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VOL. 37 | NO. 19 | Friday, May 10, 2013

Welcome to MLK, Mrs. Obama

Please ignore the rats, radon, water damage, mold and crumbling walls

By Hollie Deese

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Shannon Elder was already aware of the older, run-down condition of some of Nashville’s magnet schools before her son, Gregory, started seventh grade at Martin Luther King Academic Magnet.

Her son had attended Rose Park Magnet, which was built in 1965, and is also in an older building. Even so, she was shocked the first time she got a good look at the interior of MLK.

“It’s a great school,” she says. “We just have a building that is in terrible condition.”

Indeed, the educational program is so impressive that First Lady Michelle Obama will honor its achievements and its students by speaking at commencement on May 18 – but not on the school’s actual campus at 613 17th Ave. N., where students dodge rats, mildew and radon while working under peeling paint and leaking ceilings.

MLK Principal Schunn Turner, understandably proud of the White House attention, wouldn’t mind an unscheduled on-campus visit by Obama.

“We are excited about it,” Turner says. “I am still wondering if there is any way I can get her to come and see our building. She is a magnet school girl so she remembers what a stellar program magnet schools can be. Maybe it would be helpful.’’

The principal keeps her purse in a plastic container beneath her desk to keep vermin out. Two dead rats had to be disposed of in one day last week. Teachers routinely place glue traps in classrooms.

“I have sent four emails in the last week about some rats burrowing in the ground out front,” Turner says. Holes 3 to 4 inches across at the edge outside the main entrance are offered as evidence.

“It is getting worse,” Turner adds. “I had no idea how terrible a building could be until I came to MLK. And it is surprising since we are a nationally-ranked school, and we have so many stellar students that the building does not look anything like people would expect to be offering a top-notch education.

A poster featuring the school's namesake hangs above a hole in a hallway wall.

-- Photos By Lyle Graves | Nashville Ledger

“We keep filling the building to capacity, so the wear and tear has just taken its toll.’’

Historic buildings, high achievers

MLK is No. 2 in the state and No. 113 nationally by U.S. News and World Report’s highly respected annual high school review. Its emphasis is on science, engineering and math.

The school also is home to the legacy of Nashville segregation, which it still chronicles.

A historic marker underscores the past, giving 1883 as the date a school named Pearl was established “as a grammar school for Negros,’’ and notes that Pearl High School for African Americans opened at MLK’s 17th Ave. N. location in 1936.

MLK Academic Magnet moved into the building in 1986.

The state’s top school in the magazine’s ratings, Hume-Fogg Academic, is located in an even older structure, and ranks 37th nationally in the magazine’s listings.

The Hume-Fogg building, 700 Broadway, celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2012 and has similar issues as MLK, including water damage.

“We have had flooding every year since I was a freshman,” Hume-Fogg senior Iris Levine, 18, says. “It is a weekly thing. It got a little better because they got some money for repairs, but the floors used to be buckled.

“There were huge parts of the floor where the wood would be a little mountain and you would have to awkwardly straddle it as you walked.”

No more ‘band aids’

As president of the parent teacher association at MLK, Elder has gathered photographic evidence of peeling paint, ceiling leaks and other worsening conditions at the school. She has presented her findings to the central office in the hope the school moves up higher on the Metro Schools renovation list.

Metro did a lot of work at the school over spring break, she says, it just wasn’t enough.

The water damage in this MLK ceiling is the result of a window on the floor about that cannot be fully closed.

-- Photos By Lyle Graves | Nashville Ledger

“We are not looking for some beautiful renovation where we get all new floors and stuff like that,” she says. “We are looking for the building to be maintained the way it should be maintained. No school is ever going to be perfect. Someone is always going to find something to complain about.

“My only complaint is the maintenance of the building. If it were maintained, I wouldn’t care if it was old.”

Buildings pushing the century mark aren’t easy to maintain, says Thomas Hatfield, director of facility and grounds maintenance for Metro Nashville Public Schools. He heads up a crew of nearly 200, broken into smaller departments for painting, electrical, plumbing, carpentry, glass repair, environmental issues and more.

Metro has 141 schools with 185 buildings covering just about 15 million square feet of space.

“It is an absolute challenge to maintain some of our older buildings,” Hatfield says. “It is more costly to maintain an older building than it is to maintain a newer building because of the historical significance of how they were designed originally.

“Both MLK and Hume-Fogg are great structures, but there comes a time when you can’t continue to put band aids on them.”

