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VOL. 40 | NO. 41 | Friday, October 7, 2016

Navigating the maze of private, public school choices

By Hollie Deese

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We’ve all heard the stats. Anywhere from 80 to 100 people a day ­– or more – are moving to Nashville, and the impact is being felt all over Middle Tennessee, from traffic woes to housing shortages.

The Nashville-area Metropolitan Planning Organization estimates one million additional people will be moving to the 10-county Cumberland Region around Nashville by the year 2035. Where those people will live and work is one important consideration, as is the quality of the roads that will take them there.

But also top of mind is where these people will be sending their children to school – including ones not yet born.

Parents moving into the Nashville area have lots of homework to do, working their way through the Metro public system that includes nationally ranked magnets, looking at county systems such as Williamson County schools that are widely known for solid public education, charter options, and learning about the variety of private and independent schools – academically focused, gender-only, religious and other independent schools with a special focus.

And, of course, parents will need to look at the price tag for private education which ranges from Harpeth Halls’ upper school (girls only) at $26,240 a year to roughly $9,000 a year or less for most other schools. Some offer special discounts for religion or for siblings.

Privates grow, with purpose

Greg Ferrell, director of admission and financial aid at Montgomery Bell Academy, has been with the school for 14 years, nine in admissions, and during that time has only seen interest in the all-boy school for grades 7-12 grow.

“Actually, we would like to get a little smaller, get back down to about 740 over the next few years, but it’s just kind of grown organically over the past years, mainly by people moving into town,” he says. MBA’s enrollment is currently at 757.

MBA finished its admissions process for the current school year on May 1 when the final acceptance letters were sent out. The seventh grade class was full this year with 115 students, but over the summer, Ferrell says the school began getting interest from a number of people who had just moved or would be moving to Nashville before school started. Calls came from California, Washington D.C., Chicago, Philadelphia and others.

“We had five boys who were just absolutely too strong to be able to turn down, even though it was late, and that’s kind of what we’ve dealt with for the past couple of years,” Ferrell explains. “We understand that if they’ve had a transfer, we want to try to accommodate them if the students will be a good fit here. We try to do all we can, but at some point you just can’t.”

Even children of alumni or siblings of current MBA students aren’t guaranteed a slot as the school insists on keeping the average class size at 14.

Fortunately, MBA isn’t only option around.

“Whether you realize it or not, especially when you first move into town, Nashville has got fantastic choices,” Ferrell says. “We have some tremendous choices on the public side, and we have incredible choices on the private or independent side as well.

“I really encourage families to look and to see what fits their family values. I certainly don’t want a family to come in and sit down with me not having looked at anyplace else.”

Large, medium and small

While MBA has no plans to extend classes beyond grades 7-12 – they would have to construct a new building for that – other schools are making the steps to expand their offerings, and in some cases, create more room for more students.

Ensworth School, originally for kindergarteners through eighth graders, added the high school in 2004. That addition increased enrollment overall, which is now at 1,133.

Tiffany Townsend, director of marketing and communication for Ensworth, says parents wanted to be able to extend their child’s education beyond eighth grade in addition to providing another quality co-ed high school option for the area.

Tom Cirillo teaches a Latin I class to 8th graders at MBA.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

“One of the things that we focus on is inspiring students to be intellectually curious, to really question, and to seek answers and to use their talent to the fullest,” she adds. “And, we’re not just very strong academically. It’s very strong in the arts. We’re strong athletically. We’re teaching them to be people of integrity and contributors to society.”

Still, private schools, such as Franklin Road Academy, maintain a smaller number of kids overall in order to be able to offer just the right programs to meet those students’ needs, which are constantly evolving with every new family.

“It’s fun to be in a growing city because there are folks coming in, and it’s great to have them come in either knowing FRA from growing up, or even just moving here from Chicago, or New York, or Texas, and to be able to share with them kind of being a blank slate,” says Prentice Stabler, head of the upper school at Franklin Road Academy. “But the purposefulness of our size is critical to the kind of community that we are.”

Stabler says FRA students have a myriad of programs at their fingertips, athletically, academically and in extracurricular activities, because it is a big enough school to have lab spaces, fields and faculty but a small enough school that the students can actually participate in them.

“There’s going to be a lot of opportunities to have success,” Stabler adds. “They have their whole college career to really focus on a narrower set of pursuits. We really want to make sure that we give them an opportunity to figure out what those things are that they’re passionate about, to give them a chance to spread their wings. To try things out, and maybe fail at those things, and then try something else out, too.”

Advanced academics

Ryan Harris, head of the middle school at FRA, says the list of academic-based programs and clubs the school has added over the years is extensive and includes computer coding, robotics, SPHERO Club (a marriage between coding and robotics) and forensics.

“The biggest growth is taking place in STEM, the world of science, technology, engineering and math, because athletically our program has been pretty well built up for a while,” Harris says.

