Amy Ridings faced an important choice as her daughter approached the end of the fourth grade at Lockeland Elementary School. Her daughter was a good student and had the grades to qualify for a coveted spot in Metro's academic magnet schools, but Ridings began questioning the "accepted" knowledge. "When we were looking at schools," Ridings says, "people would say, 'You have to go to these schools.' But we started looking at the options, and it was, 'Why should I drive across town?' I started looking at the scores and schools, and it came down to making decisions based on information rather than the perceptions that
Ridings discovered a school that combined a first-class education for her daughter while being an integral part of her local community — the landmark edifice of East Nashville Magnet School. It's a discovery more and more parents have been making in recent years as yet another East Nashville success story of revitalization and reform is gradually being recognized.
East Nashville High School opened in 1932 as the crown jewel of Nashville's public school system — a state-of-the-art high school with 28 modern classrooms, the city's largest gymnasium and 1,500 students. In 1937, the accompanying East Nashville Junior High School opened on the same campus, and for the next five decades, the schools stood as anchors for the surrounding neighborhoods. East High weathered World War II, the mass suburbanization of Nashville, the strife of school desegregation, and the gradual deterioration of the surrounding neighborhoods. Eventually, declining enrollment and a deteriorating building meant the end for East, at least temporarily. In 1986, 118 seniors comprised the last graduating class of East High's original fifty-four year run. Classes continued for East Middle School as a multi-year renovation of the campus was undertaken.
In 1993, the high school reopened as East Literature Magnet School, a non-academic magnet school emphasizing liberal arts. To honor East's rich history, the name was later changed to East Nashville Magnet School. In 2009, the current principal, Stephen Ball, assumed responsibility for East High and began one of the most sweeping reforms in the school's multi-decade history — the introduction of the Paideia system of teaching.
Taken from the ancient Greek term referring to the ideal education for a citizen of society, Paideia is a teaching method that emphasizes all students are capable of learning a core curriculum, despite differences in ability. As Stephen Ball explains, "The best education for one child is the best education for all children. For instance, everybody takes the same level of chemistry; we don't have basic and advanced classes. The kids that struggle in chemistry learn to work harder, smarter, and get more assistance, but we still give the same quality of education to everyone. We have pretty high expectations for everybody, but when you have those high expectations for everybody instead of just a few, it breeds a desire to be successful."
The Paideia system also upends the stereotypical teacher as lecturer model. "The centerpiece of the Paideia philosophy is seminar," Ball says, "teaching kids how to take a text, sit in a circle, have a teacher act as a facilitator, and have the kids discuss the text. They learn how to discuss, not debate, how to site evidence, and how not to interrupt each other. So, there are social as well as academic skills taught. It's had an effect on their behavior. Through the seminars, kids learn how to disagree without screaming at each other. When kids have conflicts they're able to talk it out."
As two of five Metro schools utilizing the Paideia system, success with the system for both East Middle and East High is reflected not only in the numbers — it's reflected in the personal experiences. According to Ball, East boasted the highest daily attendance percentage in Metro for the 2013-2014 school year, with an average of 98 percent daily attendance. The school has also had a 100 percent graduation rate for enrolled seniors in the last three years. Added to these achievements is the unique social environment at East. As the only 5th through 12th, combined grades, middle and high school in Metro's school system, East affords students a continuity in their education that is a rare commodity in most modern, public school systems. Ball notes that about 80 percent of the 2014 graduating seniors attended East continuously since the 5th grade, an astonishing figure given the number of educational options available to parents and students in today's fiercely competitive education marketplace.
For any school, however, one of the most important measures of success is the opinions of the parents of the children in attendance. Janet Lee and her husband selected East for their son when he began middle school, and two years later they're very happy with the results.
"We specifically picked East because we wanted him to go to a diverse school," Lee says. "My husband and I both grew up in Nashville, we both went to David Lipscomb, and then I went to Vanderbilt. They were great schools, but I only knew kids like me. I love the fact that my kid has friends from all over Nashville, from all different backgrounds, and he's comfortable with all of them. For me that is a huge selling feature for East. I had a good feeling about East, and it has lived up to all my expectations."
