The Wrong Test 

Alan Coverstone on the contrived conundrum for elected officials: public vs. private schools

EXTENDED ONLINE VERSION: The smug self-righteousness of public school parents who get their kids into lotteried magnet schools such as Hume-Fogg, Meigs or Martin Luther King can be hard to stomach for working stiffs whose offspring are zoned or otherwise destined for schools where the bench of PTO parents couldn’t man so much as a concession stand.
The smug self-righteousness of public school parents who get their kids into lotteried magnet schools such as Hume-Fogg, Meigs or Martin Luther King can be hard to stomach for working stiffs whose offspring are zoned or otherwise destined for schools where the bench of PTO parents couldn’t man so much as a concession stand.Magnet parents often dismiss those who are lucky enough to scrape together several thousand dollars a year or more to bankroll better opportunities for their kids—the dreaded private school option—as nonbelievers of liberal orthodoxy or traitors who have “abandoned the system” out of self-interest or, worse, ignorance.There must be an elegant, academic and utterly brilliant way to address the die-hard-public-school-believer sect in this longstanding education stalemate, but for now, let’s settle for this: Get back to us when your kid is headed for Whites Creek, Maplewood or Stratford high schools.But Alan Coverstone, whose two children attend Hull-Jackson Montessori Magnet School (where Coverstone founded the PTO), does one better defending his family’s choice to send his older son to the private University School of Nashville next fall—even while he is one of five candidates running for the District 9 school board seat.Coverstone is also a teacher and academic dean at the private, monied Montgomery Bell Academy, which, combined with his USN connection, makes his one of the more interesting school board candidacies in a while.For the three dozen or so of you paying attention to the school board elections to be held Aug. 7, we offer a partial transcript of the Scene’s interview with Coverstone. (This newspaper will also be writing more expansive pieces on the school board races):Scene: Speak to the question of sending your kid to private school, which has gotten some attention on our blog and elsewhere.Coverstone: Well, to start with I would want to say I am a public school parent, and I will remain a public school parent…. My younger son will still be at Hull-Jackson. Going back even further, my life is about public education. My mother was a public school teacher, and my two sisters are both public school teachers. And that’s what I set out to do. Along the way, in public high school, I found debate. That took me to Wake Forest, and that brought me to Nashville because as debate coach at MBA, that’s how I got my job. I actually had to be persuaded by [headmaster] Brad Gioia that he was serious about a commitment to the community, that he was serious about a commitment to MBA being more diverse and that he would support my being involved in public education. And he has been the whole time....So that’s my background.Those are things that’s important to know about me, and to speak to part of what was in Pith—and the only part I would take issue; I think it’s a reasonable debate—is assuming that someone know the motivations for why I would select a school for my kids. Now people do that all the time, so I don’t think it’s unfair. But that’s one of the reasons why I’m running, because I want to say to people that every parent wants what’s best for their child. Period. And not enough parents have as many choices, and that is too much based on income or what neighborhood you live in, and that’s one of the core reasons we have to do better with our public schools and why I’m so involved and so eager.Parents should choose schools, and this is where I think the other side is absolutely right: We have to get away from this notion that the only way to get a good education is to leave the public schools. Because, first of all, it’s not true. And second of all, if we’re going to have a good really educational system we gave to recognize that every child needs different things. Every child learns differently, and not every school can be everything to all children. We need to get our public schools into distinguishing themselves, differentiating themselves and celebrating what they’re good at and introduce some flexibility so that every parent feels empowered to compare a couple of options at least and make a choice.Scene: How do we do that?Coverstone: Number one, we have to reinvigorate the schools in the neighborhood and build a connection to the neighborhood. I think that too often is equated with just drawing new lines and make people go different places, but that couldn’t be further from that because if you just draw new lines you can create the same problems. What you have to do is create those options—because I think most families would choose a school close to home, one they could get behind, I think that’s something you could sell, that you could use to differentiate and distinguish. But I don’t think you can say to families, ‘There’s your neighborhood school, that’s your choice take it or leave it,’ because in some parts of time, they’ll leave it; in some parts of town, they’ll feel stuck in it. In neither case do you get the kind of parental involvement, enthusiasm and pride that makes a school function. So I would like to see schools that create options for people who want to leave the neighborhood but not to flee the neighborhood. So you start by building those connections to the school in the neighborhood, making those strong making that a great choice. And then you allow schools to specialize so that children who need something different can get something different.Scene: How do you institute choice then—over time or as you go? In practical terms, how can parents in Nashville start to get choice and quickly in this system where there seem to be so many flaws?Coverstone: I do think you have to do some stuff quickly. The better stuff is stuff that’s done over time. But I’ll say this: Things change so fast in school because every four years you’ve got a completely new student body in most of your schools. You shouldn’t shrink from trying to make changes that are rapid. And I think the redrawing of the lines that has to happen is the perfect opportunity—not just to redraw the lines but to pair up some schools. You sort of have a natural transition because you’ve got people in schools that aren’t in their neighborhoods now. So if you can rebuild some neighborhood schools and develop some connections to those, you can say to them, ‘Well, you can keep going where you are or you can go to this school that’s opening up or improving in your neighborhood, and here are the things that are going to be there.’ And even if it’s just a phase in, you can have an experiment to see if you’ve developed enough quality in the school or perceived quality in the school, attractiveness, that people want to go there.Now, Hillwood High School sits in a neighborhood and not a lot of people go there. We’ve all read that in the paper, right? I don’t think that the only way to involve the community in the school is just by sending your kids over there. And I think for a lot of people that might be too much of a first step. The first step might be let’s figure out how you can go over there and volunteer. Maybe you can bring back an activity that’s been cancelled over the years. Maybe you can help to transport some people. Maybe you can help to paint some things. Just getting involved with a school is the first step. So that’s another reason that I’m running because I’m going door to door in that community and I’m saying that at some of these activities at Hillwood there aren’t enough people in the audience to imagine that there’s someone there supporting each of the students individually. But if the school were charged with outreach, and the community felt that it were important, we could improve that overnight really just by getting people to go over there and check out what was going on.Scene: How do you feel about other mechanisms for choice like charter schools and magnet schools?Coverstone: Well, my children attend magnet schools, and I work closely with [founder] Jeremy Kane on LEAD Academy, and I think those are great options if they’re done well. We just need to make sure they’re done well. I think we’re overly discouraging of charter schools, but at the same time we need to be careful that they’re expanding options that people have and not destroying good options that already exist.Scene: What if somebody said, ‘Hey, Nashville ought to pay the new director half a million dollars, give him or her a leased Mercedes, roll out the red carpet and send the message that we want the best and are willing to pay for it.’Coverstone: Well, money doesn’t solve it. Money doesn’t hurt either. Here’s what I think: I think a great school leader takes pleasure in building collaborative relationships in the schools and takes pleasure in getting more out of people who work for him or her in the schools and, frankly, I think that’s how all successful institutions are going to be run and anyone who doesn’t understand that really isn’t probably properly prepared to educate. So, that’s not a reason why we should get the cheapest person we can find, and clearly if someone is very successful at that they would command a higher salary and we ought to pay what we need to get someone who has those characteristics. But I’m less interested in particular credentials and even the quality and test scores and what’s going on somewhere else than I am how well does this person understand what makes a school successful. Scene: Is there a school director across the country who you admire particularly or would want to be director in NashvilleCoverstone: No one that I would want to name and that’s because every situation is different and I’ve been so deeply involved in Nashville’s schools for the 14 years that I’ve been here that I guess I’ve almost adopted a little bit of that Nashville provincialism: that we need someone different, someone who understands us a little bit more.Scene: Back to the private school question. Why is your son going to USN next year?Coverstone: You know, basically he fell in love with it, you know. I have good friends who teach there. I think a lot of the program. I tried to learn everything I could about Meigs. He really liked Meigs too. Had we gotten in the lottery, we would have gone there. The reality of the situation is, by working at MBA, I have the opportunity for my kids to go to a school that I could never have gone to, to learn from great colleagues that I have tremendous respect for and maybe even to teach my own kids. As a teacher, that’s pretty cool. And the best preparation to inspire him for that transition was at University School. I never thought he would get in because maybe it’s a two-year gig or something like that. [Because he’s on staff at MBA, Coverstone’s two sons are eligible to enroll in MBA free of charge once they reach the seventh grade.]So that’s it. Do I think he could get a quality education in the public schools in Nashville? Absolutely. Without question. Does he have a particular opportunity that some other kids don’t have? Absolutely. Without question. There’s always going to be those disparities. But he has that opportunity because I’m a teacher, not because I’m a member of the elite particularly—although I obviously am, by virtue of where I am, in that category.I’ll put it this way, and this is where it gets a little fuzzy for me—not the decision but how to talk about it best: I mean, I want to be very clear in saying that I would have no problem with my children going all the way through public school, but we have a unique situation in our lives that leads us to make a different choice at this point….Scene: Because your boys will eventually go to MBA, right?Coverstone: Right. In the seventh grade. It’s free. It’s free, you know. And that changes the calculation in a way that people can’t understand. But the point is that everybody has a calculation that no one outside can understand, and we ought to spend more time working together making sure everybody has as many choices as possible.My other son is totally different than his brother, and that may not be the best place for him.

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