Tuesday’s Metro Nashville Public Schools board meeting resulted in a new name for a new high school and changes for a few charter schools, along with some heated debate.
Before the meeting began, a few members convened as part of a committee to discuss the top three names for the new Bellevue high school set to replace Hillwood High in 2023. According to Abigail Tylor — who represents District 9, where the new high school will be located — the community most strongly supported the name Bellevue High School. But the naming committee, and later the entire school board — minus District 8 representative Gini Pupo-Walker, who wasn't present at the meeting — voted to name the school after civil rights activist Rev. James Lawson.
Tylor also suggested naming the high school after her late grandfather Cecil Branstetter, noting his work as a local political figure and champion of environmental conservation, though she recused herself from votes regarding her grandfather’s name. In the naming committee, District 4 representative John Little suggested naming the school after both James Lawson and Cecil Branstetter, which resulted in a motion by District 7 representative Freda Player-Peters to make a resolution to name the street where James Lawson High School will be located Cecil Branstetter Way.
Tylor noted in the naming committee: “Bellevue High School was a name that had a lot of support behind it. … And I do not want anybody to feel like this is a slight against Bellevue because it is not at all. … I know feelings will be hurt. And in some ways, I'm kind of sad that my kids won't have Bellevue High School. But I also see the value in the larger picture.”
After a parent advisory council town hall, the board meeting began with two student representatives speaking on behalf of Antioch High School. Director of schools Adrienne Battle gave her director’s report, which commended MNPS select staff factions and updated families on the district’s student dashboards with the help of Paul Changas, the MNPS executive director of research, assessment and evaluation. The board had a small discussion, mostly led by concerns from Little, about Education Direction LLC, a company that has been contracted to work with MNPS as a part of the Tennessee School Turnaround Pilot Program. The district is set to give the private company $1 million through the program, and Little noted concern that he couldn’t find more information on it, noting, “All money isn’t good money.”
The meeting then transitioned to a slew of charter school amendments, with representatives from several charter schools seeking board approval regarding inclusion of fifth grade, increased enrollment capacities and renewed contracts. Debate started with remarks from representatives Freda Player-Peters and Rachael Elrod, and the first charter motion of the night failed when Rocketship Nashville Northeast didn't secure the votes to add fifth grade.
“I think we've just got to watch what we're doing and the message that we're sending,” said Little, “and we have to keep equality and equity within our Metro Nashville Public Schools.”
The many parents and students who filled the board room cheered Little's statement — there wasn't a public comment portion to Tuesday's meeting, but many charter school representatives, including a mascot, were in attendance. Soon after, vice chair and District 2 representative Elrod noted that “these are our charter school students, not necessarily our students.” The crowd booed, and one woman yelled at a screen picturing Elrod, who attended the meeting virtually. Elrod made a motion to deny Rocketship, which failed, and so a new motion was resurrected, with the school board ultimately approving Rocketship's addition of fifth grade.
District 1 representative Sharon Gentry noted that she was “concerned” with Little’s commentary and later compared it to a “tongue lashing.” She also made a point to clarify that charter schools are not MNPS schools.
Ultimately, the board voted to allow Rocketship Nashville Northeast, Purpose Prep Academy and Smithson Craighead Academy to add fifth grade to their currently K-4 schools — a move the district is taking as a part of its ReimaginED initiative. Another charter school, Strive Collegiate Academy, was approved to remove fifth grade. Both Smithson Craighead and Purpose Prep sought to increase enrollment, but the board denied both requests, later voting to renew its contract with LEAD Prep Southeast. Though the board was set to renew Knowledge Middle School’s contract, the issue was moved to the next meeting per the school’s request.