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Honoring Christina McDonald and Adam Taylor — a charter-school teacher and a district-school teacher who represent the best of both worlds

2012 Nashvillians of the Year



Every year since 1989, the Scene has awarded the honor of Nashvillian of the Year to the person (or persons) who makes the most significant contribution to the life of the city. It could be a philanthropist or a charity worker; it could be someone who faced a momentous occasion, incident or controversy, and rose to the challenge. The latter was the case with our 2011 nominee, Night Court Magistrate Thomas Nelson, who presided over that year's most incendiary controversy — the Haslam administration's crackdown on citizen protesters and seizure of journalists during the Occupy Nashville protests (including the Scene's Jonathan Meador) — and responded with a stirring defense of constitutional rights.

For 2012's Nashvillian of the Year, we again chose people embroiled in the year's most pressing concern — but not in the way you might expect. If any one issue dominated the civic discourse in 2012, it wasn't presidential politics, city management, or the historic changing of the guard in Tennessee as a one-party state. It was the future of Nashville's public school system, which in 2012 provoked a firestorm of defiance and debate.

In one sense, that was good and healthy. A vigorous public dialogue on the role of charter schools in Metro Nashville was long overdue, deferred for too many years by myopic administrators. Now the pendulum has swung, swiftly, the opposite direction. In remarks Monday, Mayor Karl Dean forcefully underscored the reality that Nashville considers charters — schools where parents actively choose their child's enrollment and shift public funds to their privatized operation — a key component of the city's public education.

Nashville already has 14 charter schools in operation, and the role of charters in the public school system deserves careful consideration and measured implementation. But as Matt Pulle and Jonathan Meador wrote in a Scene cover story earlier this year, charters are hardly a sure bet. The best have posted extraordinary results and shown new hope to students once failed by the system; the worst have not only shown themselves inferior in operation and instruction, they have cut off yet another route for students with limited options. Much needed is serious study of how to emulate the techniques that are working at the best charters, balanced by sober heed to those that have failed, and why.

Unfortunately, that opportunity was largely sidetracked this year by the controversy over Arizona-based Great Hearts Academies, a charter-school operator that met with affluent parents about the prospect of opening a charter in West Nashville. Here, too, was an opportunity for another much-needed conversation: how to attract the resources of upper-middle-class parents and promising students away from private schools and back to the Metro public school system, without a return to the days of segregation by race and class.

That conversation didn't happen. Instead, Great Hearts and its advocates gambled on a big-footed entry into Middle Tennessee politics, courting state officials and pouring unprecedented amounts of money into local races in an attempt to vote in a more sympathetic MNPS school board. Instead of getting the results they desired, the year ended in an ugly stalemate. Now the cash-strapped Metro school system has been docked $3.4 million by the state; Great Hearts is at the moment no closer to getting a school in Nashville; and any discussion of charter schools shows danger of falling into the same fruitless red-state/blue-state bickering as the rest of Tennessee politics.

Perhaps most regrettable, however, was the demonization of teachers on both sides of the charter debate. To charter advocates who argued teachers' unions were the No. 1 obstacle to education "reform," public school teachers were speed humps in the path to progress — tenured clock-jockeys like the one portrayed in the dud propaganda film Won't Back Down, goofing around online while the class goes ape. To public school defenders, charter teachers were moonbeams who'd drunk the reformist Kool-Aid, yet couldn't hack teaching problem students who hadn't been handpicked for them. And yet, despite all the public vilification of teachers this year, last week brought the example of the faculty at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., whose humane and heroic actions during the horrific shootings Friday were among the only notes of grace on one of the bleakest days our nation has faced.

In that spirit, the Scene would like to refocus the discussion of public education not on differences and squabbles, but on the enormous asset that charter and public schools have in common: the teachers who are the most active, direct agents of hope Nashville's children will face outside the home. As our 2012 Nashvillians of the Year, the Scene honors two such instructors: one from a charter school, Christina McDonald at Nashville Prep, and one from a traditional Metro district school, Adam Taylor at Overton High.

