A federal court this week will review a proposal aimed at reversing what plaintiffs allege is racial segregation by eradicating Metro’s 12-cluster student assignment system and adopting a plan based on four mega-clusters.
The proposals, which would base new school clusters according to socioeconomic considerations, stem from a suit filed in 2009 by plaintiffs Jeffrey and Frances Spurlock — parents of an African-American student — against then-school board chair David Fox in response to the district’s controversial rezoning plan, implemented that year to create what supporters called “neighborhood schools.” Opponents contended the plan divided the district by race.
On Oct. 27, U.S. District Court Judge John Nixon ordered plaintiffs to prepare the rezoning proposal to help the court understand their positions. Plaintiffs’ attorney Larry Woods will speak on behalf of the proposals, first filed in early December, at a court hearing this Thursday.
“We have proposed to set aside the Metro school system rezoning plan and replace it with a rezoning plan predicated on student diversity in schools, so that every school will have students from different economic and family income levels,” Woods said.
“Rich kids get to find out there are poor kids in this community,” he said. “Poor kids get to find out there’s rich kids in this community and a middle class. Therefore, students learn there are whole universes out there, other opportunities, other ways of life, other goals, that they may not be hearing about in their backyard playground.”
Metro attorney Kevin Klein, representing the school district, responded to the proposals in late December, calling it a “lengthy narrative arguing for the benefits of some undefined level of socioeconomic integration in school enrollments.”
“The proposal also makes a variety of vague, expansive, and mutually inconsistent suggestions for completely revamping the student assignment systems of the [school disrict],” Klein’s written response reads.
The defendants’ witness list for this week’s hearing includes Director of Schools Jesse Register; Alan Coverstone, who oversees charter schools for the district; Milan Mueller, president of The Omega Group, a consulting firm; and Leonard Stevens, former assistant to the chancellor of New York City’s public schools.
The original suit based its claims on the district’s new student assignment plan, which sought to give students the choice to attend schools closer to their home. The new plan had its most pronounced effect on the Pearl-Cohn and Hillwood clusters.
For decades, students who live in north Nashville near MetroCenter, primarily African-Americans, had bussed to the more affluent West Meade area to attend Hillwood. The new rezoning plan, approved by a 5-4 school board vote in 2008 and launched a year later, zoned these students to Pearl-Cohn, which has historically underperformed, and its feeder schools. The plan still gives students the option to attend their previously zoned schools –– hence, high school students in the affected north Nashville area can still attend Hillwood if they choose.
The Spurlocks’ daughter was rezoned from Bellevue Middle School to John Early Middle School in north Nashville. In past hearings, plaintiffs have alleged the daughter was not given the opportunity to attend her previously zoned school in Bellevue and was forced to her new north Nashville school.
Klein, in the defendant’s same December written response, pointed out the plaintiffs’ new proposal addresses socioeconomics instead of race.
“Plaintiffs’ actual claim in this case is that the Rezoning Plan intentionally discriminates against African-American students in Pearl-Cohn Cluster schools on the grounds of their race,” the response reads. “The proposal, however, does not address alleged racial discrimination in student assignment at all. Rather, the proposal focuses on ‘socioeconomic diversity,’ but socioeconomic status and race are not the same thing.”
The proposal attorney Woods outlines would create the following four mega-clusters: one combined of the current Hillsboro, Hillwood and Pearl-Cohn clusters; another combined of the current Antioch, Cane Ridge, Glencliff and Overton clusters; a third combined of the current McGavock and Stratford clusters; and a fourth combined of the current Hunters Lane, Maplewood and Whites Creek clusters.
In short, the idea would be to assign students of different socioeconomic backgrounds equally among Metro schools.
“You can look on a map and see that each of four clusters we’ve proposed contain neighborhoods and communities that we would regard as economically or financially well-to-do, some middle class and some less fortunate in terms of income and finances,” Woods said.
The proposal also seeks to create diversity among the district’s magnet schools. It asks that consideration be given to the establishing of academic middle schools in each cluster and guaranteeing these students admission to academic magnet high schools.