Inside Sylvan Park's Cohn Adult Learning Center library, a standing-room-only audience of roughly 150 parents, educators and assorted politicos bear witness to what could be the new, polished future of Nashville charter schools.
The crowd of mostly white mid-30-somethings gives rapt attention to the emissaries of Great Hearts Academies, a Phoenix-based nonprofit charter management organization that operates 14 schools across metropolitan Phoenix, enrolls 5,000 students and has serious designs on importing their brand to Davidson County following new open enrollment laws signed into Tennessee charter law last year by Gov. Bill Haslam.
Grabbing the microphone, Great Hearts board President Jay Heiler tells the crowd what it will take to bring a cluster of Great Hearts schools to Music City. (Full disclosure: Townes Duncan, managing partner of Solidus Co. and chairman of the board of directors for SouthComm, the Nashville Scene's parent company, helped lead the search that brought Great Hearts to Nashville.)
"Other than the grassroots support that we have been experiencing so far, we have to have the support of the leadership of the community, which seems to be somewhat in evidence," Heiler says. "Obviously, we have to succeed in convincing the responsible leadership in giving us the charter."
That leadership is out in force tonight, with Metro Council members Jason Holleman (who opened the night's presentation), Emily Evans, Carter Todd and Steve Glover in attendance. Twenty-four hours later, Mayor Karl Dean addresses a slightly larger audience at a Great Hearts public meeting at the Martin Professional Development Center.
"I wanted to stop by after a really kind of long day, one, to greet Great Hearts and welcome them to Nashville and thank them for their interest in our city," Dean said. "I had the opportunity to meet with representatives from Great Hearts in my office back about a month ago before the holiday season. We had a wonderful conversation."
The conversation likely to come, however, will concern whether a school such as the one Great Hearts is suggesting — the first of as many as five to 10 additional academies, and the first in Nashville to serve a core besides the underprivileged — can help draw private-school parents back into the public school system while maintaining the system's commitment to diversity, or whether it will drain resources and top-notch students from Metro's already strapped schools.
Great Hearts arrives in Nashville bearing recommendations from officials such as Chris Barbic, superintendent of Tennessee's Achievement School District, who says "the organization has created consistently high-performing schools throughout the Phoenix area." According to Darryl Cobb, whose non-profit Charter School Growth Fund awards donations to high-performing charters, two of its Arizona schools performed in the Top 100 public schools in the country. Its curriculum emphasizes original texts to foster critical thinking and college-level reading.
"The foundation of a Great Hearts education is intensive inquiry into the great books of the Western tradition — books that cover the full spectrum of philosophical and ideological views including Aristotle, Marx, Frederick Douglass, Jane Austen and James Madison," says Dan Scoggin, Great Hearts' founding CEO. "Our principal goal is to help our students become 'great hearted' young men and women — philosophers and lovers of learning. Great Hearts espouses no political ideology or agenda."
Its board, however, has strong conservative leanings. As editor of the Arizona State University student paper in the early 1980s, Heiler, now a veteran GOP political operative, penned op-ed pieces weighing in on topics such as homosexuality and immigration. In recent years, he supported Arizona's controversial SB 1070, on grounds, he says, that it would aid the fight against Mexican drug cartels.
In an interview with the Scene, Heiler said by asking about his beliefs, the paper was doing exactly what he tries to avoid: bringing politics into the subject of charter schools.
"It just concerns me that you're going to give people the wrong impression," Heiler says. "I have to work with people of both parties and people of no parties. Politics to me is so much less important than this project; this transcends politics and the whole point of it is to transcend politics and give kids a place to learn and study."
According to Federal Election Commission records reviewed by the Scene, Great Hearts' 2010 and 2011 board of directors and executive members actively engaged in politics of their own, contributing more than $133,000 to political candidates between 2001 and 2011.
Overwhelmingly, that money was given to Republican candidates and right-leaning political action committees, including Arizona Congressman Rick Renzi, congressional candidate Steve Moak, and Congressman Ben Quayle, son of former Vice President Dan Quayle and sibling to Tucker Quayle, a sitting Great Hearts board member.