“You can look at the football team, and you’ll see that there are more kids playing than there ever have been before. You look at cross country, and you see bigger numbers. Those are programs that exist that have become more vibrant and more successful, but particularly in robotics, in the upper school, we’ve seen a real sort of explosion of growth in the last two years. The program went from really not existing, to being one of our biggest student organizations.”

Within the classroom, Stabler says the school has added the AP Capstone program this year, one of the only independent schools in Tennessee to offer the College Board program that pushes independent research, collaborative teamwork and communication skills that are increasingly valued by colleges.

“It’s a great opportunity for our kids,” Stabler adds. “It really puts them in the driver’s seat and puts them in a mode where they are building the research skills that they’re going to need in college. It’s a two-year AP commitment, but it’s a really great opportunity for those kids that have a passion that they want to pursue at a high level.”

Stabler says they have also been able to bring in faculty to teach kids within their own specialties instead of depending on more general curriculum.

“We’ve have a course on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Stabler notes. “One of our history teachers who does AP World, he does archeology digs in Israel. We’re trying to find those areas where our faculty have real expertise so we can offer courses that get our kids excited.”

Ensworth’s Townsend has a daughter in kindergarten this year, and even if she wasn’t working at the school, her family would have been drawn by the diversity of academic and arts programs.

Ensworth Middle School science teacher Michelle Little helps students with a project on plant and animal cells.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

“She just started her Ensworth journey and she just is so excited,” Townsend says. “They have two teachers in the classroom, but then she sees different teachers for Chinese, Spanish, art, music, library, science labs, and life classes. They’re getting exposed to so many different things as a part of the core curriculum. I feel like we’ve seen so many schools that, unfortunately, maybe cut back on that just due to budget constraints, and so the fact that she is getting art from day one, and music from day one, and foreign language from day one, that’s really special.”

Personalized experiences

Today’s parents want so much more than a good education for their children. They want the total package, from character development and community service to immersive classes and extracurricular activities. And schools are stepping up to give them everything they want.

“We’re not stagnant, not resting on our laurels, but really continuing to kind of push forward,” FRA’s Harris explains. “We’re continually focused on the future and continually refining what we do, and we’re not going to ever become complacent. It’s a school that is constantly evaluating how we best educate kids for the 21st century. We acknowledge at the school that that answer is continuing to evolve to prepare our kids for a world that’s changing pretty quickly. Thankfully at a school our size, we can be nimble. I think our parents expect that.”

FRA is currently at capacity in three grade levels, fifth, seventh, and ninth.

One concern for families considering private education over public is students do not have access to programs such as Metro Nashville Public School’s gifted and talented program, Encore, which offers instruction designed specifically for academically advanced students.

That’s not a problem, says Townsend, because private schools are already providing those services themselves within the school.

“We do such a great job of focusing on the individual student,” Townsend says about Ensworth. “Each student, regardless of what level they’re at, have opportunities and they have support systems. They can be helped as much as they need to be, and they can be challenged as much as they need to be.

“They can really make of their education what they want. Our really strong students, they can be challenged. The students that need help, they get the help that they need. Even if there aren’t official programs like you might see structured in the public schools, the support is still there.”

Offering single-sex education is certainly one of the selling points of MBA, the only all-boys school in Nashville that goes through 12th grade.

“We feel strongly about the all-boys part of MBA and a lot of families agree with that,” Ferrell says. “We know how to teach boys, and I think we do a great job of it.”

Incorporating faith

Religion comes into play for many parents looking for a school, whether they want it or not.

At FRA, Stabler says religion definitely matters as they try to create a tightly knit community with a faith foundation. “We’re a school that’s grounded in the Christian faith, guided by the Christian faith, and I think that adds a lot of purpose to what we’re doing when we talk about character, and we talk about integrity,” he says. “I think that resonates with people.”

Harris agrees, and says while they don’t make students or family sign a statement of faith in order to attend, they’re pretty unapologetic about that Christian message daily.

Senior students Laws Hunter, 18, left and Jake Evans, 18, work on their laptops in MBA’s dining hall during a break between classes.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

“We make sure that anybody that we have as a part of our community is going to be comfortable hearing that message, but certainly it is not an admissions requirement to profess a certain faith,” Harris says. “We’re not a church school, but we’re a school grounded in Christian beliefs. We’re pretty open about that in the admissions process, as well. We don’t want to be everything to everyone.”

Since 1864, girls have received Catholic educations at St. Cecilia, which outgrew its original space in 1957 when the school moved to its West End campus. There are three schools on the campus, the PreK-8 coeducational Overbrook school, the all-girl St. Cecilia and Aquinas College.

All of the schools are independently operated, and what’s unique about St. Cecilia is that it is not part of the Diocese of Nashville, but rather operates as an independent school.

