Mayor Karl Dean says he wants more innovation in Nashville schools. He might want to start by fixing the problems he already has.
Take the case of Christian Heyne. The Hillsboro High senior's stats read like a parent's dream: co-captain of the football team, Eagle Scout, vice-president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and prospective plebe at the Naval Academy.
"Christian is like everyone's best friend," says Hillsboro student president Brittany McShand. "He's the perfect kid."
One Friday last September, Heyne was pulling out of a school parking lot when he accidentally ran over a freshman's foot. Heyne's car was barely moving and the boy didn't appear to be hurt. But when Heyne got out, he was told he'd "have a hole put in him" for the affront.
The freshman's injury wasn't serious enough to warrant a doctor's visit, and the next day he was playing basketball in gym class. But that didn't stop his parents from raising hell. So Principal Roderick Manuel decided that Heyne's actions warranted a charge of assault, cruelty to a student and a 10-day suspension.
Neither Heyne nor the lawyer his parents hired were allowed to speak during his disciplinary hearing. Even so, a panel of three school officials declared his run-in an accident. But Principal Manuel upheld the suspension nonetheless.
"Mr. Manuel basically ruined his senior year," says McShand, "because he took a freshman's word over Christian's."
So the Heyne family took its case to court. (Manuel and Heyne both declined interview requests.)
Two weeks ago, a Davidson County chancery court ruled in their favor. Manuel will have to produce evidence upholding that the suspension was justified.
Heyne's case may seem like an isolated incident—the kind of friction expected anywhere teenagers are kept in close captivity. But students, parents and teachers alike say it's emblematic of what's gone wrong at Manuel's Hillsboro.
Detractors claim that Manuel, hired away from West End Middle School two years ago, is an autocrat. An administrator more comfortable with number-crunching than hallway conversation. A disciplinarian who invokes the all-important rules no matter if they jive with common sense.
Two weeks ago, in the midst of a spring freeze, Hillsboro's heat went out. Manuel stopped outside a math class where some students were wearing hoodies, a violation of Metro's school attire policy but necessary when it's too cold to think.
Manuel didn't see it that way. After sending the hooded ones to the office, the principal tore into the teacher.
"We tried to comfort her," says a junior, "but she wouldn't stop sobbing. She was sure [Manuel] was going to fire her."
Manuel is so predictably rigid, say students, that some game the system, purposefully wearing Levis or blue Polos so an understanding teacher will write them up, thus allowing them a couple uninterrupted hours of study time during in-school suspension.
He's a big change from his predecessor, Dr. Robert Lawson, who is often described in the glowing terms of a favorite uncle. During morning announcements Lawson would congratulate whatever team won the night before. At lunch he'd work the cafeteria tables like a politician out for votes. And after a big win, he'd play Queen's "We Are the Champions" instead of the class bell.
"Dr. Lawson was like everyone's dad," says one student. "With Mr. Manuel it's just not the same. He's like a dictator."
These days, the morning announcements have been replaced by a dry reading of the Pledge of Allegiance. Students live in fear of being a second late to class, lest they violate the new attendance policy. And Manuel cancelled all pep rallies, despite the fact that Hillsboro's football team won a state championship, a victory on par with Hoosiers' Hickory High considering the underdog status of Davidson County schools.
"[Hillsboro] is run like a prison," says senior Ian Nott. "People just aren't happy. I'm sure [Manuel] is a nice guy just trying to do his job. But honestly it's not just me. It's the consensus schoolwide: He's just not cut out to be principal at Hillsboro."
Most of those frustrated are unwilling to be quoted by name. Teachers fear risking their paycheck during a recession. And some parents worry Manuel will lash out by banning them from school grounds.
But with the prospect of being unshackled come graduation day, seniors like Nott and Max Watts are more than happy to report on the school's failings.
In February, Watts came back from lunch to see a crowd in the courtyard. Police were breaking up a fight. Rumor had it that two Bloods had jumped a Crip.
For months Watts had been met with skepticism when he told his mom that Hillsboro was out of control with gang violence. Now he had proof.
He took out his camera and snapped two photos of a cop cuffing a fighter. That's when Assistant Principal Dr. Lisa Currie screamed at him to hand over his phone, he says. When Watts resisted, she took him to the office with the threat of suspension.
"I tried to be nice," he says. "I told her I took the picture because I didn't want fights like these at my school."
But Currie wouldn't budge. Oddly, she called Watts' explanation "elitist" and took his phone. A day later he got it back with the pictures deleted.
Watts knows having a phone on campus is against the rules. But kids are caught everyday without repercussion, he says. The problem, as he and others see it, is how Manuel and his staff interpret the rules.
"They're strict in the wrong way," says Watts. "They're picking on the wrong people. Kids will act up in class and yell. But if I don't have my shirt tucked in they'll suspend me."
Though students claim Manuel & Co. are out to punish them, innocent or not, teachers claim it's not that simple.
Standardized tests like No Child Left Behind have turned them from educators to census-takers. And teachers say they're getting no help from Bransford Avenue.
Manuel's hire came months before Metro School Director Pedro Garcia's ignominious departure last January. In place of solid leadership, the teachers say they've been bombarded by the school board's laundry-list of hastily planned, awkwardly executed quick-fixes that have made their already difficult job that much harder. Take GradeSpeed, for example.
Implemented this year, the program allows teachers to post grades online so parents can track their kid's progress. Like many recent Metro ideas, it's a well-intentioned move that's had unintended consequences. One teacher offered an amnesty day, allowing students to turn in late work with no punishment. By noon she had 200 papers to grade and 50 emails from parents looking for an update.
"We're in accountability hell," says international baccalaureate coordinator Mary Catherine Bradshaw, a 25-year Hillsboro veteran. "To blame it all on (Manuel) is to miss the point."
But in the past, teachers say they were shielded from the worst of the school board's mad scientist whims. Not so with Manuel.
"Bob Lawson ran interference for [us]," says one teacher. "I have heard him say to (administrators), 'We're not doing that because it's not in the best interest of our students.' We don't have that kind of backup anymore."
Manuel is, in part, just catching flak for doing his job. Unfortunately, when those above are grasping at straws, being a good soldier doesn't always mean good sense. As one teacher says, "I would never, ever, ever be a high school principal. You couldn't pay me enough."
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