Costume Drama 

Mangled messages at the arts magnet

Mangled messages at the arts magnet

Metro Schools

Metro school officials are cleaning up the debris of a storm that erupted when the new principal of Nashville’s arts magnet high school suggested some controversial changes—including uniforms for students.

Interim Metro schools superintendent Bill Wise and assistant superintendent Aldorothy Wright have met with Robert Churchwell, newly appointed principal of the arts magnet program at Pearl-Cohn High School, and have advised him to back off from some of his recent statements. Officials are also shying away from his proposal to change the Pearl-Cohn arts magnet curriculum, which has been in place since the magnet program’s inception four years ago.

Churchwell doesn’t actually begin his new job until July, but parents, faculty, and students have been in an uproar during the past few weeks as a result of some of his proposals, one of which would eliminate private lessons offered for performing and visual arts students. Faculty members have, in fact, hailed the existence of private lessons as proof that the arts magnet program is making significant progress.

Churchwell, a former band director and now an assistant principal at Overton High School, will oversee the program’s relocation this fall, when it will move to its own building, the site formerly occupied by Cumberland Elementary School on Hydes Ferry Pike.

School officials and Churchwell seem to be going out of their way to quell the concerns of parents and students, but the fallout from the new principal’s initial comments is already evident. So far, only 150 students have applied for the arts program next fall, far fewer than the anticipated 250 to 350. Those 150 students include both new applicants and those continuing in the program.

There is some possibility that a shortage of students will mean cuts in the arts magnet curriculum and a smaller faculty, both of which, boosters say, would be setbacks for the program.

“The kids are really confused about what’s going on,” says John Kohlburn, a visual arts teacher at the magnet school. “Mr. Churchwell didn’t ask our opinion on a lot of things, and he overstepped his bounds in a lot of ways. He’s been slapped back down some by the administration, but the students still don’t know what’s going to happen next year, and so they’re very concerned.”

Debra Perry, a dance instructor in the arts magnet program, says she is consciously working to expand her teaching outside the school because she is uncertain about the program’s future. “Every day I leave here and teach at night somewhere else,” Perry says. “We just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Location, location, location

In the 1984 film Teachers, Judd Hirsch plays an inner-city high school principal so intent on beating a lawsuit filed by a student who has graduated without learning to read that he instructs his teachers to lie during depositions.

The film depicts a school bureaucracy that has its hands full with gun-toting, teacher-biting students and undercover narcotics agents. There is hardly time to deal with the poor learning habits of the school’s troubled teens.

Renegade teacher Nick Nolte is seduced by the lawyer, one of Nolte’s former students, who has filed the case. Meanwhile, the administration is trying to figure out a way to get rid of Nolte because they fear he will tell the truth—namely, that it is standard school policy to graduate students who can’t make the grade.

The film is a social satire of a school’s stonewalling bureaucracy. Nevertheless, it is realistic on several counts. Problems such as truancy and violence do, in fact, exist on high school campuses in Nashville, just as they exist in cities all over the country.

In fact, Pearl-Cohn High School, home of the arts magnet program for the last four years, has one of the highest truancy rates in the Metro school system. On an average day, 300 of the school’s 1,100 students—or slightly more than 25 percent—are absent, Pearl-Cohn officials admit. In addition, Pearl-Cohn has a long way to go before its achievement scores catch up with other high schools in the Metro system.

Pearl-Cohn’s truancy problems and poor academic record “come from the fact that a lot of the kids who go to Pearl-Cohn live in the projects,” says the school’s principal, Anthony Hall. But Hall argues that academic problems can’t be addressed until truancy is reduced. “Until we can find a way to do something that will get them here, it will be hard to solve the problems,” he says.

The arts magnet program was begun four years ago in response to the urging of interested parents and students. But the program has had image problems—and other difficulties—from the start. It was a highly controversial move to locate the magnet at Pearl-Cohn, given that several schools in the system wanted the program, while Pearl-Cohn had shown no interest in it.

Mayor Phil Bredesen has said publicly that political maneuvering led to the program’s placement at Pearl-Cohn, and he has chastised former school board member Cornelius Ridley, whose district included Pearl-Cohn, for “hijacking” the program. The implication was that Ridley had little concern for the welfare of the program when he urged that it be placed at Pearl-Cohn.

