Everyone has great things to say about Julia Green Elementary School. Who wouldn’t?
At a time when Metro’s public schools don’t always garner high praise, parents here speak glowingly about what goes on inside their Green Hills-area school. Teachers receive high marks, and parents are involved in the classroom, with some likening Julia Green to the type of community school they say isn’t so common these days.
Set in an affluent neighborhood off Hobbs Road, its building underwent an impressive cosmetic makeover in recent years, thanks to millions of private donations led by Nashville’s Frist family. But student achievement is Julia Green’s greatest attribute. The school consistently ranks atop the district’s highest-performing list in state-mandated TCAP tests.
“Julia Green is an amazing school,” said Haley Dale, the parent of a Julia Green kindergartner, citing satisfaction with the school’s parental participation, teachers and curriculum.
But parents like Dale are questioning Metro Nashville Public Schools’ long-term plan to expand the school through the construction of 12 additional classrooms to address Julia Green’s rapid growth, a scenario many learned about at a March meeting with school district officials. Though the projected $2.8 million building addition isn’t finalized or appropriated, the subject has nonetheless dominated chatter there.
In short time, Julia Green has mushroomed from a student body of 412 just four years ago to a projected enrollment of 626 next school year. Five portable classrooms are currently used to handle the overflow, and one more will be utilized next year. The growth trajectory is only expected to continue, a trend that would follow the Hillsboro cluster’s overall projected increase of 1,200 elementary school students over the next seven years.
On the surface, expansion might seem logical.
Stephanie Edwards, parent of a rising third-grader and a kindergartner, however, called the plan a “Band-Aid approach.” On top of a host of other concerns about a future addition — ranging from snarled traffic to diminished educational quality — many parents worry that the expansion wouldn’t actually solve the problem, based on estimates of future enrollment.
“Twelve classrooms — they could finish that construction, and we would still need portables if those numbers held true,” said Mary Pierce, who heads the school’s parent-teacher organization. “It’s been a tough issue within the Julia Green community.”
In this upscale area — where the rate of public-versus-private schooling runs about 50-50 among children — parents are looking for other solutions to overcrowded schools. They’re frustrated. Some fear future zoning and student assignment changes. And many have their eyes on a proposed Metro charter school called Great Hearts Academies, subject to school board approval later this month. Taking advantage of the state’s new open enrollment law, the school would act as Metro’s first charter to cater to Green Hills students.
In the end, the unrest at Julia Green is likely just the beginning of a process to grapple with growth within the Hillsboro cluster, which includes Julia Green, and another challenge: satisfying a part of the county that often turns away from the public schools system in favor of private education.
Though expansion requires forthcoming feasibility and traffic studies, a site plan and funding, the project has found a preliminary place in Mayor Karl Dean’s proposed capital-spending plan for the next fiscal year. After detailing a litany of school infrastructure investments in booming southeastern Davidson County in his State of Metro address earlier this month, the mayor added a footnote involving Julia Green. A slice of his proposed $300 million capital plan sets aside funds to purchase two small residential lots east of Julia Green for the school’s future expansion.
In unveiling these intentions for Julia Green, the mayor stepped into controversy.
“It’s a hot topic for lots of different reasons,” Julia Green principal Robin Cayce told The City Paper. “It has an impact on the entire community. Growth of any kind does.”
Logistically, many Julia Green expansion concerns are centered on increasing the size of a school that some parents say is already “landlocked,” with limited parking. Green Hills traffic is already notorious, and the influx of more students — to as many as 750 — would worsen the long lines of backed-up cars as parents drop off and pick up their children. Skeptics say the school already has a scarcity of green space and playground space. An additional school wing would reduce the size of those areas further.
Opposition is pitted against blueprints for an expansion that still don’t exist. Nonetheless, parents have already started to draw assumptions.
Karen Meredith, who has a first-grade daughter at Julia Green, said she worries about the effect a larger school could have on the quality of education. She fears time spent on things like art, physical education and music would have to be reduced.
“Other things will be sacrificed in our education if we go up to that high of a number,” Meredith said. She added that the district must find “alternatives” for the area.
Meredith was one of dozens of parents — many from the Hillsboro cluster — who spoke out at school board public hearing last week in favor of Great Hearts, an Arizona-based charter organization that many parents say could help ease the capacity pressure. A competing faction of parents has questioned Great Hearts’ commitment to racial diversity.
“Charter schools must be embraced in our town,” Meredith said. “We’ve got to have options for parents … if schools become overcrowded and our children’s education starts to suffer. Right now, we really have none.”
Metro school officials say enrollment in Davidson County elementary schools ranges from fewer than 300 students to as many as 900. Even with an expansion, Julia Green would fall within that range.
Each year, MNPS outlines what amounts to a wish list to address building and other infrastructure needs, which the mayor and Metro Council must decide whether to fund. Metro school officials use a ranking system to decide which projects to undertake first. This year, Dean has proposed $100 million in capital
spending for schools. While the mayor has set aside funds for property acquisition, dollars for a future Julia Green expansion would come during a later year.
School board member Michael Hayes, whose district includes Green Hills, said he’s unsure whether one school size is better than others at the elementary school level, adding that he hopes the district identifies the “highest and best standard” for Julia Green.
Along with Julia Green, the cluster that feeds into Hillsboro High School includes Percy Priest, Carter-Lawrence, Eakin, Glendale Spanish Immersion and Sylvan Park elementary schools.
Hayes said schools throughout the cluster are operating “at or very near capacity,” with Julia Green and Percy Priest above capacity. Over the next five years, overall student enrollment among these elementary schools is projected to jump by more than 1,000.
“We’ve seen young families with children moving in who are making public schools their first choice,” Hayes said. He believes MNPS will have to find some way to create “more seats.”
“At some point, if there’s just so much growth in that cluster or in that school zone, you begin to consider a rezoning and changing the zone lines,” Hayes said. “As a district, I think that’s the least favorable route. People buy their houses sometimes based on school zoning. If you’ve got somebody who’s bought a house in Green Hills to go to Julia Green, you don’t want to tell them in a year that they’ve got to go somewhere else.”
Hayes, who served on a citizen-led steering committee that explored the idea of a charter school on Nashville’s west side last year, said charters are perhaps another way to “alleviate growth.” But he pointed out that applicants such as Great Hearts are not obligated to reveal their location during the application process.
According to Hayes, the district’s six-year capital plan has identified the old Stokes school building on Belmont Boulevard to become the site of a new elementary school. Metro school officials had reached a deal to sell the building to neighboring Lipscomb University in 2010, but the transaction was scratched after Hayes raised concerns about student growth in the area. He also said the long-term plan is to expand Percy Priest.
Some parents, however, are looking for a more comprehensive plan, not a piecemeal approach.
Shana Krumwiede, a Julia Green parent, said she’s “not unequivocally opposed” to expansion there. But she said there hasn’t been a “cohesive” effort to address growth. And if there is one, it hasn’t been communicated. “There doesn’t seem to be a broader vision or strategic plan to handle the growth across the cluster,” she said.