A heated Metro school board discussion on diversity — with one member citing a fear of resegregation — ended with a 7-2 vote Tuesday to deny an amended, but still controversial, charter for Great Hearts Academies, halting the Phoenix-based group’s plan for five schools in Nashville.
“In final analysis, if we open this floodgate, in five or 10 years we’re going to have schools with blacks, schools with Hispanics, schools for the poor, schools for whites,” veteran board member Ed Kindall said of Great Hearts’ plan. “That’s what’s going to happen.”
The school board, considering appeals from five charter groups it denied a month before, gave approval Tuesday to the second attempts of KIPP Nashville and Purpose Prep Academy. KIPP plans to open a new Whites Creek-area middle school, while the Tennessee Charter Incubator-backed Purpose Prep has planned a K-fourth grade charter.
“It’s a victory for the kids of east and north Nashville,” KIPP Nashville Executive Director Randy Dowell said of the 8-1 vote to approve his school’s expansion. Board members Tuesday cited KIPP’s positive newly released state test scores after questioning its track record in May.
But the board denied the appeals of Genesis Academy, Excel Academy and, most notably, Great Hearts, which arrived to Nashville this past winter following a push from a group of parents in affluent West Nashville looking for greater school choice.
Seeking to address questions about its transportation and location plans raised during its initial denial in May, Great Hearts came back Tuesday with an amended proposal: The school revealed it is “actively searching” for a school location within a 2.9-mile area near West End Avenue and would offer one bus to each of the two “largest clusters” that are home to students who live 15 minutes or more from its first school.
But Director of Schools Jesse Register’s administration nonetheless recommended the board reject Great Hearts, arguing the “grounds for the initial denial recommendation have not been overcome, despite cosmetic adjustments and significant political pressure.”
Kindall, an African-American raised in Nashville’s 1950s-era segregated school system, said he was “appalled” by Great Hearts’ transportation plan, arguing it wouldn’t offer busing to all low-income students. He said its proposal would, in fact, “destroy some of the diversity we already have.”
In the end, only board members Kay Simmons and Michael Hayes voted for Great Hearts. The two represent the board’s two most affluent districts.
Peter Bezanson, chief academic officer of Great Hearts, said in a statement the school is “disappointed” by the outcome but added the vote does not change its hopes to serve students in Nashville one day. He said Great Hearts officials would “step back and explore” its options.
“Obviously, the board’s decision to reject our application takes a school opening in fall 2013 off the table, but we plan to pursue the chance to secure the approvals for five schools, including a 2014 opening,” Bezanson said.
Before Tuesday’s meeting commenced, Mayor Karl Dean, a charter advocate, entered the debate by sending a last-minute letter to the school board that endorsed Great Hearts, as well as KIPP and Purpose Prep.
“Each of these organizations have put together a quality application that meets or exceeds the expectations outlined in the initial review process, and each would add another high quality public school choice for Nashville families,” Dean wrote.
He cautioned the board from letting “bureaucracy or the fear of change occurring too quickly slow the progress we’re making on education reform.”
But the push for Great Hearts couldn’t overcome resistance from Register’s administration. Alan Coverstone, who leads the district’s Office of Innovation, delivered a scathing critique of Great Hearts to the board that set the tone for its final rejection.
“Careful analysis of the application and the experience, including the perspective of visitors to the Phoenix-area schools, leave many nagging concerns,” Coverstone said. “Opportunities to overcome these concerns have been met with partial efforts, defensive statements and deferred decisions.”
He called the Great Hearts model for five schools in different parts of Davidson County an attempt at “locational diversity,” quoting a Great Hearts supporter. He pointed to Great Hearts’ 14 schools in Arizona.
“Even a cursory glance at the Phoenix portfolio shows what locational diversity looks like: mostly white schools, and a mostly African-American school, with only one exception,” Coverstone said.
Simmons, who represents parts of West Nashville and isn’t seeking a second board term in August, began Tuesday’s meeting with a 10-minute pro-charter speech. She was absent when her colleagues originally voted against Great Hearts.
“Charter schools do not have to stop with better outcomes for low-income or minority communities,” Simmons said. “All children deserve a quality education.”
Simmons said she was “shocked” to learn Metro’s zoned schools didn’t produce any students with National Merit distinctions last year. “What happened to the hundreds of students who are on Hume-Fogg and MLK’s wait-list?” she said. “Did they suddenly become disengaged?
“I conclude that either we are not educating and inspiring students to perform at the highest level or we’re losing those who can achieve,” Simmons said. She later added that there’s been a “dramatic decline in the trust people have in our schools.”
When discussion turned to diversity, Simmons defended Great Hearts, pointing out its “expressed desire” to reach out to the entire county. “I just believe that this is not a racial issue. It should not be a racial issue. I don’t think we should vote it as a racial issue. This is an educational issue.”
Hayes, who represents parts of Green Hills, spoke up to allow Great Hearts administrators the chance to defend their proposal. But board chair Gracie Porter said it would be “unjust” to afford them that opportunity after it didn’t do the same for other charter groups.