Hume-Fogg was built on two acres with 47 permanent classrooms. MLK has 59 permanent classrooms located on 6.6 acres.

Hatfield says his department gets more than 100,000 maintenance requests a year, which can include everything from installing a pencil sharpener or getting keys unlocked from a filing cabinet to rewiring a media center to accommodate more computers.

Hatfield expects to have 96 percent of those requests complete by the time he fills out his completion report in June, just when his crew ramps up to get much done over the summer.

Shunn Turner, MLK’s principal, keeps her personal belongings in a plastic container under her desk for protection against rats and mice. Metro has placed rat traps at the school, and many teachers put out sticky traps in their classrooms. They are successful more often, perhaps, than teachers would like.

-- Photos By Lyle Graves | Nashville Ledger

“That’s when we throw down,” he adds. He and his crew have had to adjust their schedules to accommodate the recent TCAP tests, making sure all non-functional lights were replaced, and are ramping up to work on projects that are too distracting to complete while school is in session.

“Those tests are important, and my guys can’t be out there hammering and banging and doing things we do,” he says.

“We try to keep our visibility down, and it is just another challenge to not be obtrusive to the learning process.”

‘At MLK, those are rats’

Hatfield agrees pests are a problem at many of the schools – especially MLK, where there is space to walk under the building where pipes used to run for steam heat, giving rodents access to the school overnight.

“Many times we would get reports a rat is in a building, and it turns out to be mice most of the time,” Hatfield says. “At MLK, those are rats.”

Hatfield says environmental concerns restrict the amount of poison and chemicals he will use to get rid of the pests, and instead uses integrated pest management to dry up their food and water sources. But it’s hard to control pest problems, he says, at any school where food is being eaten in areas other than the cafeteria.

“At both of those schools (MLK and Hume-Fogg), kids are eating in the hallways and the front lawn,” he says. “We can’t continue to put chemicals down, but we can’t have rats running around, either.

“And schools are changing environments. What doesn’t have a rat today may have one tomorrow,” he adds.

Paint peels away from the walls on one MLK classroom, the result of water seeping or pouring through aged, damaged windows.

-- Submitted

Why are students eating in the hallways and on the front lawn?

MLK has a cafeteria capacity of 240. The school has 1,200 students and a 50-minute lunch period. Hume-Fogg has similar issues.

Also contributing to the pest problem is the city’s sewer system, which is ill-equipped to handle large amounts of rainfall. Of course, older schools are ill-equipped to handle that kind of rain, as well.

Hatfield says there are many schools that have issues when it rains, especially schools with classrooms below grade.

Turner says the roof at MLK still leaks despite being replaced just a few years ago. ‘‘Today there is water in a classroom because of the hard rain,” she says.

“It’s like the ceiling tile has fallen in,” she adds. “The walls are crumbling so you have all this paint that has popped off of the wall. We continue to plaster and paint, but these problems continue to resurface because it is kind of like working in a ruin.”

Elder says mold and allergies are an issue at MLK, and Hatfield agrees, although he says mold is in every building because of the nature of Tennessee’s climate.

“Mold exists everywhere,” Hatfield says, adding he gets calls about it from all of the buildings, even newer ones.

“And we have lots of students who are allergy sensitive and asthmatic, so those are challenges.”

Air quality is a challenge for older buildings, especially as they have been made to accommodate air handling systems not typical to the structure.

“The older buildings were not built as tight as what we are building now and over the years as we have gone through and put conditioned climate in our facilities, it is a little bit of a problem on energy,” Hatfield says.

Room 104 at Martin Luther King Academic Magnet was sealed off this year after ununsally high levels of radon gas were detected. A ventilation pipe, which cen be seen near the center of the photo, and pump were installed, lowering those levels. Radon gas can damage lung tissue and lead to lung cancer when exposure lasts for several years.

-- Photos By Lyle Graves | Nashville Ledger

Another problem: Radon gas. One first-floor classroom has been closed off after high levels of radon gas were detected. Piping and a pump were installed in that room, and levels have since fallen.

Security, parking and technology

Hume-Fogg has 42 parking spots for 50 staff members and none for students. Metro pays for staff to park if no spots are available, but students or parents foot the bill to park.

And as a magnet school, with students living all over Davidson County, there is no school bus service.

Levine says she pays $70 a month to park near the school and is glad the cost is offset somewhat by the $40 she gets each month from the parents of a fellow student who rides with her.

