nashville renaissance

To figure out how to fix Nashville’s schools, former mayor’s group starts by visiting strong ones

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Sen. Jeff Yarbro observes a math class at Valor Voyager, one of the Valor Collegiate Academies on the same campus, with MNPS School Board member Mary Pierce and Councilman Russ Pulley looking on.

Valor Collegiate Academies and Crieve Hall Elementary School might be on opposite sides of one fault line in Nashville’s education debates, but they are similar in many ways.

Nashville’s school board increasingly opposes privately managed charter schools such as Valor Collegiate, a pair of brand-new schools on Nolensville Pike that chooses students randomly from those who apply. Instead, board members favor schools run by the district, such as Crieve Hall, a 60-year-old school in a leafy neighborhood three miles away that accepts all students who live in its designated zone.

But the schools both have unusually diverse student populations — with a mix of white, Hispanic, and Arab students, of whom about half come from poor families — and some of the highest test scores in Nashville.

So when Karl Dean, who until recently was Nashville’s mayor, decided to launch his new education advocacy organization this week with a series of school tours, Valor and Crieve were the first stops.

The bimonthly tours that Project Renaissance is planning will each visit one district-run school and one charter school. The group’s leaders say the arrangement is meant to help Nashville take a step back from the debate over charter schools that has embroiled its school board for three years, and instead focus on increasing quality in all schools.

“We really just want to highlight the great things that are happening at these schools, and have conversations about what it is that’s working,” said co-CEO Wendy Tucker.

It’s a tried-and-true strategy for education advocates, especially ones who favor charter schools, who want to shift debates away from how schools are run. A nonprofit in New York City organized study tours and training sessions for teachers from both charter and district schools, although the frequency of events has fallen as tensions between the two sectors in that city has grown.

Former mayor Karl Dean looks on as members of the tour sign in at Crieve Hall Elementary.
PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Former mayor Karl Dean looks on as members of the tour sign in at Crieve Hall Elementary.

The idea of erasing divisions could be a hard sell for local critics of charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated. Dean made charter schools a priority during his tenure, and the CEOs he selected for Project Renaissance also have charter school credentials: Co-CEO Justin Testerman is the former head of the Tennessee Charter School Center, and Tucker, who was Dean’s education advisor, is also a member of the State Board of Education, which recently told Nashville it must add two more charter schools that it initially rejected.

The first tour, held Wednesday, contained not a whiff a conflict. It drew about 40 people — including Dean; Vice Mayor David Briley; Democratic State Sen. Jeff Yarbro; and Chris Henson, the interim superintendent of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools — to observe classes at both schools and a presentation by both principals about how they would explain their schools’ successes.

At the end of the tour, the school leaders sat in the library of Crieve Hall, and talked about what their schools have in common. They didn’t swap tips, but they talked about what they both do that other schools could emulate.

Both schools have morning meetings with their students, where students and teachers check in about their overall well-being and develop close relationships.

Both provide teachers time for collaboration. And both recruit heavily from student teachers who have worked at the school for a year, so they can ensure that they add new teachers who are up for the job. (“A year-long interview,” Valor CEO Todd Dickson called it.)

And both said their schools’ diversity was an asset for students. Diversity is a core tenet of Valor’s model, while Crieve Hall’s zone includes residential areas that are mixed in terms of income and ethnicity.

“It helps to have good models for students,” said Crieve Hall principal Linda Mickle. “For students who are still learning English, to be sitting next to someone’s fluent is huge.”

Such balanced students bodies are hard to come by in a district where nearly three quarters of students come from low-income families, and where many neighborhoods are segregated by race and income.

Testerman said future tours will also highlight schools that are able to succeed with almost exclusively low-income populations, which is the norm for many of the city’s schools.

“We want to make sure that we are recognizing excellence across the sectors and the city, and see what they can learn from each other,” he said.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”