Feb 27 2013
12:08 pm

Our recent conversation about potentially moving KCS headquarters veered off-topic, first to the subject of KCS capital spending, then to the subject of school choice. I found the increasing dissonance among us frustrating, so here’s my second stab at explaining--in its own thread--why I think the Board of Education has to completely rethink its strategy on that last topic, school choice.

Since the time the BoE created its first magnet schools in the early nineties, through the period in which first the L&N STEM school opened then the West High IB program was created, the BoE’s school choice strategy can be characterized as a “come to us” approach, as opposed to a strategy focused on creating school choice at the neighborhood level.

Families weighing their school choice options, then, have necessarily weighed the pluses these magnet schools offer against the minuses entailed in transferring their students to any cross-town school.

The pluses, of course, have been primarily related to curricula that are, to varying degrees, more desirable to them. The minuses, though, have included working cross-town commutes into their busy schedules (or possibly asking their students to lose time daily to longer bus commutes) and, in particular, forfeiting the familiarity and support a neighborhood’s parents and children build with one another over time, in the course of supporting the neighborhood’s schools, as well as its tee ball teams and Scout troops and afterschool programs.

Some parents may attach less weight to that last consideration than others and people who are not parents may even dismiss it out of hand as “provincial,” but it isn’t. In my own family, for example, I reflect on the value I attached to having known for a decade the first two young men my daughter dated on becoming a teen—and I knew their siblings and their parents well, too. Similarly, I reflect on the value I now place on my son having chosen his college roommate in high school, the two boys having been joined at the hip for a decade. I could cite more examples, but suffice to say that many parents take great comfort in the ability of neighborhood schools to foster such close relationships among students and parents alike—to create that “village” it takes to raise a child--especially as their children enter that potentially rocky era, adolescence.

Now, though, comes this local and state and national discourse on school choice of a different sort, introducing charter schools and likely private school vouchers as new options.

We have thoroughly vetted on this blog the minuses these new options entail--especially in terms of the new schools’ lost transparency and lost accountability to parents and taxpayers--but we have failed to acknowledge that these new options are also likely to offer to families a brand of school choice that has not previously been available locally, namely school choice at the neighborhood level.

All that to say this: If and when pending legislation to establish a state charter authorizer and to mandate co-location of charters in school facilities less than 70% occupied should result in, say, that STEM charter school within Karns High we mulled, many families finally offered a school choice of that sort at the neighborhood level would gleefully jump on board.

What, then, are the ramifications of this pending result to the BoE’s longstanding “come to us” strategy for extending school choice?

Given the value so many families place on having desirable neighborhood schools, I think the BoE’s “come to us” magnet school locations will struggle to even maintain, much less grow, student enrollment and I think the BoE will have to hastily abandon that strategy in favor of one better able to compete for students.

And I think we need to discuss it. Can we?

Treehouse's picture

Neighborhood schools?

You assume there are neighborhood schools but there aren't many, especially at the middle and high school level. For example, South Doyle High School is far away from many of the students that attend. And I understand students from East Knoxville are bused to South Doyle Middle. I agree neighborhood schools are good but the BOE isn't promoting those because of money. Our choices are limited by where we live unless we can access magnets. And I don't think vouchers or for-profit charter schools are the answer.

Tamara Shepherd's picture


Of course, every school serves a neighborhood, large or small, and people in that neighborhood become better acquainted over time.

WRT South-Doyle High, which we found in a previous conversation to be just 58% occupied, it would appear that that school is as likely a location for some public school choice co-tenant as is the 59% occupied Karns High?

No, it doesn't immediately appear that that location is as good a fit for a STEM school co-tenant as Karns High looks to be, but some other choice option?

What I'm suggesting is that if the BoE doesn't move to create public school choice options in locations like Karns and South-Doyle, it sure does look like a charter organization soon will.

If only the BoE could do this, we could close the door on any less transparent charter organization poised to do it, even as we succeed in helping families in the Karns or South-Doyle school communities exercise school choice without sacrificing their connectedness.

Tamara Shepherd's picture


Not to beat a dead horse with this hypothetical "STEM school at Karns High," but because that's where we left off in the other thread and because we were failing to understand one another...

Betty, you said you couldn't fathom why anyone would choose to attend Karns High, located in an admittedly dismal looking industrial park, rather than the lovely L&N.

