It’s Monday morning, and third-grader Elizabeth Fuller is helping her mother, Mary Harris, change the black letters on the red brick sign in front of Julia Green Elementary School. Down come the letters trumpeting the school’s book fair. Up goes the message ”Thank you teachers. We love you.“
The sign was built more than a decade ago by Julia Green’s PTA to attract community interest in the school, located in Green Hills, one of the most affluent areas of the city. This is Harris’ regular task. It is one of hundreds of chores performed by scores of parents who donate their time to this vibrant school.
Inside the building, other parents are in the midst of their volunteer tasks for the day. Miriam Mimms and Ann Cochran, co-chairs of the past week’s book fair, sit at a table in the lobby calculating their profits. With sales of $16,000, they expect about $5,000 in profits for the PTA budget, which is expected to top $100,000 again this school year. Inside the teachers’ workroom, PTA President Mary Evins wraps candy kisses in green cellophane to stuff Julia Green mugs that will be given to teachers at an appreciation luncheon later in the week.
Down the hall, science teacher Emily Peck prepares for another day of instruction in the hands-on science lab. She’s not a volunteer, but parents have contributed the money that makes her daily work possible. And they don’t just purchase equipment and supplies. Peck’s full-time salary and benefits, $29,770, are paid out of PTA funds.
Past fund-raising efforts, however, pale compared to the effort now under way at the Green Hills-area school. Parents are dreaming a lot bigger than brick signs, book fairs, and science teachers. This week, they hope the Metro school board will allow the PTA to raise enough money to pay for a $426,000 construction and renovation project. That project will come on top of a $1.7 million building project, to be paid for by Metro. The parents’ goal is a laudable one: to eliminate completely all the portable classrooms that dot their campus, an objective that could not be achieved with the $1.7 million in Metro dollars alone.
The board is expected to take up the parents’ proposal at its Dec. 8 meeting. Metro Schools Director Bill Wise says he will recommend approval. ”Those kinds of things have been done for years, and there is absolutely nothing new about it,“ says Wise, who can cite a litany of projects that have been funded from private sources in the community.
The first schools in Metro to have air-conditioned rooms were those where parents could raise the funds to buy the window units. Today all Metro schools are air-conditioned. Several years ago parents at nearby Percy Priest Elementary School in Forest Hills raised private dollars to fund a $48,000 hands-on science lab. And before Metro began funding music and art teachers in 1997, a handful of school PTA groups hired their own. Public dollars have also been used in ways that gave one school something others didn’t have. When Glencliff and Whites Creek high schools were built, swimming pools were added with the Metro Board of Parks and Recreation providing the funds. Percy Priest parents worked out an arrangement with Forest Hills, which gave the school $50,000 to build a playground. Similarly, the Greenwood Neighborhood Association helped East Nashville’s Hattie Cotton Elementary build its $50,000 playground with an MDHA grant.
Still, Julia Green’s highly ambitious proposal has grabbed headlines and sparked debate since it became public knowledge. Coming as it did on the heels of the final settlement of the federal desegregation lawsuit that ended nearly three decades of court-ordered busing to establish equal opportunities for all children, the proposal has raised the specter feared most by some black leadersa resegregated system of well-funded schools in more affluent areas, and underfunded, poorly equipped schools in the inner city for black children. Schools that draw from poor neighborhoods, the argument goes, cannot rely on parents to help them raise money and improve their schools. Meanwhile, a school like Julia Green, which serves an affluent school zone, can use both Metro tax dollarsand parents’ pocketbooksto improve its classrooms.
”They already have the advantage of equipment by being able to raise money,“ says Cornelius Ridley, a former school board member and critic of the Julia Green proposal. ”The children who attend there have parents who are in the business world; they are in corporations, they are able to convince them to be partners to give to the school. They can raise large amounts of money to build on to buildings. People in the inner city do not have the money, and they don’t have the contacts. I think we’re opening up a whole new area where schools will not be equal.“
Forty-four years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a case called Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, hammered the nation’s public schools when it ruled that schools separated by race were inherently unequal. Today, Nashville’s public schools are no longer racially divided. But the geographic boundaries by which school zones are created do reflect class and income distinctions. And that, in turn, affects the schools themselves, especially when the schools embark on ambitious fund-raising projects that could radically shift the playing field of public education.
