On a recent Saturday, a couple of Metro educators found themselves on a porch, doing that thing where you see someone through the window and look away. After an uncomfortable amount of time, the door cracked open.
“My name is LaTonya White. I’m the principal at Rosebank Elementary School. How are you doing?” White asked, referencing her clipboard with the list of names and addresses for families who have rising kindergartners. “Yes, you should have a child ready to come to school soon.”
This practice of canvassing for students is pretty standard for charter schools, who often make their pitch on front porches. It may become an expectation for teachers at Nashville’s traditional public schools as urban districts around the country grapple with destabilization related — at least in part — to the growth of charter schools.
“I think we’re just moving to the place where we do have to sell ourselves, where we do have to market ourselves, where we do have to say, ‘hey, look. This is what we’re doing,’” White said.
According to Metro Schools’ own figures, more than 40 percent of the students in East Nashville don’t attend their zoned school. Part of that is the district’s own doing.
Open enrollment, which is a trend for districts around the country, made it so students in Nashville can go just about anywhere in the city as long as there’s an open seat. Private schools have always lured some students away from their zoned school. And now there are the charters, which are highly concentrated in East Nashville.
When charter schools lure away students from a zoned school, per-pupil public funding of roughly $10,000 follows the child to the charter.
That’s why superintendent Jesse Register is taking a page from the charter playbook.
“I think [charter schools] have done a better job of getting out and recruiting and canvassing in neighborhoods, and I think we need to learn from that,” Register said following a meeting with parents at one of East Nashville’s struggling, under-capacity schools.
Judging from the amount of coffee and donuts set out for the volunteers at Rosebank’s inaugural canvassing event, they were hoping for more than the half-a-dozen teachers who actually showed up.
Art instructor Carla Douglas took time out of her Saturday, but says there’s a general sense that marketing shouldn’t fall on teachers.
“I’m sure there are plenty of teachers that are thinking that way. I’m sure there are. And they’re not here,” she said.
Douglas says she accepts that recruiting may just become one more unpaid duty.
On a tree-lined street, a group of cousins run up to Douglas and principal LaTonya White.
“These are our children,” White said. “Hey, how are y’all doing? You’re not used to seeing me on Saturday.”
These Rosebank students live with their grandmother, Melba Hardison, who offers some reconnaissance help.
“That house right over there and that house over there have got like pre-k kids, I think,” Hardison said, pointing across the street. “They may be going to private school, so you may want to go talk to them and reassure them about the school.”
Hardison’s block is typical of East Nashville – very mixed income. There are homes where multiple families live under one roof. And across the street, mother Danielle Sloane is a partner at one of the city’s biggest law firms.
“It sounds bad. I love the diversity of East Nashville. I want to promote the diversity. We moved here for a reason, but you still want the opportunity for your children to continue to progress even while those kids are coming along,” Sloane said. “So it’s a very difficult line and for families, you don’t want to take a chance with your kids, right?”
Sloane says she visited several charter schools before landing a spot for her daughter in one of the district’s most sought after elementaries – Lockeland Design Center.
But even Sloane says she doesn’t want to see her neighborhood school whither away, adding that she wishes Rosebank teachers had been out in force earlier.
“I would have gone and talked,” she said. “But you know, now we’re sort of set. And you’re not going to just transfer schools that easily.”
It may take many more door-knocking days for the zoned schools to see the fruits of their labor. If unsuccessful, schools that remain under capacity have been threatened with closure or possibly conversion – to a charter school.