Despite demand, expansion of academic magnet schools unlikely

Monday, May 30, 2011 at 10:05pm
Jude Ferrara (SouthComm) 

For a mayor who routinely calls public education his top priority, Karl Dean held his recent State of Metro address at an appropriate place: Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet High School, one of two Nashville schools consistently ranked among the nation’s top-performing public schools. Newsweek currently has Hume-Fogg slotted at 32nd overall. 

“What they achieve here at Hume-Fogg is a perfect example of the incredible work that goes on around our city every day,” Dean told a crowd of courthouse regulars, community leaders, students and media. 

But there’s one catch that has frustrated parents and students for years: There are very few schools like Hume-Fogg. 

As those who’ve placed their fortunes in Metro’s magnet lottery system know full well, only two other Metro schools are built around the same comprehensive academic magnet concept, which subjects students to higher standards and requires top TCAP testing results for enrollment. One of those is Martin Luther King Jr. Magnet High School — the second Nashville high school consistently ranked nationally. The other is East Nashville’s Meigs Middle School. 

Each January, the story is the same. Parents cross their fingers in hopes of getting their children into Metro’s best schools. The excellence is underscored by Hume-Fogg and MLK’s average ACT score of 26, compared with 18 for the district as a whole. Most don’t get in. This past year, Metro received 2,094 qualified applicants for the three schools, but could only admit 618 because of space. Some leave the district altogether and opt for private schooling. Others fall back to their zoned schools. 

“We were 499th on the waiting list,” said Jessica Kimbrough, whose daughter applied to Meigs but will attend West End Middle next year. “That’s a pretty clear message that you’re not going to Meigs.” 

The dilemma — which pins fate on the draw of a number  — continues as Metro has transformed six existing schools into thematic magnets with the help of federal grant dollars. Set to open this fall, these schools carry that “magnet” name, but are based on these areas of study: museums, entertainment and STEM, an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Unlike Hume-Fogg or Meigs, there are no eligibility requirements based on testing. In their own right, admissions at these schools — designed to diversify student bodies — were impressive this spring, officials say. But it’s unclear whether they’re attracting the same students who apply for academic magnets. 

“I definitely believe my constituents want more academic magnet schools, but I don’t believe that’s the best system for our schools,” said school board member Kay Simmons, who represents West Nashville. “I believe that strong academics should be at all zoned schools. You shouldn’t have to go to magnets to be the beneficiary of a quality academic program.” 

But for many, the answer to the market demand of academic magnets seems so obvious: Build more of them in other parts of the county, using Hume-Fogg, MLK and Meigs as models. 

This idea doesn’t seem to be on the to-do list for Director of Schools Jesse Register, whose contract as Metro’s superintendent was extended through 2015 last week. One of the reasons is the fear of separating Metro’s highest performing students from their peers. 

“The characteristics that make those schools successful can be successful in all other magnet schools and zoned schools,” Register told The City Paper when asked about launching more academic magnets based on Metro’s three existing ones. He pointed to East Literature Magnet School as a thematic model that has excelled. 

“When you think about academic magnets, we’ve got a small set that are highly successful schools,” Register said. “But the question is, where do you draw the line? I think it’s wrong to think about creating a system of schools that serve the brightest 50 percent of the kids in the district, or the brightest 25 percent of kids in the district. What happens to the other half?” 

Metro Councilman Eric Crafton, who is running for council at-large this election, has helped elevate the issue by introducing a nonbinding memorializing resolution that, if approved, would request that academic magnets be placed in all 12 of Metro’s high school clusters. Crafton is known for proposing such resolutions — which have no direct effect on policy — on all sorts of topics, including education. His latest might actually reflect wide public sentiment. 

“Parents are telling schools what they want,” said Crafton, whose daughter was unable to break through the lottery system to attend Meigs this year. “In my opinion, we need to expand the academic magnet program at the middle and high school levels, and have academic magnets in every part of the county. 

“We need to have enough to allow all the children who qualify to go,” he said. “There’s a real penalty if you’re not one of the ones that’s lucky enough to win a lottery. Right now, the way our system operates is, you pick winners and losers by the lottery system, and the ACT scores bear this out.” 

Register said he would not support Crafton’s proposal, noting that the plan would call for 12 academic magnets high schools. 

“That’s not something that’s practical from my point of view,” he said. “We’re creating tracks when we do that. Our challenge is to differentiate our instruction so that all of the children have an opportunity for a very highly successful focus and can be successful themselves.” 

But the spirit of Crafton’s initiative appeals to a large base. At-large Councilwoman Megan Barry’s liberal politics are about as opposite as they come to Crafton’s conservatism. Still, Barry called expanding academic magnets an idea worth exploring. She said thematic magnets “serve a niche,” but added that you don’t see them ranked in the top 100 nationwide. 

“In my time as a parent of a child in Nashville who was part of the public school system, and went into the lottery system, it has always amazed me that every year we have many, many more subscribers than we have services for those folks,” Barry said. “We have not taken any initiative over the past several years to beef up and add more academic magnets, which clearly the customer is telling us, that’s what they want.” 

