Though scores of parents are celebrating a proposed Metro charter operator as much-needed option for a school system that historically loses students to private schools, a competing faction argues that it would threaten racial diversity within the system.
Great Hearts Academies, an Arizona-based charter organization that has proposed a network of five publicly financed, privately led schools in Nashville, took center stage at Tuesday’s school board meeting, with more than 60 parents having a say in the debate before the board casts a final vote on 11 charter applicants by May 29.
Martha Galyon, a parent of a rising kindergartener in the Hillsboro cluster, told the board she was “quickly overwhelmed by the rising cost of private education in Nashville” during a recent school hunt for her child. Her zoned public school has a great reputation, but the building is overcrowded.
Her story is like so many others, Galyon said, adding that Great Hearts “would have been a great option for us to have this year.”
Wearing stickers revealing their support for Great Hearts, a decidedly young crowd of parents Tuesday plead for approval of a charter that would represent new terrain for Nashville. In the past, charters in Nashville were restricted to serving only economically disadvantaged students. Today, however, a new state law has opened charters to everyone, and Great Hearts plans to do just that.
Parents, who came Tuesday from neighborhoods across Davidson County, but especially parts of West Nashville and Green Hills, pointed to Great Hearts’ liberal arts approach that apparently yields great results. With schools like Julia Green Elementary School in Green Hills currently overcrowded, and waiting listing at academic magnets schools stretching long, many said finding high-performing schools is a challenge — if not impossible.
Holly Coltea said she has a “wish list” for a preferred school: a liberal arts education, small class sizes, and a focus on critical thinking skills. “So many families are forced to pay $22,000 in order to get this wish-list.”
Following a parental-push for a new charter school to serve students in West Nashville, Great Hearts officials hosted a series of community meetings across the city this past winter to discuss their model. The organization operates 12 charter schools in the Phoenix area, and is exploring both Nashville and San Antonio for expansion.
Though Great Hearts officials insist they don’t where they would locate its initial school — their long-term hopes is for five across the county — many assume the first would cater to the affluent parts of West Nashville.
Skeptics fear the implications.
“I was hoping there would be a little more diversity tonight,” said Maura-Lee Albert, a jab at the majority white crowd speaking on Great Hearts’ behalf.
Albert said she appreciates “school choice” offered by charters but questioned Great Hearts’ plan to ensure racial diversity among its student population. Skeptics have pointed to Great Hearts’ policy of not offering transportation for students, and hypothesized that students in low-income neighborhoods could be left out.
“It’s time to ask hard questions about this proposal,” Albert said “Does it truly meet the needs of all children at MNPS? Do we really need to re-segregate our schools?”
Other Great Hearts opponents suggested opening the doors of charters to middle-to-upper class students could trigger a mass exodus from traditional schools.
“How do you expect the zoned schools to ever succeed when you keep creating reasons for families like mine to leave?” said Carol Ballenger, a parent in the Hillsboro cluster.
Anne-Marie Farmer, a Metro school parent helping lead the criticism against Great Hearts, has asked that the board approve Great Hearts’ charter application only if three criteria are met: school diversity is ensured; transportation and busing is offered; and officials reveal its location.
“If any applicant is not willing to do so, we should all ask why,” Farmer said.
Great Hearts leaders, who were not in attendance Tuesday, have maintained they plan to admit students from all socio-economic backgrounds. A section in its application says the school is “committed” to diversity as well as eventually opening a school in North Nashville.
In the coming weeks, Metro’s charter review committee is set to interview selected charter applicants before recommending approval or disapproval to the school board.