When Brown v. Topeka Board of Education was decided, a debate over equity was a no-brainer. That black children and white children could not attend the same school was a fundamental, moral wrong. Today, however, the debate over equity is more complex. Who’s to argue when parents want to give money to their child’s school?
It is easy to sympathize with the parents at Julia Green Elementary. They only want the best for their kids. Dave Goetz, executive vice president of the Tennessee Association of Business, is one such parent. The father of a second-grader, he says he understands the concern about equity. But he believes that it’s also important to raise the minimum levels at which our schools are operated, and to do so continually.
”You have to allow schools like Julia Green to continue to stretch the top end, because by doing that, they help establish a higher minimum,“ Goetz says. ”What I see Julia Green accomplishing through its ability to marshal parental and community support is challenging the system to provide that level of education for all its students.“
Laura McLaughlin, past president of the Julia Green PTA, says the criticism over their endeavor has surprised the parents. ”What we’re trying to do is bring more money into the system,“ McLaughlin says. ”If we can figure out a way to get what we need, doesn’t that free up money that can be used somewhere else?“
Most Metro school board members appear reluctant to discourage parents, or the community, from doing something to improve a local school. In fact, the school board plan that led to the desegregation settlement, called ”A Commitment to the Future,“ was based on encouraging parental participation and community involvement.
”My inclination is very strong to try to find a way to allow parents to contribute both financially and in many other ways to our schools and their success,“ says board member Dave Shearon. ”To look at parents who are trying to help and say, åPlease don’t do that,’ is something that I will do only when I’m clear that there is going to be a real problem with it.“
Even board member Murray Philip, who has long opposed fund-raisers based on fairness, and board member George Thompson, who represents black parents, recognize the complexities involved in the issue. Years ago Philip asked the school board to outlaw fund-raisers because he believed it wasn’t fair to allow some children to get a better public education because their parents could afford to put money into the basic program. At that time, he was specifically concerned about schools that were hiring art and music teachers when others couldn’t.
”I really think there is room for discussion here,“ Philip now says. ”Any money that goes into public schools has got to be better than not having the money go in. It’s not an easy issue.“
Thompson, meanwhile, says he believes parents should be able to support their children’s schools. But he is concerned about disparities that will evolve if the school system is not able to fill the gaps created between the haves and have-nots. ”If there is any way, without being inequitable, that I can support what they’re doing, I’m happy,“ Thompson says. ”I don’t want to kill the enthusiasm. But it’s a heck of a concern.“
Concerns about equity have been a major focus in school districts across the nation since 1954, the year the U.S. Supreme Court declared in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education that ”Separated educational facilities are inherently unequal.“ The Brown decision ultimately led to mandated busing for racial balance in school districts across the nation to ensure equal opportunities for all children.
Under the desegregation plan for Nashville, approved by a federal judge in 1971, all schools were to have a student enrollment of 25 percent black, plus or minus 10 percent. When the plan was implemented in the fall of 1971, however, 8,600 white students had left Davidson County’s public schools. Each fall, for many years thereafter, public school enrollment continued to decline, altering the carefully crafted racial ratios.
Julia Green, a kindergarten through fourth grade institution that turns 50 years old this year, was one of many schools seriously affected by the white flight. By 1980, one entire wing of the school was empty. Two nearby schoolsWoodmont Elementary on Estes Road and Parmer Elementary on Leake Avenuewere also nearly empty.
In 1983, following a second round of court hearings in the desegregation case, a new busing plan was implemented that closed Woodmont and Parmer, merging their zones into Julia Green. The new plan also changed which schools students attended after leaving Julia Green. Whereas students prior to 1983 had been bused to North Nashville, students from then on were sent instead to Stokes Middle School, located on nearby Belmont Boulevard. As a result, more families in the Julia Green area began opting for public education. One by one, as children began flooding the school, portable classrooms had to be added.
