NASHVILLE, Tn – The kindergarten students at Jones Paideia Magnet school in Nashville are learning about the Civil Rights movement, including the era when skin color determined where students in the South could attend school.
“It would make me sad because they are great people,” says one of the children. He’s quickly echoed by several classmates who say they would also be sad. Their teacher offers a summation.
“They are good people, and it doesn’t really matter what color our skin is does it,” she asks
The students all agree, understanding that was the past. But the present doesn’t look much different in their school. The student body at Jones Paideia is almost all African-American. What’s stunning is how different the racial composition is compared to the 1990’s when Jones opened with a student population that was about half black, and half white.
“It really gave the opportunity for children to see how other people learned, to see what they brought to the environment,” says Jill Coleman, a teacher at Jones since 1996.
Back then, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) were under court-ordered desegregation. Magnet schools were tools for desegregation, offering special academic themes to entice students away from their neighborhoods—thereby creating diversity. It worked. Jones was one of several Nashville magnet schools that had such demand, officials used race-based lotteries to assign students here.
Coleman flips through an old Jones Paideia yearbook from 1999.
“Actually, the population was more Caucasian than it was African-Americanin my class that year,” says Coleman.
“Our waiting list was really long and people were just interested in coming to our school because they read about what Paideia meant.”
Jones remains a popular public school choice. But the student demographics are drastically different. The school is now 95% African-American, having sharply tipped in that direction each year since 1999. (See graph, left.)
In 1999, Nashville schools were released from court-ordered desegregation and the district put an end to cross-town busing, attendance zones and race-based lotteries designed to integrate magnet schools.
Yandla Harris is parent of a current student at Jones and another who attended a few years ago.
“Of course I would want the school to be 50-50 or have a multicultural atmosphere. But if I have to go outside and seek that, then I would do that.”
Harris chose to send her children to Jones, and it is not their neighborhood school. But, many parents are choosing the school closest to home. And researchers say THAT is at the core of resegregation.
“That school tends to reflect the characteristics of that neighborhood, of that census tract. So it really fails the test of attracting a diverse enrollment across the city,” says Dr. Claire Smrekar, of Vanderbilt’s Peabody College.
Smrekar is also a researcher with the National Center on School Choice and editor of the book From the Courtroom to the Classroom, which looks at the impact of desegregation policy and school choice since the end of court-ordered desegregation.
“It’s not a good picture if you are looking for racial balance. The picture is one of racial imbalance. By far, the magnet schools are predominantly single race.”Smrekar has created a map of Nashville which shows magnet schools by student race superimposed over census data by race. Without forced busing, 14 of the 17 Nashville magnet schools now reflect the racial makeup of their neighborhoods. The exceptions are the 2 magnet high schools for high academic achievers (Hume-Fogg and MLK) and the magnet school for artistic talents (Nashville School of the Arts).
Smrekar also notes another important trend throughout all Nashville public schools.
“The demographics have shifted. African-American enrollment has stayed steady—about 45%. But white enrollment has dropped by some 10-12%, while Hispanic enrollment has increased,” says Smrekar.
“That outflow is disproportionately white and middle class. I think what any school district wants to do is try to stem that outflow and try to increase that proportion of non-poor students. What we know is that socioeconomically-balanced schools can be very rich environments for learning.”
Nashville school officials know the solution lies beyond sprinkling magnet and charter schools throughout the district, especially as they push school achievement while striving for demographic balance.
“What we’ve got to do is look at both of those factors: high quality schools that are diverse. And we need to develop choice that promotes that,” explains Dr. Jesse Register, director of MNPS.
Register started an ambitious reform plan in 2009 (MNPS Achieves) that brought drastic changes in school structure and leadership– especially in high schools. The district also offers an increasing array of school choices through the new Office of Innovation , supported by creative transportation lines to help students go outside their neighborhood school. The next step is a recently announced diversity plan to fit an urban district growing by more than 1,500 students each year with no majority race and one-third of all English Language Learners in Tennessee schools.
“We’re a growing school system,” says Register. “We have to build new schools, being very thoughtful about where we locate new schools; how we provide services there; how we locate a school so that it doesn’t create a single-race school somewhere else and so that it’s not a single-race school. It has to do with program, quality of program and many other decisions that we make.”
Smrekar’s research backs up what Register’s approach; she says parents often rank quality, convenience, and safety over diversity in choosing a school. Even those like Yandla Harris, who is African-American and admits she benefitted from attending schools under mandatory desegregation.
“I do want to [my daughter] to have the cultural experience of having interacted with everyone. However, I want the best education for my daughter. And I believe there is probably a school for whatever you’re looking for. So if you’re concerned about the cultural breakdown of the school… then you go and research. That’s what we’re supposed to do as parents,” says Harris.
All agree there is no single panacea to achieving racial balance in the schools. For that, experts say, bolder steps are needed – such as capitalizing on worker diversity in large companies by allowing parents to bring their children to a public school based in their workplace, an idea touted by Smrekar based on early success of the few such programs already in place elsewhere.
Some of these strategies will require support and policy changes beyond the school board offices—in how cities plan neighborhoods, deal with poverty, and view the role of schools in local development. As Dr. Register puts it, valuing diversity is a community issue, not just a school issue.