A recent story in The Tennessean announcing a new, Metro-funded building for a charter school in East Nashville caught a number of readers off guard, including Metro Council members and officials in the mayor’s administration.
“The Metro Nashville government says it’s cheaper to just build a new KIPP Academy,” the July 10 article began, “and ditch earlier plans to renovate the 1930s-era building the charter school is using.”
The article included some specifics about plans to demolish parts of the building, saying others would be restored and reused. But the implied finality of the plans and the phrase “build a new KIPP Academy” raised questions about the preservation of local historical sites and how Mayor Karl Dean decides which of Nashville’s charter schools are within the reach of the city’s helping hand.
Reaction by interested parties on all sides of the issue amounted to a collective, “Huh?” That’s because, for the most part, The Tennessean misconstrued information about the project.
The Highland Heights property rights were transferred from Metro Nashville Public Schools to Metro government in July of last year. In September, as a part of the capital-spending budget for fiscal year 2011, the council approved a $10 million project for renovations to the building, which has housed the charter school KIPP Academy since 2005. The renovations would also open the building for community meetings and other uses by local residents.
Outgoing Councilman Jamie Hollin, who represents District 5, where Highland Heights is located, voted to approve the renovation project last year and said improvements to the building were welcomed with open arms by him and many other residents of a district where there is a dearth of community-friendly venues. While he had been following the developments of what has been a slow-moving project, he said word of demolishing the building and constructing a new one came as news to him.
“That was left-field,” he told The City Paper. “I haven’t heard any notion that there is going to be a demolition and a new building being built.”
Councilmember Emily Evans, an advocate of historic preservation who also voted to approve the initial renovation project, was similarly surprised to hear of what sounded like finalized plans to demolish a federally registered historic structure.
“The question of demolishing a historic structure is of great concern. It’s even more concerning because, in this case, the government is going to demolish a historic structure,” she said. “We try very hard to find reasons for the private sector to preserve, maintain and reuse their historic structures, so we lose some credibility when we’re unwilling to do it ourselves.”
According to Velvet Hunter, the assistant director of administration with Metro’s General Services, the design phase is ongoing and won’t be finished until January. The tentative plans line up loosely with those mentioned without source in the Tennessean article, but city officials stress they are far from finalized. In an email to The City Paper, Hunter described where things stand now.
“At this point, the only portions planned for demolition are the original ‘main’ building and the newer gym, built in the 1960s,” she said. “The original gymnasium, as well as the east room classrooms and auditorium, will remain for use on the campus. Green space, basketball courts, a ball-field and a park-like area are planned for the front of the existing facility and the area cleared after demolition.”
Hunter added that the existing east-wing cafeteria will become a community meeting space, and that the plan would include saving the historical components of the building’s front entrance and reusing them as part of new facilities.
Asked whether the working plans would allow the building to still be eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, or if it will be a priority to make sure that they do, Hunter said it’s too early to tell.
“We don’t know at this point,” she said. “The priority is to make a safe and functional building for KIPP’s use, while maintaining as much historical significance as possible within our budget constraints.”
Should the project exceed the $10 million initially approved for it, it could require another vote by the council in order to move forward. But, repeating a familiar refrain of this project, Metro Finance Director Richard Riebeling said it’s too early to know the final cost and scope. He also said down the road, there would be community meetings and “a lot of opportunity for community input” about the project.
Regardless of the final blueprint, KIPP Academy will be the beneficiary of assistance that the city’s other charter and public schools would surely not refuse. In Highland Heights, one finds a building that does not at all resemble the dynamic program operating within its walls. While the parts of the building occupied by students have been deemed safe, other areas are closed off, uninhabitable in their current state.
Hollin noted that while his global perspective with respect to charter schools may be evolving, he finds KIPP to be a great school for students in his district, referring to it as a “bastion of hope,” considering the alternatives. For her part, Evans said she thinks KIPP is a strong program, and while she doesn’t begrudge them receiving assistance, equality among charter and public schools is a concern.
Jeremy Kane, founder and director of the North Nashville charter LEAD Academy, can relate to the struggles facing charters and public schools when it comes to facilities. At the three LEAD schools in Nashville, the program is making improvements to facilities it is renting — on its own dime. He too said he doesn’t begrudge help for KIPP. But he said if there is a path to such assistance, it should be better lit.
“Whether it’s funders, businesses, political figures or even the school board that get involved in giving out facilities, I think it’s appropriate to have an open, transparent and fair process,” he said, “so that everyone can apply, or so that everyone is aware of why some people got the buildings and some people didn’t.”
Kane also said he favors a system that rewards the highest-performing charters. It could work as an incentive, he said, to meet their mission of achieving high performance with the kids who need it most.
KIPP founder and school leader Randy Dowell said he supports results-based assistance and that, in this case, that’s effectively what happened.
“[Assistance] absolutely should be tied to results,” he said, sitting in an office he shares at the school. “But I think our results are second to none.”
Dowell said that while students usually arrive at KIPP a grade level or two behind academically, the school has been successful in catching them up. Comparative analysis of KIPP students’ 2009-2010 TCAP scores, provided by the school, shows students’ scores trending upward until the eighth grade, when KIPP students’ scores beat the state average in every category.
As for the renovation and construction of Highland Heights, Dowell said that beyond the rent they pay as a tenant of the building, he doesn’t believe KIPP will contribute any additional funds to the project. He added that while he believes there has been a perception that Metro is just handing $10 million to KIPP, that’s not the case.
It’s true that, whatever the final amount, the money from Metro’s capital spending budget will be spent on a building owned by Metro. Still, Dowell admits, “we’re definitely benefiting.”
In a statement to The City Paper, Dean spokeswoman Bonna Johnson responded to questions regarding how the mayor decides which schools will receive such benefits, and why KIPP was chosen over a long list of more traditional public schools facing similar struggles. In it, she praised KIPP as a “national model for progress” but did not illuminate the kind of well-defined path to assistance that Kane and Evans call for.
“Mayor Dean has been saying for years that education is his top priority, and he has demonstrated his commitment to schools by fully funding the school districts’ operating budget, as well as committing support to capital improvement needs,” she said. “Because [Dean] realizes the potential of high-quality charter schools like KIPP Academy to change kids’ lives, he funded the revitalization project to make sure students have the infrastructure they deserve. He did this without taking money from the school district’s budget.”
Johnson went on to reiterate that “innovative charter schools” are a part of the mayor’s plan “to make sure every child in Nashville can get a quality public education.”