Today, Julia Green Elementary, which had only 156 students in 1980, has an enrollment of 480, with 14 portable classrooms in use. For more than a decade now, Julia Green parents and teachers have prayed for the addition of a new wing to their school building. The Metro school system did no new construction, or renovation, from the early 1980s to the early ’90s. Sadly lacking the civic support needed to pay for both instructional and capital needs, school officials focused their resources on the classroom.
But under Mayor Phil Bredesen, conditions changed. Finally, in the spring of 1997, the dream for a new wing at Julia Green seemed closer to reality. Bredesen put forward a four-year funding plan to bring significant improvements throughout the school system. Much to the chagrin of school supporters, however, the Metro Council eliminated one-third of the tax increase targeted for schools. The construction plan for Julia Green, which had initially included 14 classrooms and a gymnasium, was reduced to nine classrooms plus a gym.
That did not match the vision that had long dominated the Julia Green building committee, a group of parents and teachers who referred to themselves as ”The Wing Thing.“ Last November, the committee held the first of more than a dozen meetings aimed at figuring out what to do. They even met during the summer, going so far as to hire a fund-raising consultant.
”Our bottom line was to try to get children out of portables,“ says kindergarten teacher Jeanne Wright, who chaired the committee. The group also wanted to create enough space so the school principal would not have to share her office with the social worker and psychologist. They wanted enough space so that the many volunteer tutors, including the Vanderbilt men’s tennis team, would not have to do their work in the hallway.
At first, the committee suggested raising enough funds to add four classrooms. They scribbled out a rough budget: since most classrooms are 900 square feet, and construction costs average $71 a square foot, they figured adding four additional classrooms would cost about $250,000.
But the plan changed considerably. And it did not get less expensive.
They soon learned from the Metro schools’ administration that to receive the school board’s approval for their fund-raising plan, they would have to avoid increasing the capacity of the school, which could disrupt the delicate racial balance that exists in all Metro schools. Since the school system’s administration didn’t like the idea of more classrooms, it suggested insteadand the PTA agreedthat the private money be used to furnish the wing, create a new library, renovate the administrative office space, convert the old library into small conference rooms to be used by the speech teacher, social worker, psychologist, and volunteer tutors, and add one room for the music teacher. The price tag for that idea rose to $426,000.
School board member Deirdre McNab, whose district includes Julia Green, says the new plan caught her ear. ”My sense is that this is a better plan for the school, and it is something that more people are comfortable with than the PTA plan of expansion,“ she says.
If the school board gives the go-ahead, the Julia Green parents have until April to raise the funds. Schools director Wise has laid out certain conditions that the Julia Green group must accept. First, the project cannot cost the Board of Education any more money. Second, it cannot disrupt the timetable set for the taxpayer-funded project. Third, the privately-funded project will become the property of the Board of Education. And fourth, the use of the new facilities is not to be considered an extension of the school’s capacity.
Capacity is a big concern for those in the black community. If extra space is available, some predict that white families from other schools will enroll their children at Julia Green, perhaps by giving false addresses as parents at Brookmeade Elementary did a few years ago. Or, they may attempt to get the zone widened. The schools from which those students flee will then be left with a higher percentage of blacks. Again, segregated schools will loom on the horizon.
”There was supposed to be a natural breakdown where you would have majority-minority kids represented in every area,“ former board member Ridley says of the new zoning plan that will be implemented in the next five years. ”That plan is so interwoven that when you start fiddling with one school, you’re going to affect someplace else as far as balance in ethnic groups. If they start jumping the gun about adding on, somebody else is going to get the same idea. There is a possibility that it may compromise the whole plan if people in affluent areas are allowed to build and add on space.“
Under the school board’s Commitment to the Future, black children are still zoned to suburban schools, with transportation provided. But the inner-city children will also have the choice of attending a neighborhood school that is either a magnet school with a particular focus, or a so-called ”enhanced option“ school, which is supposed to provide extra programs not available in the typical elementary school.