They are hardly alone. Space does not permit us to list the many outstanding district and charter teachers who slug it out in Nashville's trenches throughout the school year, fighting the shared enemies of poverty, hunger, troubled home lives, behavioral problems, language barriers, bad outside influences and limited resources. But McDonald and Taylor are sterling examples of what can be accomplished by creative thinking, supportive administrators, and sheer determination. To look inside their classrooms is to see small miracles happen every day — and to see a brighter future for Nashville schoolchildren of all races and backgrounds than statistics sometimes let us hope.

On a rainy morning in a corner classroom on the third floor of Tennessee State University's Avon Williams downtown campus — the current location of Nashville Prep — a fifth-grade class is singing. Not a music class, a social-studies class. The tune is familiar: It's Adele's "Rolling in the Deep." So, weirdly enough, are the lyrics — the names of America's Great Lakes.

"Michigan, Super-ior. Huron, Erie, Ontar-io," the kids sing, with an enthusiasm rarely granted even to the largest bodies of water. "There are five Great Laaakes, you know. They're the largest, freshwater ... "

Among them, Christina McDonald walks up and down the rows of students in matching blue sweatshirts and khaki pants, joining in every now and then, handing out some of the day's reading. When the kids finish, having recited all five lakes twice, the class moves along without a beat.

"The time before the Civil War was called ... ?" asks McDonald, whose curly stawberry-blonde hair and near constant smile seem to evoke the palpable energy in the room.

"Antebellum!" the students reply in unison.

"A civil war is a war between two groups in ... ?" McDonald shoots back.

"The same country!" they respond.

Each portion of the class flows right into the next, from subject to subject, without even a moment of empty space. McDonald's teaching style resembles a soccer drill often used with goalkeepers, in which a coach will stand in front of the goalie, throwing balls left and right. It looks choreographed and yet completely spontaneous all at once.

McDonald keeps her students on their toes, but is always encouraging them, reminding them that they know the steps. Soon, after some introduction to the day's lesson, McDonald starts them singing again.

This time their subject is the 50 states. Starting in the northwest corner with Washington, they criss-cross their way across the map, singing down to the Southern border, then back up again. As his classmates belt their way across the nation, a boy named Carlos marks off the states on a map at the front of the room.

As they sing through the Northeast, McDonald stops them.

"Massachusetts looks like a ... ?" she calls.

"Boot!" comes the response.

By the end of the hour, McDonald's students will have sung and chanted their way through the seven continents, the five oceans, the five freedoms afforded by the First Amendment, and the three branches of government. This musical take on social studies has become a trademark of sorts for McDonald and her students. A video of her classes performing the various educational tunes serves as impressive promotion for the school on YouTube, where it has more than 1,400 views at press time.

All this singing is cute, a cynic might say, but do the students actually learn any critical or analytical skills? On this day, in between songs, the topic at hand is the Civil War era. At one point, in response to a question from McDonald, a student named Marshall explains that in the "House Divided" speech, Abraham Lincoln was comparing the nation to a house, and that if one wall was removed, the house would fall. Later, another 10-year-old student confidently references the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

As their peers speak, Nashville Prep scholars have a way to respond and engage without diverting from the respect McDonald insists they show each other. If they want to build on something a classmate has said, they excitedly roll one hand over the other — think a basketball referee's motion for a travelling violation — with their lips pursed, all but writhing in their chairs as they wait their turns. The technique works. They motion until they're called on, at which point the whole class "tracks" to them.

If they agree with what's being said, they snap their fingers with increasing emphasis, as if the miniature applause were drawing out the correct answer. Often, McDonald joins in with them.