Alexza Clark, director of communications at St. Cecilia, says Nashville’s current boom has been great for the school’s diversity efforts – socioeconomic, geographical and cultural – with students carpooling from as far away as Murfreesboro, with students representing 44 different zip codes.

“We’re really proud of all of those numbers, Clark says. “Getting the attention of all these new Nashvillians is what’s on everyone’s mind right now.”

A diverse student population has always been important to the school, Clark adds, and the school actively reaches out to students by providing generous financial need for families, even recently marketing to a Catholic church on Nolensville Pike, encouraging girls to apply.

“We’re still reaping the benefits of that one talk that we did,” says Clark, a native Spanish speaker. “This incoming freshman class has 11 Latina students that are coming from that congregation. Now we are asking, how do we sustain this and how do we keep this going? The people are here so now we have to build.

“We have a big symposium this month with Latina leaders in Nashville to figure out more sustainable methods of financing their tuition for the four years while they’re here.”

Clark says there is room to add more students but are comfortable with their current number of 268 students.

“We like our small status, and I think the instruction here is very personalized, so we would never really want to be a mega-size school,” she points out. “Every girl here is known by name, by every single person in this school. We wouldn’t really want to stray from that too much.”

Clark says those wary of an all-girls education should consider a recent single-sex study done by UCLA found graduates from all-girls high schools have SAT scores on average 43 points higher.

“They also rank higher in different categories including self-confidence, political, and social activism and life goals,” she says. “The study also reports that all girl graduates consider college to be a stepping stone to graduate school, more-so than their co-ed peers.”

Plus, at St. Cecilia there is no other option than for girls to fill every single one of the leadership positions available, leading to a boost in self-confidence that can last their whole lives.

“They’re the leaders in their math classes, their computer classes, engineering classes, on a mock trial team,” she says. “They’re more likely to be interested in disciplines that are male-dominated, like sciences and math.”

Giving kids a voice

More and more schools are seeking answers on what can be done better from the students themselves, and in return, are pushing them to be totally engaged in their own education.

Townsend says student engagement is one of the highlights at Ensworth, and that’s something parents pick up on when they tour the school. The high school students for example sit at a Harkness table, a big oval table instead of separate guests, and each student is expected to be part of the discussion.

“It is much more similar to a college setup and I think that that’s something that really sets us apart,” she says.

Students study in MBA’s Patrick Wilson Library.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

At FRA, the Best Buddies program integrates students with Downs Syndrome with the rest of the school, and two of those students graduated last year. The coordinating club supports one-to-one friendships between all students. That program didn’t exist two years ago, and today there are almost 150 students involved.

“That is completely student-driven and student-run,” Harris says. “I think you’re seeing big growth in the areas where students can create something and run with it.

“That’s kind of the culture we are trying to build, where we give students a voice in the school. Not only are they able to self-advocate, and take ownership of their learning, but also they could come with a proposal, something they’re passionate about, something they want to pursue, and find the open door of an administrator, and a listening ear, and somebody who’s going to encourage them to pursue those passions.”

Opting for public

Jill Peeples, family relations coordinator with Metro Nashville Public Schools, says the system also is seeing an influx of new families to the area, and increasingly are adding options and choices for those parents, whether it is an academic magnet school, a neighborhood school or one of the many charter schools.

“Our families have a lot of options,” Peeples says.

And one of the biggest strengths she feels MNPS has is diversity in class, religion and race, which is a true representation of a growing Nashville.

“Our students speak over a 120 languages,” she explains. “We have over 40 countries represented here which is a mirror of what you’re going to see in the work force today, it’s a mirror of what you’re going to see in our colleges today. We feel like when our students go into a classroom, they are going to be prepared when they get out of school for the academic and beyond.”

It’s something, she says, the students embrace whole-heartedly.

Peeples says because of the diversity with MNPS, the schools are able to offer personalized learning, recognizing that all students learn differently. Schools provide programs for families who are English learners, have programs for exceptional education students, and AP Capstone.

“All of our high schools offer advanced placement, dual credit and then several of our high schools offer some sort of academic theme as a whole such as our Cambridge program,” she explains. “We have STEM and arts and entertainment so really we tailor academic programs to meet the needs of not just our students, but the economy specifically in Nashville.”

Students have the opportunity to participate in real-world programs through local companies, like the partnership with Dialysis Clinic Incorporated is which culinary arts students make renal- friendly meals for their clients on dialysis.

“It’s a real world experience a student can get that is something I would never even of dreamed of in high school,” Peeples says. “It’s really important that our students are academically prepared, but we also want our students to be prepared socially and emotionally. We are extremely progressive in what we call restorative practices.”

Peeples explains that when she was in high school discipline was a very punitive, zero-tolerance policy measure. Not so in today’s public schools.