In addition to the cultural advantages of East, Lee says she's seen real results from the teaching methods. "He went into East from Dan Mills. He was always a shy kid. He had a lot to say, but he wasn't verbal. He wouldn't talk in class. The teachers really brought him out, and now he's much more confident about expressing his opinions."
Jan Hatleberg is another East parent who has seen positive changes as a result of East's teaching methods and the diversity of the school student body. "My daughter was rather shy, and she came into her own at East Middle School," Hatleberg says. "I think that has a lot to do with the sense of community and the Paideia system. They learn to share and listen quite a bit. Kids are learning to communicate across socio-economic lines and that is so important."
That sense of community and diversity is of paramount importance to parent Amy Ridings. "Many people have forgotten how important East High was to East Nashville. In some ways the community was built around that school. I think that's part of what drew me into East — thinking why can't that be possible again?"
At the present time, Lockeland Elementary is the only elementary school that offers a direct path to East Middle School. All other students must apply through the Metro Schools' lottery system to gain admittance to East. The Lockeland feeder to East began five years ago, and although the number of students who use the pathway is still small, the numbers are growing, due to the advocacy of Lockeland and East High parents.
"When my daughter was still at Lockeland," Amy Ridings says, "a group of parents got together and said, 'We really like our community and each other, so do we have to split up? Why does the second that elementary school ends do we have to go all over Nashville to different schools?' We started looking at the options. We had a pathway to East so why not use it?"
From Principal Stephen Ball's viewpoint, the involvement of just a few neighborhood parents has had an exponential effect for the school. "When I first came here, the PTA was three ladies who would come and help with anything we asked them to do. We really pushed them to expand and bring more parents in, but I understood the difficulties when kids come here from all over the city."
"When the Lockeland families started coming in," Ball says, "we had more students in this immediate area, and more parents got involved. Some schools don't even have a functioning PTA. So I feel really lucky to have parents that have stepped up. Typically, as kids get older parents get less involved, but that's really the opposite of the way it should be. So we're constantly trying to reach out to parents."
Francine Hunt is one those Lockeland parents who has taken an active role not only in promoting the school to other parents, but as both a sponsor and facilitator for programs that directly help the school. As a board member of Walk Bike Nashville, one of the programs that Hunt quite literally got rolling is the "East Nashville Bike Bus" a planned and organized group that commutes to school each day on their bikes (with a number of watchful parents along for the ride).
"We've been working at bringing in several community partners," Hunt says, "such as Home Depot, who donated materials to renovate the teacher's lounge. Hunt has also worked with public education advocate John Harkey to facilitate a partnership between East High Magnet School and the Peabody College of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University. The partnership will allow 10 graduate-level education students from Peabody to hold freshman seminars at East, aimed at assisting incoming 9th graders with their curriculum planning and choices. "Our goal is to provide something special for the East High students and hopefully improve the pipeline of teachers into the system," Hunt says. "It's a win-win program."
With parents, students, teachers and administrators all contributing to the revitalization of East Magnet schools, there's a lot to be proud of. East Middle School principal Paul Brunette doesn't hesitate when he speaks on what he considers the school's greatest achievement. "I see kids with high self-esteem who are able to communicate with their peers, and that carries through," Brunette says. "They have good self concepts, and that's a huge victory for adolescents who are growing up."
For Amy Ridings, the realization that led her child to East has straightened into a firm devotion to her neighborhood high school. "You see all these articles praising East Nashville in the New York Times or Southern Living," Ridings says, "so why would you drive past the 'East Nashville school' and not go to it? Why not put your time, energy and pride into the school that is sitting right here? That's its name, that's its history, and it's a good school.
"I talked with someone last week who was literally in tears because she 'had to' move to Williamson County for the schools. You don't 'have to' move for schools. You can use the time and energy it takes to move into focusing on improving your school and being an advocate for all the kids. Focus on the schools, because they are the center stone of