However, consider how many families live in NW Knox County precisely because they work for those Oak Ridge employers--ORNL, ORAU, Battelle--who would be likely STEM school partners. In this hypothetical example, I see Karns-area parents maybe better postioned than L&N's parents to foster those mentor/mentee relationships important to such a school's success. I thereore suspect these parents would attach less weight to consideratios like whether the Karns school building was as attractive as is the L&N and more weight to how they, as parents, could contribute to the school's success.

Rachel,you pointed out that students attending any STEM school located within Karns High couldn't possibly walk the relatively short but unsafe distance to the nearby Pellissippi Main campus.

However, county residents that far out aren't accustomed to being able to walk much of anywhere. I therefore suspect Karns-area parents would have virtually no concern that the school's location would necessitate students reaching its higher ed partner via shuttle van or bus.

Those are just two examples, then, in which residents in a given neighborhood are likely to weigh a school's amenities differenty than might people who don't live in that same neighborhood.

It's an example, too, of why, as it works to expand school choice, the BoE needs a clearer understanding of what school amenities both physical and cultural a given neighborhood most values.

Pickens's picture

Why don't you run for school

Why don't you run for school board?

Rachel's picture

Tamara, I have trouble


I have trouble talking with you about "the neighborhood level" when you are hell bent on eliminating true neighborhood elementary schools (and yes, I understand the efficiency of size arguments).

I think your definition of "neighborhood" is different from mine.

Tamara Shepherd's picture


I think your definition of "neighborhood" is different from mine.

We know it is, Rachel, but like I was saying to Tree, "every school serves a neighborhood, large or small."

For the purposes of this conversation, the size of that neighborhood isn't relevant.

What I'm mulling is how the BoE can go about "competing with," as the reformers say, this likely explosion of less than palatable school choice options charters are poised to offer local families.

It would seem that the BoE will need to start thinking in terms of themselves creating those co-tenants in underutilized facilities, before the charters get the jump on them?

I think that many families would prefer to exercise choice of this sort within their own neighborhoods, large or small.

fischbobber's picture


Karns' problems stem from the housing collapse and poor zoning lines. If Powell has overcrowding issues, there is an obvious solution to both problems.

A.E. needs a creative makeover, although I like what they're doing with the theatre department.

Tamara Shepherd's picture


Bob, Karns' problem is due to the fact that the BoE pulled 969 students out of the school in fall of 2008 to populate HVA.

What happened is that they had built a 14-classroom addition to Karns almost immediately before they broke ground on HVA and the area didn't need both capital projects.

Powell was qute overcrowded in the 2008-2009 school year immediately following that rezoning, primarily because of the volume of "grandfathered" students to have remained in the school, but that problem has diminished as those kids have begun graduating in the last few years.

And rezoning to address concerns of building capacity is extremely contentious. Parents and the BoE alike sure prefer to avoid it.

Bbeanster's picture

This is so screwy and boring,

This is so screwy and boring, I'm going to bow out.

Tamara Shepherd's picture


Well, Miss Congeniality, it's necessary to think about how KCS should be responding to--hopefully precluding--some of these many changes pending legislation appears poised to thrust on the school system.

Take a nap and we'll wake you up later.

CathyMcCaughan's picture

The L&N STEM Academy is not

The L&N STEM Academy is not going anywhere. Find a different dead horse to beat.

Tamara Shepherd's picture


Cathy, I'm aware that the L&N STEM Academy isn't going anywhere.

This conversation is one in which I'd hoped we could talk about ways the BoE can contend with an anticipated onslaught of choice options tendered by the charter school and voucher communities, so that maybe the BoE can maintain some local control over local schools.

Any thoughts on that subject?

CathyMcCaughan's picture

The moneyed families in Green

The moneyed families in Green Hills and the racists in Memphis are singing so loudly because they know that TN has fully jumped off the corporate education deform movement cliff. We are too far gone to stop until we crash at the bottom with overflowing privatized prisons and an entire generation of unemployable students who can't apply any of the information that they memorized to fill in the right circle on the scan sheet.

TN has handed Michelle 'hunger and homelessness aren't my problem' Rhee and Kevin 'I will punish the students if the school boards disagree with me' Huffman the keys to the state and nothing any of us do can change that. TN is fully aware of the segregation that is going to happen and despite Scalia's 'moved past it' arguments, the children and students who will suffer the most are minorities.