Christina McDonald grew up in Nashville, where she attended Christ Presbyterian Academy and graduated with a degree in music education from Belmont University. Shortly after that, she moved to New York City. There she found a job at KIPP Infinity, a charter school in Harlem, one of more than a hundred in the KIPP charter school network (which includes Nashville's highly regarded KIPP Academy). She worked there with the school chorus, and as an assistant to KIPP co-founder Dave Levin.

And then, she says, Ravi Gupta brought her back.

Gupta, a Yale Law School graduate who has worked as an assistant to David Axelrod during now President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign, and as a special assistant and speechwriter to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, founded Nashville Prep in 2010. Just this week, Forbes magazine named him one of its "30 Under 30" young Americans of special note in the fields of law and policy. After asking for the names of bright young teachers who might want to start a school with him, he says, friends and colleagues urged him to talk to McDonald.

For her, it was a homecoming. But with it came a new awareness of a side of Nashville, and the world, much different from the one where she grew up.

"I saw a lot in New York by being at a charter school in Harlem," McDonald tells the Scene during a break between classes. "I had two parents that were very loving. My parents and my grandparents sacrificed so much for me to get a great education. So supportive. And I think maybe for the first time I saw a world in which not everyone had that.

"And I think it was that moment of seeing that it wasn't necessarily fair or equal. How much money people make, or where you live, or what your zip code is, does in fact matter when it comes to what school you go to. And I wanted in some way to be a part of that battle and to do what I could to change it."

As the class powers through a worksheet, McDonald will call on students — "scholars" in charter school parlance — and direct the entire class to look at them as they give their answer. "Tracking Bobby," she might say, at which point the class will turn around at once, to look their classmate in the eye as he speaks. If one of Bobby's classmates is not giving him full attention, the class will wait.

At various points throughout the class period, McDonald will do something that is anathema to the "teaching to the test" method demanded by Tennessee's TCAP dependency: She asks a question to which her students don't know the answer, but might be able to work out based on information they do know. It emboldens students to do more than just parrot answers; it encourages creative problem solving and application of skills.

"You don't know the answer to this," she says, "but I'm looking for someone to be brave." When a student volunteers, she reinforces their courage, urging them to speak up with confidence in what she calls their "college voice." In this way, she supplements the memory work in the songs and chants (which McDonald, a singer-songwriter in her free time, creates herself).

"As far as the wacky, crazy part, I think — we're here for a very long amount of time and hours and days," she says. "And I truly love doing my job, and so I feel like it's a disservice to them to call in or phone in a day. So I find that when I'm positive and excited and energetic, it's like a mirror. That's what they seem to give back to me. I think I'm also just a little wacky."

Be that as it may, a little wacky enthusiasm seems to work.

"She's really good at showing her personality in the classroom, which makes a huge difference," says Kira Walmer, a fifth-grade writing teacher at Nashville Prep. "I think that there are some teachers who might go into a teacher mode, and she really puts herself into it. Which is why the students feel so connected to her, and why they're so invested in doing well in her class — because they can tell that she cares."

Indeed, her classroom presence is exceedingly genuine. Where charter school jargon such as "scholars" or "tracking" might sound like a mouthful of reformspeak from some, McDonald is quite obviously a teacher using a method, not the other way around. Her emphasis on sitting up straight, looking peers in the eye, indulging curiosity, and engaging with respect but enthusiasm springs from a belief that these skills, perhaps as much as academic proficiency, will help her fifth-graders succeed.

That is, of course, what McDonald is paid to do — though it's hard to imagine a salary that teachers of her caliber are not outperforming. Parents who have entrusted her with their children say she does work that's far above her pay grade. One is Joyce Cole, whose fifth-grade son Marshall is in Ms. McDonald's class. She says the teacher's effect on her boy has been nothing short of remarkable. A child who always hated music, she says, Marshall now says he wants to join Ms. McDonald's chorus.

"And it's like, oh my gosh," Cole says. "The little boy that when you sang to him 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star' he told you to shut up wants to sing in a chorus."

