It took years for the small special-ed program with a few dozen volatile teenagers to become a bona fide high school in the eyes of the Metro Nashville school district.
But less than a year after the school earned that official distinction, the district is planning to dissolve the Johnson School and ship its students with severe behavioral needs elsewhere so another school can use the building.
Teens at the little-known high school about a mile south of Broadway on Second Avenue are some of the most challenging kids in the school system for teachers to handle. Many have been diagnosed with conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. They may have trouble with self-control or behave violently.
The roughly 65 students there have “such behavioral problems that their learning is impacted,” said Linda DePriest, the district’s executive officer of instructional support.
“These are really good teachers. These are highly trained teachers, not only in meeting the academic needs of students, but behavior needs,” said DePriest. “We believe that our program is very specialized.”
MNPS Director of Schools Jesse Register said plans have been in the works for “well over a year” to dismantle the school to merge services for the roughly 160 high needs special-education students now serves in four school programs district-wide.
“It makes sense to consolidate and make different use of that facility,” Register said. “We feel like we can provide good or better programming, actually better programming, if we consolidated and can perhaps save some money at the same time.
“We’re looking very seriously at making that change next year,” he added.
The school is often overlooked in the district. Because the institution didn’t become a recognized high school until this year, the program lacks test data to measure Johnson in a way that would rank it against other institutions.
Students attending the school from across the district take the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, known as the TCAP standardized test. But those scores have always been factored into the results from each student’s local high school. Johnson School is expected to take its first and last TCAP to reflect its own scores next month.
The nature of the special-needs school is to work with students whose emotional and behavioral problems thwart learning in traditional classrooms that have a ratio of roughly 30 students to one teacher.
The program’s goal is to transition the students back into their zoned school once they can learn to manage their disability and improve their behavior, social skills and problem-solving with the help of counseling, small teacher-student ratios and sometimes medication. Each student also has an individualized education program, known as an IEP, to set reachable annual goals and short-term objectives for academics and managing their disability.
So far this school year, the district has transferred 22 students into Johnson School for the special attention — and two students back into their locally zoned school, according to district officials.
MNPS — which is home to some 80,000 students, with more projected growth in the pipeline — told school officials this year of the plans to close Johnson School. Students from Rose Park Middle School would occupy the building over the next school year while waiting out renovation work at their own building. The year after, Baxter Alternative Learning Center would move into the building permanently.
The day after The City Paper broke the news  that officials were looking to close the school in part to play a district-level game of musical chairs for school buildings, Johnson School’s principal, Dr. Claire Jasper, penned a letter to parents telling them the plans are solid and “our program will not continue at Johnson School for the 2013-14 school year.”
“I am disappointed the media reported this story before we had a chance to finalize our plans and communicate with families. I know you would have preferred to hear about this from me and I would have preferred that also,” read her letter dated Feb. 21.
The district still isn’t sure where they will send the tough-to-manage teenagers. Johnson School is one of two within the district considered equipped to handle the students, with the other being Murrell School in Edgehill, which serves K-7 students.
Officials are looking to contract with an outside provider who can take the students on. The district already sends some of its students to Spectrum Academy, which also handles students with emotional and behavioral challenges.
Last year, 31 students ended the year at the academy, with five graduating. Currently, 53 MNPS students attend the school. At Johnson School, enrollment was as high as 72 students at the end of last school year, with seven students graduating.
While looking to consolidate services, Register said the district will start looking at their current contract schools and open up the search to other providers that may want to take the students on.