School reform, it turns out, has at least one thing in common with a carnival midway: the smell.
A buttery popcorn scent wafted across the Tennessee State Fairgrounds in September as thousands of kids and their parents approached the colorfully decorated booths dotting the property. Most booths offered pamphlets; some even extended a piece or two of candy. But the people competing for the kids' attention weren't clowns or acrobats. They were representatives of learning institutions throughout the Metro Nashville Public Schools system.
They were, however, facing a serious balancing act.
That's because the roughly 7,000 students on hand were shopping for the Metro Nashville public school they want to attend next year. At this fall's First Choice Festival, principals found themselves competing for every one of them. But for every student one school received, another school's enrollment went down by one. And at several Metro schools, the students lost far outnumber the ones attracted.
This week, MNPS officials expect parents to submit some 16,000 applications to send their children somewhere other than their locally zoned school.
It's part of the district's embrace of pieces of the "school choice" movement, intended to give parents power to break the zoning shackles that tie students to schools based on where their families can afford to live. District officials hope the choice creates enough incentive to keep parents from sending their children to private schools, or from moving to nearby counties to take advantage of public schools there.
But in Metro Nashville, that choice is also draining students from those zoned schools like a slow leak.
Currently, MNPS parents can apply to send their children to any of the district's 84 "optional schools." These include magnet schools or specialty schools that draw from across the district; privately run, publicly funded charter schools; and other zoned schools with available seats.
One in four students is exercising that choice this year, according to MNPS, although some areas are seeing more of their students abandon their zoned schools.
In East Nashville, for example, two out of every five students zoned for Stratford High School are attending school somewhere else in the district, according to a Scene analysis of MNPS student enrollment data for the current school year.
Of the more than 440 students who chose to pass over Stratford, more than half opted for magnets like East Nashville Magnet School. Another third are now at other zoned high schools or optional unzoned schools like Nashville School of the Arts. And most of the rest are at alternative learning centers that better meet students' special needs. Nine chose a charter school, specifically LEAD Academy.
What's left is a school at 59.8 percent of its capacity.
Stratford is not alone. It is one of 10 zoned schools less than 70 percent full this year. At both Maplewood High School and Whites Creek High School, hundreds of students chose to go elsewhere this year, with more than 40 percent attending other zoned or traditional schools. At least a third are going to magnet schools, while approximately 6 percent switched to charters. Capacity at Maplewood now sits at 67 percent. At Whites Creek, the number is 62 percent.
Lillard Elementary in northeast Davidson County is at 65 percent capacity, with nearly 140 zoned students attending school elsewhere. Of them, 54 headed to other zoned schools, 47 are now at magnets, and 37 are at charter schools.
The reasons for mobility among low-income students are difficult to pinpoint, according to district officials. MNPS representatives are careful to point out that low-income students may switch to different schools for economic or housing reasons, such as moving in with a relative.
Magnet schools also pull students from local schools. That's the case at Isaac Litton Middle School on Gallatin Road. The school stands at 57.9 percent capacity, and more than half the local students leaving the school are now at East Nashville Magnet. Another 30 percent of the departing students are at charters.
Indeed, what has gotten the most attention from the Metro school board are the many students leaving public schools for chartered ones. At McKissack Middle School, 325 zoned students have gone elsewhere. More than half of them have chosen charter schools. This year, 91 McKissack-zoned kids are attending LEAD Academy, while another 61 are attending Nashville Prep. The rest are attending magnet schools, with others sprinkled among other zoned schools.
"I don't think there's a problem with too much choice," says Will Pinkston, a school board member who heads up its budget committee and has led the charge on developing a new policy to restrict where new charter schools can put down roots.
"I just think the district has to be more intentional on when and where and how it creates new schools, whether choice schools or traditional schools."
Going into next year, the district will require charter applicants to open in areas where schools exceed 120 percent of capacity or convert persistently failing schools as a way to control costs and focus attention on the most need.
Aside from the thousands of students who ask the district for permission to switch schools without changing their address, 7,680 students on average completely leave the district's public schools each year, according to a capstone study out of Vanderbilt University. That amounts to 9.6 percent attrition annually.
The biggest losses — typically to private school or to a neighboring county — happen in transition years right after kindergarten, fourth and eighth grades.
"A lot of parents don't step into their neighborhood school to see what it's like," says Eric Johnson, one of three authors of the report. Now upper school assistant division head at Currey Ingram Academy, Johnson recommended that the district beef up its community outreach.
MNPS officials say they must do a better job of informing the public about the city's schools.
"Much of what leads parents to leave our district is a question of perception," says MNPS spokesman Joe Bass. "We hear this particularly when it comes to middle schools. Parents might assume that their 10-year-old fifth-grader will be in a class with a mustachioed eighth-grader. But that's just not true.
"If families think we only have three great schools — Meigs, MLK and Hume-Fogg — without ever considering the other options, we could continue to see these kinds of numbers."
The current numbers, though, show parents want MNPS to wake up and smell the popcorn.