Numbers Game 

Brookmeade isn't just about race

In late August, school buses pulled up at the corner of Davidson Road and Charlotte Pike, and school got under way for another year at Brookmeade Elementary. Everything looked normal, but all was not well.

At Brookmeade, an award-winning school with an excellent reputation, overcrowding was a problem. Just the year before, the student body had grown so large that Brookmeade’s kindergarten had been moved to another building two miles away. Some parents thought they knew why the population explosion was taking place. Some parents, they charged, were providing false addresses in order to get their kids into Brookmeade.

At the same time, while performing routine office chores, administrators found themselves mystified. While typing “emergency locator cards,” which are used to locate parents in case of an emergency, some of the addresses didn’t add up. With the parents concerned, and Metro officials in a quandry, it wasn’t long before an audit of the Brookmeade student population was under way.

On Oct. 24, the Nashville Banner let the city in on the Brookmeade affair. “At least 68 students are attending one of the state’s top elementary schools because their parents listed false addresses,” wrote Alisa LaPolt, one of the newspaper’s education writers.

In the wake of LaPolt’s story, the charges, the embarrassing statistics and the emotional intensity began to snowball. The number of students whose parents had provided false addresses climbed to 169, according to the audit, which was released by Metro schools officials last week. Brookmeade’s total enrollment was 528, and nearly one-third of the entire student body shouldn’t have been there. What’s more, the audit suggested that this was not just a case of parents not knowing any better. In fact, parents of 18 students told Metro officials that school staffers had encouraged them to provide incorrect addresses.

There has been plenty of talk about rectifying the situation. Some disgruntled, law-abiding parents have called for the immediate relocation of all the improperly registered students. They called for a financial penalty on the parents as well. Other parents were more forgiving. They argued that pulling so many children out of school would be traumatic and harmful.

Gerry House, on WSIX-FM, said he thought the kids should be left alone. Tommy Burnett, on WKDA, called for their ouster. The Tennessean, uncharacteristically—if only because its story used a lot of big words—raised questions about the ethical standards of a world that allows parents to lie on behalf of their children. Vanderbilt Divinity School professors sounded off on a world governed by situational ethics.

With amazing swiftness, the Brookmeade affair cut to the heart of everything that makes public education public. It made it clear why it is so difficult to achieve an equal education for any community’s children. And at the same time, it provided some rough glimpses down the path the school system here may ultimately take.

Their best intentions

The Brookmeade imbroglio is not an earth-shattering scandal, nor is it significantly tragic. No volcano swallowed a neighborhood. No funds were absconded. Except for the fact that 169 sets of bourgeois parents will now blush whenever they run into their friends at Kroger—despite the fact that they have probably never done anything horribly wrong in their entire lives—the damage won’t be all that serious.

On the one hand, the parents have displayed the admirable qualities of concern and care that provoked them to send their children to the school they thought would provide the best education. Unfortunately, they lied about their addresses to do it. What they did was an infraction comparable to forging your auto emissions inspection report, borrowing your neighbor’s recycling bin without returning it, or burning trash in your backyard.

The School Board was scheduled to take action this week. Most observers were predicting that the improperly enrolled children would be removed from Brookmeade at year’s end. Meanwhile, the revelations at Brookmeade raise the specters of numerous divisive factors in school systems:

Race

In giving false addresses, the Brookmeade parents violated the 1971 federal court order that brought an end to segregation in public schools and established school district lines. Those lines were drawn in an attempt to provide racial balance in public schools.

Metro school officials are incensed because the untruthful Brookmeade parents have turned the supposedly equal system into an unequal one.

The immediate inference has been that the parents were trying to get their children into schools with more white students, but this is not the case. Of the 169 students whose enrollments are in question, 49 are black.

This statistic says several things. First, it debunks the notion that the white parents did not want their children to go to school with blacks. Secondly, it gives credence to the notion that minority parents will also choose schools with excellent reputations, if they are given more options.