Ridley believes that nearly all black children will choose to attend the school in their neighborhood. But Sonnye Dixon, who chairs the education committee of the NAACP, is not convinced of that. Sonnye Dixon, as a matter of fact, does not want it to happen. Sonnye Dixon is a man whom Julia Green parents have come to know very well.
On Oct. 6, some 150 well-meaning Julia Green parents gathered in the school’s cafeteria to discuss their proposed fund-raising drive. At that meeting, the building committee was seeking the parents’ consent to begin raising money. By the next day, Tennessean education writer Paul Donsky had gotten wind of the meeting, and the ambitious fund-raising plans. On Oct. 11, on the front page of the daily newspaper, Donsky’s article appeared, with black education activist Sonnye Dixon none too pleased.
”It sets a new kind of precedent for how problems will be handled,“ Dixon said of the parents’ plans to fund so many of the school’s needs. ”I just have a real problem with parents being able to dictate where capital improvement allocations go.“
Dixon had not arrived by his judgments haphazardly. For years, he has been an advisor to the plaintiffs in the city’s just-concluded desegregation suit, which means he scrutinized the zone lines drawn in the new desegregation plan. He is on a first-name basis with many of the officials in the city’s board of education office. And his wife is a Metro schoolteacher.
Many of the parents, as might be expected, reacted with a general ”harumph“ to the notion of anyone having problems with them giving money to a public school. Feeling as if their plan might be threatened, however, parent leaders invited Dixon to a breakfast meeting with them at Shoney’s. They also invited him to speak at their next PTA meeting on Nov. 17.
Beginning to address the larger parent group in the cafeteria that evening,
Dixon did not calm the fears of those who thought he would block their plan. ”I am now in the land of plenty,“ he proudly announced to the assembled parents.
Dixon then challenged the parents to make special efforts to keep their school diverse. He urged them to recruit students from their non-contiguous zone when the new plan takes effect. And he encouraged them to ensure that the students they recruited would succeed, challenging them to close the achievement gap between blacks and whites in the Hillsboro cluster. ”I want to challenge Julia Green today to say that in the kindergarten class that comes to school next year, there is a black student who will be valedictorian at Hillsboro High when he or she graduates,“ Dixon told his listeners.
After the meeting concluded, one white parent commented: ”I feel like I’ve been to church.“ Although the school already offers extensive tutoring and a Saturday school for underachieving students, at least one listener agreed that the community needed some additional prodding.
Christe Blackshear, a black parent, says she has seen some ”classism and racism“ at the school. She says, for example, she had been specifically called and asked to attend the meeting that night. ”I thought I was being asked because I was a black parent,“ she said. ”Typically they don’t call me.“ She also had concerns with regard to the white parents because, ”If you’re not in their little cliques...you’re not going to be involved in their projects at all.“
Dixon is vigilant and persistent, but he’s not combative. And today, he has softened his opposition to the school’s efforts. ”By opposing the building, it gave me the opportunity to really raise the issue of diversity,“ Dixon says. ”You want my support for the building, and I want your support for continued diversity because I just do not believe that all-black environments succeed. I just don’t believe that I’ve spent what has been 20 some years fighting for diversity within the school system just to be completely washed away and to say that integration didn’t work. There are people who want to say that, both black and white.“
Dixon says it is important to place the Julia Green controversy in the context of a broader perspective. Metro’s new school plan will provide buildings so inner city youngsters can attend school in their own neighborhoods. But money for the programs envisioned for those schools is not yet available. A future mayoral administration will likely have to find the fundseither from somewhere in the current Metro budget, or through a tax increaseto fund them. If schools like Julia Green raise the money on their own, Dixon says, there may be less pressure from everyone in the school system to increase general revenues for the school system. The political will throughout the city simply won’t be there.
”For years they have been raising between $70,000 and $100,000,“ Dixon says of the Julia Green parents. ”My last year at Bordeaux we raised $15,000, and that was the most they raised ever at a PTA. If Kirkpatrick raises $1,000, they have a very successful year.“
At Julia Green, only 15 percent of the students come from low-income families. That compares to 95 percent at Warner Elementary, or 93 percent at Lockeland Elementary in East Nashville. In 54 of the 89 Metro schools serving students through grade six, at least half of the students are low-income, making it much more difficult to raise funds for needed projects.