Other parents echo her astonishment at what the singing social studies teacher has brought out of their children. Gene Smalley holds back tears as he describes the boost in self-confidence he has seen in his son Evan. Sheri Patterson describes how McDonald's persistent enthusiasm gave her and her son Kofi a reason to trust in Nashville Prep while the school was still "just words on a paper."

But it is McDonald's extra-curricular activities that leave the most indelible mark. Cole tells a story of a difficult time Marshall had when his pet turtle got sick, and eventually had to be given up. When many teachers — and even his mother, she admits — might been inclined to tell him to walk it off, she says McDonald made a point to eat lunch with him that day and even wrote him a sticky note telling him to persevere; that he would make it.

"Our kids are her kids," Smalley says. But if one story illustrates McDonald's extraordinary empathy for her students, it may be that of Tylani Hunter.

Described by her mother, Tyese Hunter, as "medically fragile," 10-year-old Tylani found herself in Vanderbilt University Children's Hospital in October for emergency stomach surgery. At one point, she coded. Her mother had to face the devastating possibility that her little girl might not make it through. Spirits fading, she sat with Tylani in the hospital's intensive care unit. Then, Tyese Hunter says, her daughter had a visitor.

Ms. McDonald came to see Tylani — not just one day, but every day, after school. Tyese, who says she has rarely if ever left her daughter's side during multiple hospital stays, was so comforted by McDonald's presence that one afternoon she even allowed herself a few minutes at a nearby Starbucks, just to breathe. When the Hunters left the ICU and moved to a hospital room for a longer stay, McDonald still came, to check on Tylani. To sing the Great Lakes and the 50 States.

Across the city, in room 250 at John Overton High School in South Nashville, there are six snakes, two legless lizards, a couple of scorpions, and several tarantulas. And as if that weren't unusual enough, there's the teacher's first instruction to his class.

"OK, get a partner," Adam Taylor says, "and get on Tweetdeck."

In an act of pure educational jiu jitsu, Taylor is using typical causes of student distraction and teacher irritation for his own purposes — redirecting technology typically used to peruse Kanye West's latest short-form missives toward a study of lipids, proteins and amino acids.

"Most teachers are telling them to get off YouTube, and get off Twitter," Taylor tells the Scene. "And so to do the opposite, it helps me make another connection with the kids. Especially when they're great educational tools anyway."

On this day he is getting his 10th grade students started on group presentations that will serve as their final exam. Each pair of students starts up a 3G Netbook, made available to the class because of a grant Taylor won. He instructs them to choose from a list of topics, which includes the aforementioned along with others such as mitochondria, eukaryotes and characteristics of life. When they've picked a topic, the students are instructed to tweet what their group will be presenting on, with the hashtag #taybio.

As the students mull their options, Taylor tells them he needs to run down the hall to make copies of the outline for their presentations. He expects them to keep working, he says, and just to make sure he'll be watching them on his smart phone by way of a camera positioned in the front right corner of the room. His students are dubious.

"Nah, you can't do that," says one skeptic.

"Oh, yeah?" Taylor says, walking over and showing students the feed streaming on his phone.

The exchange typifies the easy rapport Taylor has established with his students. In this instance, as in others, he manages to keep them in line without appearing as if he's coming down on them. And they respond to him.

As if to further prove his technological capabilities, he returns after a few minutes and tells several students who had been mingling about the classroom to stay in their seats, before leaving again to finish making copies. Minutes later, when he returns, tweets tagged #taybio have begun to appear on a projector screen at the front of the room, as the various groups submit their topics.

Their presentations will include photos, and videos of their subjects, and Taylor instructs the class to tweet information as they go, sharing what they find with their classmates as they work.

"Por qué?" says a girl near the front of the room, asking "why?" in Spanish.

"Por qué no?" he responds quickly — why not?

If giving teenagers a green light to post photos and videos for their whole class to see sounds like a train wreck waiting to happen, you'll be all the more impressed by what Taylor has accomplished in his classroom — the exercise never goes off the rails.

