A standing-room only crowd — primarily young parents with West Nashville zip codes — gathered Wednesday night to learn about an Arizona-based charter network that could locate to their Nashville neighborhood.
“The parents I know are looking for the best education for their children and are thinking about what school district to move to,” said Dawn Hayes, a West Nashville parent of three children who are still too young for school. “I feel like this is another great option.”
Representatives of Great Hearts Academies, a charter network that manages 12 publicly financed, privately operated charters in Arizona, delivered a 45-minute presentation Wednesday at the Cohn Adult Learning Center detailing the liberal arts, classical curriculum of schools that apparently have long wait lists in Arizona. Great Hearts schools, which produce an impressive average ACT scores of 27.9, rely on the Socratic Seminar approach to facilitate dialogue and debate.
“We’re producing lawyers, philosophers, scholars,” Dan Scoggin, the founding CEO of Great Hearts, told onlookers.
Great Hearts leaders have discussed opening five to 10 charter schools in Nashville, the first K-ninth-grade school opening in 2013. A high school would follow. Great Hearts administrators arrived here in response to a charter push from families who live in some of the most affluent parts of town: Forest Hills, Hillsboro-West End, Belle Meade, Green Hills, Sylvan Park and Richland-West End.
It represents uncharted waters for Nashville.
For most of the 100-plus parents in attendance Wednesday, charter schools likely weren’t options one year ago when eligible students had to qualify for federal free and reduced lunch. Last spring, however, Republican state lawmakers overhauled Tennessee’s charter law, opening enrollment to anyone regardless of family income.
“That was another reason why I came,” Hayes said. “Now, anyone can get in a lottery for a charter school.”
Wednesday’s Great Hearts meeting was the first of two. Another is set for Thursday night at the Martin Professional Development Center near Vanderbilt University where Mayor Karl Dean, a proponent of charter schools, is expected to appear.
Present Wednesday were West Nashville council members Jason Holleman, Emily Evans and Carter Todd, as well as Donelson-area Councilman Steve Glover, a former school board member. Also in attendance was Chris Barbic, superintendent of the state’s new Achievement School District.
Nashville’s Great Hearts momentum enjoys help from some influential Nashvillians led by Bill DeLoache, a local investor and trustee of the Joe. C. Davis Foundation. DeLoache is the cousin of Anne Davis, the mayor’s wife. DeLoache has received assistance from Townes Duncan, managing partner of Solidus Company, who serves on the board of KIPP Academy, a Nashville charter. Duncan is also chairman of the board of directors for SouthComm, the parent company of The City Paper.
“With the change in the charter law, it opened it up to all students,” Duncan said, adding that charters “create islands of innovation.”
Peter Bezanson, chief academic officer of Great Hearts, said his group plans to submit a letter of intent in February to apply for a charter with the Metro Nashville Board of Education. A Great Hearts charter school in Nashville would be subject to school board approval in April.
Despite the West Nashville charter drive, Bezanson stressed Great Hearts hasn’t settled on a final location. He said there are plans to organize future meetings in East and South Nashville.
“We love competition at Great Hearts,” Bezanson said. “We want to put the school where there’s demand and facility. We don’t want to leave any neighborhood of Nashville unaccounted for.”
Bezanson described a charter school that relies solely on “word of mouth” to attract parents and students. He said they rarely spend money on marketing. Unlike many charter schools — which inflate teacher salaries — Great Hearts pays its teachers 5 percent less than traditional public schools.
While all Great Hearts schools have athletic teams, school representatives said, they do not provide buses, or transportation, to students.