The 169 students who are the subject of the investigation come from a variety of districts and cut a relatively broad geographic swath through the city. Their actual home addresses represent 15 other elementary school districts in all. Most of the 169, however, should rightfully be enrolled in the Charlotte Park Elementary and H.G. Hill Elementary school districts. According to 1994 statistics, Brookmeade is 32 percent black, Hill is 51 percent black, and Charlotte Park is 56 percent black. This statistic would seem to indicate that the parents were trying to get their kids out of majority-black schools and into majority-white schools.

But there is another telling statistic: 66 percent of the students at Charlotte Park are from low-income households, as are 66 percent of the students at H.G. Hill. Parents may have opted out of Charlotte and Hill for reasons related to class, rather than race. The fact is that Brookmeade had a higher percentage of black students than the percentage found in the city as a whole. Race may not have been a motivating factor.

Reputation

Of course, the parents may not have been fleeing a particular school so much as they were attempting to sneak into another. Brookmeade has an excellent reputation: Redbook magazine named it the Best Elementary School in Tennessee, and it has been honored by the U.S. Department of Education. Most ironically, Brookmeade’s former principal has also received the Milken Educator Award, a $25,000 prize named for an ex-convict. The former principal allegedly encouraged the address-fudging to begin with.

There seemed to be no reason to doubt that Brookmeade deserves its excellent reputation. Parents loved it. Students wanted to go there. But test scores indicate that the school’s reputation may have been exaggerated. According to research done by Banner education writer Dana Pride, Brookmeade’s value-added test results, which measure the amount of knowledge that a student gains over the school year, are lower than the scores of students at nearby H.G. Hill and Charlotte Park.

The numbers do show that there are greater numbers of higher-performing kids at Brookmeade, or larger numbers of kids with what are called higher “stanines.” Nevertheless, when the value-added test results of the higher-performing kids at Brookmeade are compared with the scores of similar groups at Hill and Charlotte Park, the kids at Hill and Charlotte Park score higher in some cases.

Bottom line: Brookmeade may not have been all that it was cracked up to be.

The hysteria over Brookmeade has been fueled by the exposed corruption of the parents, but the community does not seem to be asking the burning question: What is it that makes Brookmeade so sizzlingly hot to begin with? Why do parents across the city want their children to go there? Is there something about the Brookmeade experience that ought to be copied at every school in Metro?

Unfortunately, the likely outcome of the Brookmeade disclosure will be an expensive, time-consuming and ultimately useless audit of every school in Metro, a witch hunt for more address-fudging. It will be energy and dollars that could be better spent making other schools as popular as Brookmeade.

Choice

As school board members like Betsy Walkup have suggested, the city needs more magnet schools, greater options and some degree of choice. The Brookmeade situation proves that, even if the Metro bureaucracy does not allow parents to select their children’s schools, they will figure out a way to make it happen. It seems an immutable law of nature that responsible parents will act in the best interests of their children when it comes to the schools they attend; they will not fear to break the rules that, they think, restrict their children. In other words, parents—in a magnanimous act of will and instinct—will make choices for their children.

Autonomy

Before choice happens, as many education activists are suggesting, the school system ought to allow individual principals, teachers and parents to make decisions for themselves. This move would allow schools the power to hire and fire teachers and the control of their own budgets. As a result, schools would develop their own styles, their own niches. Schools need to have their individual personalities, if there is going to be any reason to allow complete and total choice.

Desegregation

Before anything else can happen, it is time to chunk the old 1971 plan that desegregated Nashville’s school system. The plan now seems increasingly irrelevant to the needs of both black and white parents and children. Schools director Richard Benjamin and others hope that, if they put enough resources into schools in low-income and black neighborhoods—and if they provide transportation for such students to attend schools in white neighborhoods—the system will provide equal opportunity for all students, even if there is no desegregation order in place. They may be right.

The exposures at Brookmeade suggest that, when it comes down to the bottom line, parents who have enough information, enough interest and enough concern will select good schools for their kids. It is uncertain, however, whether low-income parents who don’t have the information, the interest and the concern will luck up and make wise choices too.

The only way to find out is to do it. It may be time for first aid. It may be time to apply pressure to the system and see where it breaks.

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