"That's awesome," he says to a student who calls him over to show off a video. "Tweet that for us."

As the students continue to work on the presentations, he gives them instructions about how to turn in their final work. They'll be turning it in online, he says, "so it can't be left at home."

Overton is the only school Adam Taylor knows as a teacher. After growing up in Utah, he spent time as a missionary in Taiwan. It was there that he learned Chinese, which he still speaks fluently and teaches. He began college pursuing a Chinese major and a business minor, but soon realized that he didn't like to travel. Having also spent a couple of years as a counselor at a youth camp, he says he decided to combine his passion for working with kids and his lifelong love of science, and pursue teaching.

He took courses at Iowa State University and Iowa University — his parents had moved to Iowa after he graduated from high school — but eventually came home to Utah. He finished his undergraduate studies at Brigham Young University, where he met his wife, who is originally from Nashville. With her, he came here and landed at Overton.

It was a challenge he relished. Virginia Pupo-Walker, a former faculty member at Overton and current director of family and community partnerships for Metro schools, tells the Scene that when Overton started an advisory period, Taylor asked her to assign him a group of ninth-graders who did not speak English well.

"He created a great community in his room," she said, in an email full of praise for Taylor and his work. "Advisory classes stay with the same advisor all four years, and he wanted to make sure to provide a home for those students."

Technology coupled with Taylor's readily apparent devotion to his students makes it possible for that community to extend beyond the classroom. He broadcasts each of his classes live on the Internet, allowing for students who are home sick — or for curious parents — to stay in touch with what's going on in the classroom. He has even held test review sessions, open discussions, and full classes on snow days by video.

Dr. Andrew Pellham, Overton's executive principal, says Taylor's finest quality is his "constant quest for self-improvement." By pursuing new ways to incorporate technology into the classroom, he says, Taylor has upped his game and created a model others can follow.

"We started off small," Pellham says of Taylor's embrace of social media in the classroom. "And over time, he has built trust, and he has realized that he has been a custodian and a steward of technology and opportunity in his room. So he has a sense and the realization that this is bigger than just [him] and [his] classroom. [He's] creating opportunity for lots of teachers in our school district and other school districts, by modeling best practices and by modeling responsible use.

"So what that has done is it has shown principals like myself, and also district level administrators, that teachers can be trusted to do this and do it correctly."

Pellham says Taylor's experimentation with counteracting a streak of snow days by live-streaming instruction caught the attention of people around the district. Soon, he says, Taylor was helping to facilitate meetings with teachers from around the district who teach advanced placement courses to work out a plan. In the event of another spate of cancelled classes, one teacher would provide live-streaming instruction on a particular topic to students taking that course around the district, followed the next day by another teacher for another subject.

"His use of technology goes beyond just helping to engage students in his classroom, and help them learn more effectively," says Pellham. "It has gone to blazing a trail for teachers, really, all over the country."

Whether by technology, exotic animals, or friendly back-and-forth with a student, he seems able to maintain the distance necessary to lead students effectively while earning their trust and respect.

"One of the interesting things that does transpire is as your kids become teenagers, all of a sudden as adults, you go from a position of being intelligent to being completely stupid," says Mark Lange, whose daughter Samantha is currently in one of Taylor's 11th grade science classes. "For me, when I was younger and I spent time with teens, I enjoyed the role of being able to be that cool adult that could reach out and spend time and relate and all these things. That's no longer my position in life or my role in life with my own kids, of course. But Mr. Taylor has this uncanny knack, a special gift of being able to reach out to young people and engage them."

One can simply log onto Twitter and view the evidence. On Friday, after the devastating massacre at Sandy Hook, Taylor tweeted a message to some of his students through one of his class-specific Twitter accounts.