“We’re realizing that students, based upon their backgrounds and based upon the world around us now, we really needed to shift our thinking as far as discipline is concerned and how our students are handling conflict,” she points out. “Restorative practices really work with students.”

One practice has students gather in circles just to talk and get to know each other and their cultural differences.

“It’s really a process of meeting the students where they are and taking them to a new level of respect for themselves and respect for their peers,” she says. It may be one reason why the suspensions have decreased, she adds.

Ameerah Palacios, external communications specialist with Metro Nashville Public Schools, says international and relocating families can get connected through the family information center to put them in touch with a personal advocate to help navigate the school system.

“They can get their questions answered, they can get help navigating through the system, and it’s really getting them in touch with someone to hold their hand, listen to them and follow through with any concern they have,” she says.

She encourages new families to visit schools to make a decision based on experience as opposed to word-of-mouth, especially if they have been hearing nothing but negative about MNPS.

“We’re such a progressive district as a whole, but folks will not even set foot into a school, hear something and then just assume that that’s what’s going on,” she says. ‘It’s really important for our families to go into the school and see what’s going on because what you hear in the community is not necessarily what’s going on in the school.”

Choosing charter

Almost all of the private schools offer some sort of scholarship or need-based financial aid to families, but even a percentage off of $10,000 or more is still out of reach for many. So families new to Nashville have more options from the quickly-growing charter school community.

Tennessee received a grant last month from the U.S. Department of Education for nearly $20 million for the expansion of high-performing charter schools in the state. The money is from the department’s Charter School Program, which aims to help charters start and grow stronger. The amount of that money coming to Middle Tennessee will be determined after schools apply for, and are, approved for the funds.

The growth of charter schools in Nashville has not been without its controversy and contention, but Amanda Morris Henneghan, director of communications for the Tennessee Charter Schools Center, which helped write the state’s grant application, says the independent, public and tuition-free charters are necessary to fill in the holes public and private can’t.

“When considering charter schools, I think that it’s important to recognize that the number, the quality, the diversity of the charter school sector in Tennessee is strong and it is growing,” she says. “As more people move to Nashville the sector is continuing to grow. I think it comes down to all students in Tennessee deserve access to a high-quality education, and parents deserve to have that choice in the process.”

There are approximately 30 charters that are part of the MNPS system, and Henneghan says they have more autonomy in their concept, more flexibility and more choice in the education that they offer. But, she adds, in exchange for that autonomy is a greater accountability in how they operate.

“There’s definitely a disproportionate and an unequal distribution of quality public schools,” she says. “Charter schools are so important because not only do parents have the option to choose the education that works best for their student, but generally speaking, a lot of charter schools – particularly in Nashville – are ranking among some of the highest performing public schools in the state.”

Henneghan says charter schools empower their teachers to be innovative and responsive to student needs and have the flexibility to influence decisions about everything from curriculum and schedules to extracurricular offerings.

She also says charters give parents the opportunity to find a school that best meets their own child’s needs, and not be forced to send their child to a school that isn’t a good fit just because of where they are zoned.

“People want to feel like they have the option to exercise their choice and their opinion, whether it’s who you’re voting for politically, what grocery store you’re going to go shopping at,” Henneghan says. “So why not have that option and opportunity when it comes to picking what you feel is best for your children in terms of their education?”

Peeples says parents do have some choice in where they send their children to school within the system.

“We have a process called the optional school application, and so starting October 31 the application is available to all families,” she explains. “Schools that are optional are our charter schools, schools that do not have a zone or schools that have a zone but the zone does not fill up.”

Peeples says families will have about a solid month to identify their choices, and most of those folks will get at least one of their top five picks. Of course, families can go through the optional schools process or they can attend their neighborhood school. Peeples says families are encouraged to consider and talk to other families who attend the neighborhood school.

“We’ve got something called Walk through Tuesdays in October and November and January where we open up our schools to all families to come tour, ask questions, learn the school environment, meet the principal, look and see what the teacher-student interactions look like,” Peeples says. “That will give you a really good feel for what this school is and whether you feel like that’s a good fit for you or not.”

Metro Schools also host an annual School Choice Festival at Music City Center in which representatives from all the schools together for one day for families in Davidson County to check out their choices.

“It’s probably one of our biggest district events,” Peeples says. “We had over 2,500 people attend last Saturday which is quite a few people. We have it at the Music City Center and try to roll out the red carpet for these families.”

Henneghan says regardless of what parents decide there is no silver bullet that is going to solve all of the education problems. Instead, it is really about a collaborative effort.

“How can we learn from one another?” she asks. “What can we implement that’s innovative and thinks outside of the box that’s proven to get results, and how can we share that information and knowledge from school to school and system to system, whether it’s public or private or magnet.”

The choices are there for parents, but time is already ticking for 2017-2018 school year. At Ensworth for example, campus previews are this month and the application deadline is in January.

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