metro school board, which cited diversity concerns, Great Hearts appealed to the state board of education and won approval on Friday.
An email titled “5 Reasons Why Nashville Needs Great Hearts” circulated by its supporters July 16 sheds light on a segment of Nashville turned off by the local school district. The email compares Great Hearts’ achievement record to low ACT test results at Metro high schools. It says Metro “arguably has [just] three academically outstanding schools” — the academic magnets. And it also displays a graph that indicates enrollment within the district’s Hillsboro High School cluster drops significantly after the elementary school level.
“Parents are clearly dissatisfied by its current options,” the email concludes.