As more than 200 people crowded into Metro's Martin Center Sept. 25, for a town-hall meeting on the future of Martin Luther King Jr. Magnet school, one thing was certain: They like it the way it is.
But as teachers, parents and students stood to share their worry about changing the makeup of MLK to cope with higher enrollment and lengthy waiting lists — much like the situation at Hume-Fogg High School and Meigs Middle Magnet — many wondered aloud why the district isn't taking the school's obviously popular model and replicating it elsewhere.
The school just west of downtown is rated one of the top 100 high schools in the country. It has garnered accolades from first lady Michelle Obama, who spoke at the school's graduation this spring. Among its unique features is that it bridges the gap from middle to high school by starting with seventh grade.
But with growing enrollment from feeder schools beginning to eat up all the open seats and block out districtwide students who apply through a lottery, MNPS Director of Schools Jesse Register suggested last month that the district eliminate MLK's seventh- and eighth-grade offerings to make room.
With a half-dozen people behind her, one parent in the town hall meeting stood at the microphone. Why, she asked Register, are we attacking the school the rest of the district should use as a model?
Register didn't offer a response at the time. But in a Q&A with education blog Tennessee Education Report this month, he said the question Nashville must face about replicating schools like MLK is, "Do we want to take our highest achieving students out of neighborhood schools and separate them into just a few academic magnets?
"I believe that is counterproductive," he continued. "Instead let's build the capacity in our zoned schools to challenge the high achievers while also serving the broad spectrum of all our students." Attempts by the Scene to reach Register for further comment were unsuccessful.
District school board members will take up how to adjust for MLK's growth later this month in a debate that some expect to touch on the district's vision for its best institutions. There are two schools of thought about establishing another school like MLK, said Jill Speering, a board member who represents a stretch of Davidson County from Inglewood up to Madison.
One is to try to make Metro's other high schools more like the magnets. "We've got IB [International Baccalaureate] classes, AP [Advanced Placement] classes," Speering says. "We're on the right path for superlative education at every high school, and that would be our main goal at this point."
The other, she says, is simply to replicate MLK's model and create more magnets. But that's a discussion she says she's willing to have.
"Investing in where the system is working is good policy for me," says school board member Elissa Kim, who represents East Nashville.
What Kim says she picked up from the parents who spoke at the meeting is they want their children to have access to advanced placement and foreign language classes. The big picture in the district shouldn't mean automatically opening more magnets across the city, she says.
"It's more about examining the specifics that are happening in that building, and what parents hold on to the most tightly," she says. "These are things they clearly want. I think that's worth exploring."
Establishing more magnet schools shouldn't be the priority, said MNPS board member Will Pinkston, whose district includes the Overton and Glencliff clusters.
"My personal view is we need to be doing everything that we can to improve existing schools versus going out and creating a bunch of new ones," Pinkston says. "I think it's an inefficient way to reform a large school system to go out and create these single entities that, while high-performing, don't address the larger systemic issues we're dealing with."
That said, the first piece of advice Pinkston says he gave to Register in the enrollment dilemma was to proceed with extreme caution.
"We don't want to get into the business of trying to fix what's not broken," he said.
Since the town hall meetings, Register has withdrawn his idea to eliminate the seventh and eighth grades — a feature many parents and community members argued was paramount to student success. Instead, he suggests the district expand the school by 10 classrooms, a project expected to cost $3.5 million.
School board members have until November to decide whether they will go along with Register's plan or take another path. In the meantime, the last parent to speak at the town hall meeting suggested a different way for the district to consider the decision:
"How would Dr. King solve this problem?"