According to MNPS data, 23 percent of all students exercise some form of choice in the form of attending charter, magnet or various enhanced-option schools that are not their zoned schools. Register said schools like Head Middle Magnet School, which doesn’t have academic criteria, are also in high demand. 

New thematic magnet schools this fall come via a $12 million, three-year competitive grant that the U.S. Department of Education awarded to Metro. A museum theme is the center of Robert Churchwell Elementary and John Early Middle, the STEM model is set for Hattie-Cotton Elementary, Bailey Middle and Stratford High, and an entertainment industry magnet is to complement the existing business magnet at Pearl-Cohn High School. 

A key objective of the grant is to increase diversity at these schools, which have historically large African-American student bodies. 

Alan Coverstone, who is overseeing the magnet grant’s implementation for Metro schools, said Churchwell and John Elementary are both completely full. Enrollment was open for the school’s inaugural year, but as demand increases officials expect to turn to a lottery system. Coverstone characterized the public response to the new schools as “overwhelming.” 

“People are incredibly excited about it,” he said. “It creates real opportunities at these schools to do what people say can’t be done — that’s build more excellent schools for more kids.” 

Coverstone said instructors at all six schools are using the themes to introduce 21st century skills. Instead of teaching subjects in isolation, they’re to be integrated into various real-world situations. For example, he said, the museum-based schools present questions such as: What is a museum? How do museums make choices about what they display? How do they teach? How do they collaborate to make the exhibits? At the STEM schools, students are to confront “real technological challenges and engineering conundrums” using cross-disciplinary approaches and teamwork among students.

“What we’re looking for is teams of teachers working with teams of students to tackle authentic problems at a really high level of academics,” he said. “They all have that in common.”

The new magnets are also relying on collaboration with community partners. Local museums, for instance, are bridging with Churchwell and John Early, and members of Nashville’s music and film industries working with Pearl-Cohn’s entertainment magnet

Jay Steele, associate superintendent of Metro’s highs schools, said Pearl-Cohn is featuring a fully functioning television studio, an audio engineering lab with professional software, and a radio station. Existing business labs will be geared toward the financial side of entertainment, with talks of local banks coming onboard. 

“There’s a lot of things happening,” Steele said. 

13 Comments on this post:

By: parnell3rd on 5/31/11 at 8:08

Politics and Unions keeping your children from beeing all they can be.

By: pkbj on 5/31/11 at 8:30

If for some reason you still believe that Metro Schools supports the IB program in the Hillsboro Cluster including the full school programs at JGreen, Eakin, West End, Moore and Hillsboro, this should convince you they do not! The parents and teachers at Hillsboro have been working hard for 11 years to establish a program in a zoned school which is open to every student in the school who wants a liberal arts, academically challenging course of study....without application or grade requirements! I am shocked-although not surprised- that the leaders in this city simply forgets that this program exist! Dean states,“What they achieve here at Hume-Fogg is a perfect example of the incredible work that goes on around our city every day." Really Mayor Dean? I am not sure that any at Metro Schools including Dr. Register, really likes the"academic magnets" and they certainly don't Hillsboro for it is trying to do...we are a pain in his back side! Even Megan Barry states, “We have not taken any initiative over the past several years to beef up and add more academic magnets, which clearly the customer is telling us, that’s what they want.” The fact is, Metro schools has not even taken any initiative to promote programs currently in our zoned school that beef up the curriculum! Did she forget about the IB Programs in her neighborhood as well? Geez people. No one at Hillsboro wants to be a Charter (the one solution from our non-supportive School Board Representative) or an academic magnet like Hume-Fogg. What is wanted is for Metro Schools to see what the IB program has to offer and simply support it! More students that ever have signed is in demand! How is it that while every parent, our Mayor and City Council members say they want schools to offer beefed up curriculum...the allow Jay Steele and Dr. Register to call Hillsboro ELITIST for doing just that!! That is what they call a zoned school trying to help every students be ready for college and life. Wake up Nashville...start asking questions about where this system is heading!

By: bonk on 5/31/11 at 8:35

Once again our city leaders are damning Hume-Fogg , MLK , and Meigs with praise. Hold up these schools as shining examples of the best that Metro can offer while refusing to expand the opportunities that these schools offer. Instead we have a "rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic" mentality that rolls out ludicrous baby magnet programs that don't address the real issues facing MNPS. Meanwhile - the central office seems to do all they can to rein in the success that the academic magnets have achieved by lowering the TCAP score required. A direct pathway from John Early to Hume-Fogg squeezes out even more coveted slots for anyone who chooses not to spend grades 5-8 at to John Early - a NCLB failing school.

The real failure with all of the baby magnets is safety. I'd be happy to send my kid to an academically average school that was safe. No amount of academic whistles and bells is going to convince me to send my child to an unsafe school Hume-Fogg/MLK/Meigs are successful and in high demand because they are both safe and academically challenging. There is no secret as to why they are successful. They demand very high standards of their students - who aren't afraid to walk down the hall. Replicate THAT if you can. If you can't - build three more academic magnet middle schools and two more academic magnet high schools.