"STUDENTS: I'm sure you have heard about the terrible shooting by now," he wrote. "If you guys ever need help, I got ur back! #tayverts #taybio"

At a place like Overton — "It's not Brentwood," Lange says, "it's 'Brenthood,' as we affectionately refer to it" — teachers like Taylor give parents more peace of mind. "It's because of teachers like Mr. Taylor that we feel comfortable sending our kids to this school," Lange says, adding that Taylor is "one of those teachers these kids don't forget."

His daughter agrees. Samantha says she had Taylor in ninth grade for biology and chose to take Invertebrates and Vertebrates this year to ensure she could be in Taylor's class again. She has set up her phone to receive notifications when Taylor tweets, so she is alerted to extra-credit opportunities and homework assignments. She also participates in Twitter chats, like the #scistu chat Taylor encouraged his students to join one recent evening.

On this occasion, starting at 8 p.m., students would discuss the topic of life on other planets with students from five schools in five different states, as well as at least 10 scientists. Taylor joined in the conversation as well, reproducing online much of what seems to make his class so successful. In one tweet, he directed students to a chart of stars closest to Earth. In another, he playfully responded to a student's suggestion that the class take a field trip to the moon.

"Agreed," he fired back. "Can you pay?"

But the unique connection between Taylor and his students shows up most in a ritual that might best be described as a confessional of sorts. At the end of each year, Taylor will ask each of his classes to divulge potentially damning information. And they do.

"Well, you know, kids are always finding ways to cheat and I always found it's fun to catch cheaters," he says. "Mostly because I like the kids to know I'm not an idiot. And so many of the kids think that we are idiots, and most of us are fairly intelligent.

"So every year I would ask the kids at the end of the school year, hey, so tell me how you cheated in my class this year. And they would share with me — and so I would share with the faculty."

The changing demographics of Nashville, and the challenges facing its school system, are major reasons why teachers of Taylor's and McDonald's skills will be crucial in years to come. While the state saw double-digit improvement in high school graduation rates from 2002 to 2009, the statistics currently facing Davidson County public schools are troubling.

On Monday, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce issued its annual education report card. While the district topped the state average in year-to-year growth, The City Paper's Andrea Zelinski reported that students in Davidson County still trail the state average and neighboring districts in reading and math.

"Last school year, 40.6 percent of students in grades three through eight were proficient in reading and language arts," Zelinski writes. "Of students in those same grade levels, 39.8 percent were proficient in math. Less than 30 percent of students who took the ACT exam scored a 21, the benchmark necessary to qualify for a lottery-funded Hope Scholarship."

Economically disadvantaged students in neighboring states such as Kentucky, Georgia, Missouri, Arkansas and North Carolina now score higher in every tested area than do poor students in Tennessee. That makes the need for first-rate teachers greater than ever, even if Tennessee school systems may not be willing to pay for them. According to the National Education Association — not a disinterested party — Tennessee teachers' salaries in 2009-10 ranked 45th in the country. At an average of $45,497, Tennessee teachers that year made just 82.5 percent of the average national salary.

"What we've got to do as a school system is figure out how to support high-performing teachers no matter what environment they're operating in, and what challenges they're up against," says newly elected Metro school board member Will Pinkston.

 "The entire year almost has been defined as an argument between traditional public schools and charter schools, and there's one camp or another camp. But the camp that has been missing so far is the teacher-quality camp. It's time for all of us to step back, take a deep breath, and recognize that no matter what kind of school we're talking about, the most important factor in driving student achievement is the quality of the teacher in the classroom."

Pinkston doesn't know Taylor, but he knows the neighborhood, the school and its situation well. He grew up just off of Nolensville Road and graduated from Overton High, and he says he was inspired in part to run for a seat on the school board because of the changing dynamic in his part of town — one of the biggest challenges the city's public schools will face in coming years.