Many of Great Hearts' directors are politicos, past or present, and typically on the "supply side" of the proverbial aisle in GOP-dominated Arizona. Maria Baier, a former Metro Phoenix Republican councilwoman, actively serves as both a Great Hearts director as well as Arizona State Land Commissioner under Republican Gov. Jan Brewer. Clint Bolick, director of the Goldwater Institute's Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation, also serves on the Great Hearts board. Most recently, conservative talk-radio host Hugh Hewitt was named to the board last year.
"Improving public education is a top priority for Mayor Dean, and he believes charter schools help provide educational opportunities that meet individual needs," the mayor's office told the Scene via email. "He feels strongly that charters must be inclusive, serve diverse populations, and as public schools should absolutely not be used as a means to advance a political agenda or any agenda beyond quality education." Dean attended the community meeting strictly "as an advocate for high-quality charter schools," the office said.
Politics are an issue only inasmuch as they relate to one of the major concerns under the open-enrollment charter-school law: diversity. Davidson County educators have long cited diversity as a major point of interest with the advent of a potential West Nashville charter school, which many suspect to be the ultimate location for a potential Great Hearts academy. The ad hoc task force that lured Great Hearts to Nashville (including Duncan) is almost entirely composed of people from the west side of town.
"What I worry about is that if there is [a charter school] that opens in an area that has a large population of middle- or middle-to-upper class parents, what is that school going to really look like?" MNPS school board member Ed Kindall told The City Paper in a Nov. 8 article. "I think if we don't find a way to ensure that these are diverse schools — socioeconomically, racially, etc. — we're going to deepen the isolation within our school system."
Heiler and Great Hearts chief academic officer Peter Bezanson stress that they have not yet chosen a location, and Great Hearts plans to host parent meetings in other sections of the city. Regardless of where it might be located, a Great Hearts school would buck the trend of Davidson County's current roster of charter schools, which primarily enroll low-income and at-risk children with high percentages of the student population on free or reduced lunches. Under the new open-enrollment requirements, low- and high-income students alike will compete for placement.
"We have schools that land all over the map [in Phoenix]," Heiler says. "Some would be serving very middle-class folks by and large, we have one inner-city school that serves ethnic minority kids, and we have another one that would open that would be similar to that. In Tennessee it seems like there was more of a focus of bringing diversity into each school, whereas here we try to serve a diversity of communities."
Data culled from the Arizona Department of Education's website shows that all but one of Great Hearts Academies' score an "A" according to the department's most recent evaluatory rubric. That one — Teleos Prep School, the aforementioned inner-city school that Heiler says is "90-95 percent ethnic minority kids" — is located south of downtown Phoenix and one block north of an industrial railyard. It scores a "C." Additionally, Teleos is the only Great Hearts school listed by the Arizona board of education as having students (53 percent of them) on free lunches. Great Hearts readily admits that the school struggled in its first year — the 2009-10 school year — but says it has since made program modifications that are paying off. Per policy, Great Hearts does not provide transportation to its students there or at any of its 13 other schools. Whether it would in Nashville remains an open question.
But if Teleos is an outlier, the organization boasts results that Nashville parents and students would envy. According to Scoggin, Great Hearts has an ACT average score of 27.9, and scores well above SAT averages in math, reading and writing. In 2010, Great Hearts 10th-graders posted five of the top 11 average scores (out of 539 schools) on Arizona's statewide AMS test. At Great Hearts' public meeting at the Cohn Center, the rigorous curriculum — a pantheon of Western literature and philosophy and Latin language courses — impresses parents such as Belle Meade residents Drake and Jill Porter, whose primary concern is quality of education.
"Very impressive," Drake says. "I think that just the passion those guys had was encouraging, and the curriculum was ... "
"Incredible," Jill cuts in.
"Yeah," Drake agrees. "Incredible."
The Porters represent a vanguard of young, moderately well-to-do parents — Drake, 39, is a financial adviser; Jill, 36, works as a physical therapist — who are eager to land a child in what could be the first of many Great Hearts Academies in Nashville. Of their three children, their eldest, a daughter, is the only one in school. They are excited at the prospect of having a private-school-quality public school, to avoid paying the high cost of tuition.
For them, results are what matters most.
"I hope that it can come to fruition here," Drake says.
Matt Pulle contributed reporting to this story.
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