“I hate spending money to begin with, and the price keeps going up and it still gets a little bit stressful having to deal with it,” she says. “I normally get to school pretty early, but we have study sessions as seniors for our AP tests at 7 a.m., so you are already rushed for time trying to park.”

Hume-Fogg assistant principal Keely Harned hopes the problem will be eased somewhat when work begins on a combined gym/parking garage structure behind the school on Eighth Avenue.

“We always had to travel to another school to play our games and practice, so this will give us an opportunity to host our own games here and have practice facilities for our teams,” he says. “That is supposed to start here soon, and we are excited about that.”

Hume-Fogg has no on-campus athletic facilities for any sport. MLK is able to play basketball and soccer games on campus.

Pickups, drop offs and lockdowns

First-floor girls restroom at MLK

-- Photos By Lyle Graves | Nashville Ledger

MLK also has a parking issue, but no local lots to handle overflow. Many of the school’s driving students are forced to park on the streets instead of in the 86 parking spots allotted to the school.

“We get more concerns and complaints from parents about the parking than anything else,” Turner says. “We have had cars broken into during the day and at night during games. It is a high-crime area and we often – a few times every semester – go on lockdown because the police are chasing suspects in the area.”

Elder says picking up and dropping off is equally bad as parents line up on Jo Johnston in violation of posted signs.

“I made the mistake last year of making a doctor’s appointment at 8 a.m.,” Elder explains. “Gregory had to park way down the block on the next street, which didn’t make me happy because he was all of 16, by himself, and couldn’t park anywhere near his own school.

“I don’t feel uncomfortable in the neighborhood unless there are lots of them [students] out there,” she adds. “There is safety in numbers. But we don’t make doctor’s appointments at 8 a.m. anymore.”

Hatfield agrees parking is a nightmare for both schools, but so is electrical issues and safety, both growing concerns for all schools in the district.

“Our district is light years ahead of some in terms of what we have done in security, but the incident at Sandy Hook opened all of our eyes,” he says.

“Even though we know we have schools with hundreds of cameras and electronic releases, we need to revisit them. It’s not unusual that some of our older high schools have as many as 60-70 exterior doors, and that in itself is a chore.

“Another thing that is a real challenge for us in the older buildings is the electrical capacity. Everything is such high technology now, and libraries are now media centers. We have computers everywhere.”

Historical significance

Both schools have a rich history – both structures are on the National Register of Historic Places – that adds to the character of the buildings, but also limits the number, type and expense of renovations.

“We are going to be replacing some windows at Hume-Fogg this summer, and we are going to be paying twice as much putting those windows back (due to) historic significance,” Hatfield says.

Elder is concerned that MLK’s student population, held at the same level each year, prevents the school from getting funds that other zoned schools receive to accommodate growing student populations.

“I asked specifically why newer schools are getting millions of dollars when our school is falling down,” she says. “The newer schools that are getting money are zoned schools where population is exceeding the school. So they are getting money to expand their school.

“Our population is controlled by MNPS and the lottery, so we will never be overpopulated in our school.”

Success despite surroundings

Regardless of whether tiles are falling off the ceiling or the floor is buckling underfoot, students at MLK and Hume-Fogg must, in addition to the lottery, meet challenging academic requirements to get into the schools.

The typical MLK student is in the top 10 percent to 15 percent of Nashville-area students academically. Last year’s valedictorian is at Princeton and the salutatorian is at Yale.

At Hume-Fogg, the city’s first secondary magnet school, classes emphasize writing, critical thinking and analysis, with each student required to complete pre-calculus and physics.

Emily Alsentzer, last year’s valedictorian, is at Stanford University.

And if you ask any parent, student or administrator at MLK and Hume-Fogg, it certainly isn’t the buildings that make the schools stand out. It’s the character of the community.

“The most attractive thing about MLK is that we really have a good school community here,” Turner says. “When you go in a classroom you really don’t even notice the walls and the floor because they [students and teachers] are really into that content.

“They are really working on their projects and are super engaged in the academics.”

That’s just how Levine, headed to Tufts University in the fall, feels about Hume-Fogg.

“We often call ourselves the community of scholars, and it sounds kind of cheesy but it is pretty true,’’ she says. “We all kind of build each other up to do better, but at the same time we are there to make sure everyone feels comfortable and at home.

“It has helped me grow as a person, as well, because they trust you and they respect you as though you are on an equal level.”

She can even find some charm among the old building.

“It’s kind of crappy, but at the same time coming into the school and seeing those quirks kind of make it feel like home,” Levine says. “So while it might not be perfect, it is part of the whole experience.”

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