Shift to Spanish model leads to erosion of diversity for one Metro school

Monday, September 3, 2012 at 11:37pm

After a zoned Metro elementary school in one of the wealthiest parts of town transitioned to a Spanish-language model eight years ago, another change followed. Its student body became whiter, and decidedly so.

When Glendale Elementary reopened in 2004 as a Spanish immersion school, the Oak Hill-area school started with a racially mixed student population: 49.7 percent white, 43.1 percent black. But by the time the 2011-12 school year came to the end in the spring, Glendale’s block population had decreased to just 8.8 percent. White representation during this eight-year period skyrocketed by more than 30 points to 82.4 percent. Each year, these two groups have grown farther apart in numbers.

Like other Metro “choice schools” — which include magnets and charter schools — students across Davidson County are eligible to enroll into Glendale. Top enrollment priority is given to a swath of neighborhoods that is racially diverse. Yet the school has increasingly attracted a whiter, more affluent audience nonetheless.

“We have seen that transition,” Sue Clark, principal at Glendale from its inception as a Spanish immersion school, told The City Paper when asked about the demographic trends. She pointed to the one constant at the school: excellent test scores. Just last week, the state recognized Glendale as a Reward School for both performance and progress. “Even with the change in diversity, we’ve still had that strong academic base at this school.”

How did a school founded on bilingualism — where students learn math and science in Spanish and flags of nations from across the world hang from the cafeteria rafters — actually create a more homogenous student population? Is it as simple as whites embracing the Spanish-immersion approach more so than blacks? Or are white families who live near Glendale favoring their neighborhood school, while families in predominantly black neighborhoods do the same? 

These questions, which lack clear-cut answers, have added significance as Metro finds itself in a contentious battle over diversity. 

In the ongoing saga of Great Hearts Academies, with Metro resisting the Phoenix-based organization’s proposed West Nashville charter school because of diversity concerns, Glendale has emerged as a repeated focus for Great Hearts backers. After all, they point out, here’s an “option school” set in an even more affluent area than the White Bridge Road location Great Hearts has eyed. Metro’s diversity plan has ostensibly not ensured racial diversity at Glendale. And so their logic follows: If the Metro school board fears Great Hearts would cater to a largely white affluent student population, isn’t Glendale already doing the same?

“It’s certainly not a picture of diversity,” said Haley Dale, a parent of students at Julia Green Elementary School who supports Great Hearts, which is set to go before the school board again on Sept. 11. The state has ordered its approval, but the Metro board defied those instructions earlier this month. Dale said Great Hearts supporters don’t have issues with Glendale itself, which she called a “great program.”

Still, she sees a contradiction, maintaining the school board has held Great Hearts to a different standard than it has for a school “they are operating already.”



The genesis of Glendale Spanish Immersion Schoolgoes back to 1999 when the Metro Council approved a resolutionion recommending the move for the ’50s-era zoned school, set in a quiet Oak Hill neighborhood. 

Based largely off a school in Arlington, Va., Glendale’s Spanish Immersion model — the only one like it in Tennessee — seeks to introduce English-speaking students to the Spanish language. Glendale teachers, who are all bilingual, conduct math and science lessons in Spanish, while reading, language, writing and spelling courses are taught in English.

“We spent the first three years trying to explain to everybody what a Spanish immersion school was,” Clark, the principal, recalled of those early days.

The school started out by offering the immersion program to only those who signed up for it but adopted the approach for all students in 2009. The school’s largest year-over-year decline in black population occurred during this transition. Today, Glendale is a popular option for many, as evident by a new portable classroom added to the school building this year to accommodate overcrowding.

Lessons in Spanish start from the moment students begin their schooling. On a recent Monday morning, kindergarten teacher Jennifer Ferris leads her students through a song on the Spanish days of the week: “domingo, lunes, martes, míercoles ... .” a group of students, sitting attentively on a rug, sing in chorus.

Metro’s 2009 student assignment plan (one that a federal judge in July, ruling on the side of Metro, decided did not constitute intentional segregation) ushered in a new geographic priority zone for Glendale. This gave top enrollment priority to students in an area that includes the surrounding Oak Hill neighborhood but also stretches north to capture the largely African-American Edgehill neighborhood near Carter-Lawrence Elementary School. Second priority in Metro’s lottery is given to other students in the Hillsboro cluster and then the rest of Davidson County.

School officials point to the nearby gentrified 12South neighborhood, where many whites have displaced blacks over the years, to explain some of the demographic changes. Glendale’s geographic priority zone, however, is actually 48 percent African-American, and 45 white — though the school doesn’t reflect it. Metro administrators suggest the district needs to do a better job of outreach to African-American neighborhoods that might not be aware of the Glendale option.

“We definitely have an opportunity to do more marketing,” Metro schools spokeswoman Meredith Libbey said. “That’s something we’ve already talked about. We’re going to do a field trip from the Edgehill homes
to Glendale this fall so parents can get a first-hand look at it.”

According to Chris Weber, the district’s director of student assignment services, traditional “yellow bus” service is provided to Glendale’s priority area, which accounts for most of its students. Approximately 120 of the school’s 400-plus students come from outside the Hillsboro cluster. Under a new policy, the district plans to offer Metro Transit Authority bus passes to students who qualify for free and reduced lunches that live outside the cluster, though it hasn’t in the past.



Kendra Thompson, an African-American whose kindergarten son attends Glendale, wouldn’t speculate why the racial composition of the school has changed but suggested it didn’t matter. “My son is there because I feel that they offer diversity as part of their education,” she said. “Whether it’s 50 percent black or 1 percent black.”

For Robb Bigelow, rising president of Glendale’s parent teacher organization, it was the educational benefits of the Spanish-immersion model that attracted him and his wife to enroll two children at Glendale. “The theory is not that you’re necessarily fluent in Spanish by the end of your fourth grade but that it really helps you as a learner overall,” he said.

Bigelow called Glendale a “wonderful community” and a school that values diversity. He said he couldn’t explain the racial demographic changes, but that parents would like to see a more diverse student body. “We’re absolutely aware of it, and we’re working on it,” he said, citing community events on the horizon to introduce Hillsboro-cluster parents to their options. Glendale parents have already delivered fliers to various Head Start centers.

School board member Michael Hayes, whose district includes Glendale, pointed out nearby elementary schools Julia Green and Percy Priest serve predominantly white populations. Yet unlike these zoned schools, Glendale is a choice school — one that had nearly as many black students as white students just eight years ago.

“My guess is that we as a district haven’t, from a choice-standpoint, done a good enough job marketing the school to kids in the GPZ [geographic priority zone].” Hayes said.

Over the course of the months-long battle over Great Hearts, some Glendale parents have voiced opposition to the proposed charter school. Among these Great Hearts opponents is current Glendale PTO co-president Maura-Lee Albert.

Despite Glendale’s waning racial diversity, Albert said she doesn’t see comparisons with the Great Hearts dispute. She pointed out Glendale offers busing to students in its priority zone. (Great Hearts would provide two buses to students who live more than 1.5 miles away from its school.)

“That, I think is a significant difference,” Albert said. “I don’t think that Great Hearts is at all like Glendale.

“We’re starting out saying, ‘We want diversity,’ and parents are out there trying to tell other parents about it, and are advocating it, and are trying to get people to come,” she said. “I’m not sure that’s what I see from the proponents of Great Hearts.”