The truth is that Hume-Fogg, MLK, and Meigs (then Caldwell) were created against the will of the entrenched powers-that-be on Bransford Ave by the federal desegregation of Metro. Those same powers-that-be have been trying to kill the academic magnets or at least water them down ever since. Why? Because each year they are a stark reminder how how much a failure each and every zoned high school in this system is. Until MNPS figures this out - more and more parents will be voting with their feet.

By: edsupp on 5/31/11 at 9:19

This sounds typical of society's view on education. No Child Left Behind really started this whole mess of everyone passing, everyone succeeds, everyone feels great all of the time, everyone is happy, etc. Currently, the magnet schools hold honor and prestige. If we put magnet schools in each cluster then we are watering down all that these schools offer. There are opportunities in each school for kids to be academically challenged. Kids can participate in the honors program, beta club, national honor society, etc. Also, this has nothing to do with the IB program. Each school can have an IB program and still not be a magnet school.

By: Houston on 5/31/11 at 9:32

Register and Co. don't want more academic magnets because they want to keep the best students in their zoned schools, where they can be used as peers for the worst students, and (they hope) improve outcomes for these worst students. Several problems with that:
1) They are using some students (the best) as resources to improve the outcomes of other students (the worst). NO student should be treated as a resource--ALL should be viewed in the light of outcomes.
2) There is no proof that peer effects work in the way that these educational bureaucrats believe. In fact, there is strong evidence that peer effects work so as to drag the best students down, rather than pull the best students up.
3) Since the parents of the best students are being ignored, middle class families are leaving Davidson County. Soon, there won't be any good students left for these social engineers to use as resources.

By: modern4life on 5/31/11 at 9:50

Education Mayor my you know what!

By: GammaMoses on 5/31/11 at 1:31

Houston--you said it so right and much better than I could. Smart kids are being dumbed down in the classroom if the teacher cannot control the students at all levels of discipline problems. Smart kids have to wait for the other kids to catch up listening to lessons being repeated for the umpteenth time or listen to constant scolding from the teacher, which can be demoralizing to the smart kid. After a while a smart kid starts to tune out and gets to feel he/she is bad and figures "What's the use." There is no out for the smart kid. Can't win the lottery (doesn't that sound like Nashville is gambling with children's future), teacher says we're bad, bad kids get to do what they want--why should I care anymore. When a teacher says "I don't care if you learn or not, I get paid anyway"--it exhibits frustration on the part of the teacher. Schools are a mess discipline-wise. Maybe Register is worth $250,000, but I don't think so.

By: edsupp on 5/31/11 at 2:02

Gamma---Until parents of the bright students start speaking about the behavior of others and how it directly and indirectly affects the education of their bright students, things will not change for the good. No Child Left Behind states that no students are left behind and that all have the right to be educated with as many resources as they need. Also, IDEA states that all students have the right to a free and public education. Add to that the fact the we no longer have corporal punishment in most schools and we are left with classrooms where if there is structure and discipline it is a rarity. You have kids that are suspended numerous times each year and could be written up every single day for breaking rules. They are constantly a distraction to their classmates and require the teacher's time to get back on track. These students are often times left in the classroom because they must pass the test. Parents have to start speaking up and saying, "These kids that are acting a fool in class are taking away from my child's education." In short, get rid of the knuckle heads that do not want to be there anyway, and teachers will actually be able to teach for once and better serve their students academically.

By: joe41 on 6/1/11 at 10:05

Take what we have learned about what Hume Fogg does well and expand it to another school. Repeat until complete. I suspect that the students and parents who doget into Hume Fogg are highly motivated to do well.

By: richgoose on 6/1/11 at 2:17

It is not often that I get a chance to laud the Davidson County Public School System.

The decision to hold on to the integrity of the current academic high schools Hume Fogg and MLK is without a doubt the best thing this school board has done lately.

I am sure that the motivation to have more academic schools comes from those whose children did not make the cut.

This is the way I like it. Only the best should make the grade.

I remember years ago when Nashville had only one Little League with 8 teams and 16 players each for a total of 128 players. As an 11 year old I remember the Tennessean announcing that 850 boys showed up for tryouts at Fort Negley. 722 boys went home on the last day of tryouts with tears in their eyes. Only the fittest should move on.

Later on there would bee a Most Valuable Player for each team. An All Star team of 16 players and a sportsmanship trophy to one team

I loved those days.

By: localboy on 6/3/11 at 10:22

"No Child Left Behind really started this whole mess of everyone passing, everyone succeeds, everyone feels great all of the time, everyone is happy, etc."
People were complaining in the eighties about such an approach; NCLB just codified and unified the penalties to be exacted on school systems.

By: Nitzche on 6/4/11 at 8:25

this is great if you are one of the "lucky " one chosen! the rest of you go mingle with the ??, what do you call them? less fortunate, under privileged, slackers, average joe's, ...yeah that is where I want my kids, with that crowd...Go school board!!

By: Bellevue on 6/4/11 at 11:11


Being a boomer from the generation where going to school was just a simple task, what is the difference between a charter, magnet, alternative learning and just a regular school?