The placement decision has been widely accepted as an attempt to help integrate the school. Alexia Abegg, a junior in the arts magnet program with an emphasis in theater arts and visual arts, says there’s no question in her mind that integration was one of the prime reasons for the placement.

“I feel like Pearl-Cohn is a great school, but I feel like it had enough problems all on its own,” Abegg says. “I feel like we were used to desegregate Pearl-Cohn.” She adds that “agendas” such as integration have “nothing” to do with the arts-magnet program.

There has also been speculation that Ridley pushed to place the arts magnet at Pearl-Cohn because he wanted to improve the standing of the high school’s football team. Athletes who wanted to go to Pearl-Cohn, but who weren’t zoned for the school, could get in through the arts program. Several students in the arts magnet are, in fact, also on the school’s football team.

Late last year, Bredesen also lambasted Metro schools administration for failing to address parents’ concerns about the program. After parents came to him complaining that their children’s diplomas weren’t distinctive in any way from those given to regular Pearl-Cohn graduates, Bredesen scheduled a meeting with the students and their parents at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center.

According to Bredesen, Metro school administrators are “supposed to be addressing a distinct population of students and what they and their parents want.” He says the arts magnet parents “were asking for things like specific classes, and they wanted a diploma that said ‘arts magnet’ on it.” The mayor became interested in the controversy, he says, “because it was an example of the general stonewalling of parents that was going on.”

Big man on campus

The arts magnet program has encountered its share of obstacles, but it appears that students in the program have blended in successfully with the rest of the Pearl-Cohn student body. Arts-magnet participants and students from the larger student body escorted one another to last weekend’s prom. They socialize in the hall, and, when there is space, students at the traditional Pearl-Cohn school attend some of the arts magnet classes.

“Kids in the arts magnet program have befriended the kids not in the arts magnet and vice versa,” says Hall, the Pearl-Cohn principal. Considering all the apparent good will and teamwork that has been established, parents and students were disturbed by Churchwell’s recent suggestions, which they fear would upset the program’s momentum.

Students first met their principal-to-be several weeks ago during an assembly. “We walked into the auditorium for a meeting with Mr. Churchwell,” Abegg recalls. “I was wearing a [cloth] hat that I had made, and I sat down in the front and middle, which is where I always sit because I like to ask questions. The first thing he said was that hats are not part of what is allowed.”

Later, Abegg says, Churchwell announced that he hoped to put more emphasis on academics and require students to wear uniforms. “We were all just kind of sitting there dumbfounded,” Abegg says. “I was thinking, ‘This is an arts magnet. Are you insane?’ ”

Parents and teachers explain that, because one of the arts magnet’s purposes is to encourage individual style and expression, the very mention of uniforms was troubling. Besides, the parents and teachers say, arts magnet students change clothes frequently during the day, since dance, art, theater, and other classes require different attire.

Churchwell may have been tactless and premature in introducing his proposals, but he is otherwise an articulate and seasoned administrator. Now he is involved in damage control. With help from Metro schools assistant superintendent Wright, he is attempting to assure parents and teachers that the arts-magnet curriculum, which teachers and community leaders labored to create several years ago, will remain in place.

The discontent over possible curriculum changes resulted from “just a misunderstanding,” says Wright, who insists that the program will move “intact” to its new location.

When it comes to standardized student uniforms, Churchwell says they still may be a possibility, even though “we’re not quite there yet.” The topic of uniforms was “only brought up once, but it hasn’t been pursued,” he says.

Parents and students are feeling considerably more comfortable this week after a series of various meetings involving faculty, teachers, and Metro school administrators. By putting to rest the rumor that major curriculum changes are in the wind, administrators have gone a long way toward defusing the controversy.

Nevertheless, some damage has been done. Alexia Abegg is harsh in her criticism of Churchwell. If he is still principal of the arts magnet program in the fall, she insists, the program will have one less student.

What’s more, she says she’s not alone in her opinions. “If [Churchwell] ends up staying, a lot of us aren’t going [to the new school],” she says.

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