"What has happened over the last 20 or so years," Pinkston tells the Scene, "is the school, much like the rest of South Nashville, has become almost like a mini United Nations." He describes the Nolensville Road area as not only one of the most diverse parts of the state, but perhaps the region and the country. Home to growing Hispanic, Kurdish, Somali, Sudanese and Egyptian communities (to name just a few), he says, the thoroughfare nicknamed "Nashville's Avenue of the Americas" has developed into a "bona fide international corridor."

Positioned near that corridor, Overton is the most diverse school in the city. According to Metro Nashville Public Schools officials, Overton's student population of 1,700 students is about 13 percent Asian, 25 percent Latino, 25 percent African-American and 37 percent white. As a visitor walks down the halls toward Taylor's class, literally dozens of languages and dialects bounce off the lockers, and the students have the many cultural backgrounds to match.

In 20 years' time, city officials predict, Nashville will look a lot more like present-day Overton than Overton will look like present-day Nashville.

With that incredible diversity, of course, comes opportunity and challenges alike. While the chance to grow up in such a culturally rich environment is indeed rare, much of the way we assess the public education system — from standardized testing to teacher evaluations based in part on student proficiency and the results of such testing — is based on an assumed baseline ability to read, write, and generally communicate in English.

In Nashville's public schools, the challenge is particularly apparent. While Metro schools have 8 percent of the public school students in the state, it contains 29 percent of the English Language Learners (ELLs). Pinkston says he's currently looking into the numbers, but he suspects there's a shortage of ELL-certified teachers, as well as a shortage of translators, to help navigate the myriad language barriers found in a school like Overton.

"If you have students who are having trouble reading English, then they're obviously going to have trouble taking standardized tests, and then that creates a bigger set of issues for how we measure student proficiency in the school system and how we measure student growth and student achievement," Pinkston says. "We have a whole teacher evaluation system, for example, that's based on student growth as measured by standardized testing, among other things."

Charter schools will undoubtedly shoulder more responsibility for ELL pupils as the city's student population grows. Meanwhile, the need for ELL teachers will make instructors like Taylor even more valuable in coming years. Recently, he won a grant allowing for his ELL students to do recordings in their native languages about science topics. As a result, next year he will be able to have an ELL class.

Even so, he recognizes how much hard work must be done to bring the many tongues and cultures of Nashville's sprawling immigrant communities together on common ground.

"Obviously the challenge is having the kids have their own little groups, all speaking in their own native language, and not really embracing English like I hope they would," Taylor says. "Not only because it makes it easier for me, but more importantly so they can have an increased chance of employment when they're not at school."

Therein lies the ultimate challenge that both charter and district teachers face: how to give Nashville's schoolchildren, no matter what their background, a fighting chance to reach their brightest future. Toward that goal, Nashville Prep has already posted impressive strides. Not only did a 2011-12 Stanford University study find that Nashville Prep was the state's highest-performing charter, the school had the highest fifth-grade math, science and social studies TCAP scores of all open enrollment MNPS schools in 2012, district or charter.

Back in her classroom, Christina McDonald kneels before a scholar seated in the back row. While the rest of the class has been participating, he's been slouching, disengaged. After asking him to sit up more than once, she gives him a demerit. It is a disappointment to them both, plainly, and her expression calls to mind the moldy old trope about this "hurting me more than it hurts you."

But her hushed, authoritative yet pleading tone makes it clear that when she looks at him, she doesn't just see a kid slouching through his fifth-grade class. She sees him slouching through a college course, or through the job interview that could buy a ticket out. She's not there to make him sit up straight. She's there so one day he'll want to. She's there to make him realize he can do better.

"I'm not doing this to be mean," McDonald says, moving her head occasionally to keep eye contact with him. "It's just that you're so smart, and I believe in you. You can do so well."

Later on in class, his attention begins to slip. McDonald catches his eye with a stern look. This time, though, he responds by sitting up and tracking to her once more. She immediately flashes a smile, a wide smile that's evidently just the report card he needs.

And once again, the class begins to sing.


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