At the same time, schools with a high concentration of low-income students receive Title I funds, federal money given to enhance the educational resources available at such schools. This year, for example, Warner Elementary will receive $507,486 in Title I money for its 634 students, while Lockeland Elementary will get $284,934 for its 362 students. Bordeaux is getting $130,284 this year. Altogether, 44 Metro schools share some $10.2 million in federal funds.
Unfortunately, the schools that are really the worst off are those that get neither the Title I funds, nor any significant contribution from private sources because their parents are not in a position to help the school. At Glencliff Elementary, located off Nolensville Road, for example, 52 percent of the students receive free, or reduced-price, lunches. But the school does not get any federal funds.
Julia Green parents say that since their earliest discussions, they have always agreed that their effort needed to reach beyond their own school. Various ideas have been discussed, such as creating a partnership with another school, raising enough money to put in a pool for future use by another school, working through a foundation that is set up or envisioned in the Commitment to the Future. While they recognize that money is important and is part of the answer, they also believe they can make a major contribution to other schools by sharing their organizational skillsshowing others how they put together an aftercare program that really works, and a tutoring program that is boosting the skills of underachieving students.
”Every school has different needs, a different catch to make it happen,“ McLaughlin says. ”It’s not necessarily about money. For us, it’s a facility and that takes money, but for another school that may not be. There are some schools that have fabulous buildings but are missing something. They may not have even sat down and figured out what their dream is.“
Asking parents at one particular school to help save an entire school system is, of course, a tall order. McLaughlin believes that the school system could go a long way toward improving things by hiring a development person who is well-connected in the community and could guide parents and principals in their private fund-raising efforts.
Outside dollars are indeed transforming classrooms and schools across the nation. A new record for individual philanthropy to a single school may have recently been set when a successful Seattle businessman pledged $8 million over eight years to a low-income school in his city. In Cincinnati, Walnut Hill, a public college-prep high school, is in the second year of a five-year campaign to raise $12 million to build an arts and science wing.
”We are seeing these traditional and strongly drawn lines break down between public, private and community resources,“ says Mary Fulton, policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States. ”The line is beginning to blur.“
Almost 12 percent of all school districts across the country have a school foundation, or some formal mechanism for accepting outside dollars, according to Howie Schaffer, spokesperson for Public Education Network, a national community-based non-profit school reform association based in Washington, D.C. While outside dollars are often targeted to schools in lower-income communities, significant projects (including construction) in wealthier communities have also been funded.
”I don’t think there is anything wrong with that,“ Schaffer says. ”But we need to ask the question, åWho will pay for excellence for every one of our children?’ “ Schaffer says that experts increasingly recognize that property taxes, which fund public education in most communities across the nation, may be inadequate to fund the needs of public education. ”Here we are with children who are suffering the repercussions of inadequate resources to provide for excellence.“
And so parents who are of above-average means go about raising money for their children’s schools.
”These initiatives come from people who are committed to public schools, but feel that there isn’t enough money supporting public schools and that the schools need more money,“ says Allan Odden, co-director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education. ”And rather than bailing out and going to a private school, they’re willing to put their own private money in the public schools. So I’d say we want to keep these people in the public schools. It’s one of our dilemmas. What do you do about this? Do you stamp it out, which would force a lot of these people to go to private schools, or do you let it happenkeep these people in the public schools but monitor it to make sure it doesn’t get out of control?“
In the short term, Nashville appears poised to let it happen, and for the right reasons. To do otherwise, as parent McLaughlin says, would involve running a school system where ”you don’t allow people to feel that they can affect a school.“
But in the long term, the questions are more severe. If the parents at Julia Green are to be applauded for their brinkmanship, the lack of civic commitment to the education of all our city’s schoolchildren, from Antioch to Bordeaux, from Donelson to Bellevue, deserves heightened investigation.
When it comes down to it, some experts would say that while the cost to the parents of Julia Green seems huge, it is really minimal. The cost of having an uneducated city, however, is epic.
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