Your laser focus on blaming the Knox County School Board is as misguided as your thinking that they can stop this. Feeding complaints to the parent trigger fans will only accelerate the fall. We need to support our public schools, teachers and students by recognizing and replicating what is good. Start by looking up from spreadsheets and talking to the staff at the schools that you keep criticizing. Yes, I know that you think you aren't complaining about the school system not putting a STEM, IB and performing arts program in every single community. You are.

fischbobber's picture



Tamara Shepherd's picture


Your laser focus on blaming the Knox County School Board is as misguided as your thinking that they can stop this.

They must stop this. WE must stop this.

The first step in stopping it is identifying where the school system is vulnerable to being taken over by charters or private school providers and acting to create the truly public school choices with a chance of competing against them.

I'm on board with the effort and you're sorely needed.

Sticking our heads in the sand, though, isn't helpful.

Tamara Shepherd's picture


Start by looking up from spreadsheets and talking to the staff at the schools that you keep criticizing.

I don't know what you mean here. What schools have I criticized?

Tamara Shepherd's picture


Just as the half-empty South-Doyle High and especially Karns High appear to be low-hanging fruit for any charter organization wanting to create a STEM or other themed high school, so does the Gibbs community appear to be low-hanging fruit for any charter organization (or voucher-hungry private school operator) wanting to create a middle school.

Gibbs, you likely know, lacks its own middle school and instead busses students a long distance to Holston Middle.

Around 2005-ish, prior to the time the board began construction on a new Gibbs Elementary, former BoE member Cindy Buttry suggested a K-8 school there, instead. Two birds with one stone?

She didn't get any traction with the idea, though, possibly due to an unspoken concern other board members had for the damage that would be done to Holston Middle's student demographic, should Gibbs-area students cease being bussed there.

In any event, the BoE is probably prudent to create some truly public school option in this community, too, so that they rather than a charter or a private school may serve its students.

What type of school facility might already be in existence in Gibbs for the purpose, though, is harder to imagine--at least for those of us who don't know the lay of their land.

Pam Strickland's picture

I'm with Rachel, Bean, and

I'm with Rachel, Bean, and Cathy on this one. Especially Cathy.

Tamara Shepherd's picture


Then you're excused to go take a nap, too.

Some progressive intent on maintainig local control of truly public schools will be along shortly.

I looked in at Brian's Blog and they're not over there.

Tamara Shepherd's picture


Seriously, Pam, Cathy's suggestion is to replicate what's workng, but what I'm saying is that we can't even count on what's working continuing to work in this new enviroment that's to arise in the coming year or two.

Again, using the L&N STEM school as an example--which I am NOT criticizing in any regard besides its proximity to the students apparently attending it--the school will lose its luster when charter organizations and private school providers start popping up in neighborhoods all across the county.

All I'm saying is that fewer families are going to be willing to commute cross-county to exercise school choice when it becomes available to them closer to home, so the BoE has to be positioned to better offer school choice where they live.

Can we brainstorm as to how, for Pete's sake?

AnonymousOne's picture

"L&N STEM school as an

"L&N STEM school as an example"

I remember STEM school teachers bragging on the news how they were teaching math by having students make paper airplanes and using them to measure distance and time of flight and calculate speed with those measurements.

That's fine, but I was doing that as a fifth grade teacher in Knox County schools ten years ago.

Plus we were tracking hurricanes learning lattitudes and longitudes and learning about weather and climate.

I see school choice as being a played out issue among conservatives. There are bigger problems.

But the school choicers have gotten liberals to take notice and worry. And that's what they wanted.

Tamara Shepherd's picture


Actually, my son has two friends here in Powell who attend the school and they and their parents all rave about the curriculum (also how its delivered).

As you see, my worry isn't for any substandard curriculum at the L&N or anywhere else, really.

It's for how KCS might respond to this anticipated wave of charters and private schools everywhere.

Did you teach only in Knox County? Did you teach anywhere else where possibly the school system found creative ways to offer more pubic school choice?

AnonymousOne's picture

Union and Jefferson. And at

Union and Jefferson.

And at that time school choice was unavailable. Currently, I don't know, but I doubt it.

I think your mention of Powell highlights the importance of having qualified teahers who are allowed enough freedom to teach, without the obsessive focus on testing.

I'm sure there are other examples throughout the school system.

The problem, as I see it, is that BOEs and Central Offices across the country are 1) more interested in the "next big thing" promoted by the "next big entity" (ex. Washington, Nashville, some lobbying group). 2) There are too few successful teachers promoted into the Central Office. Most of the time, they may have 5 years experience while trying to curry favor with the bureaucrats to get that Central Office position.

And too many of those residing in Central Office, where they are SUPPOSED to be there to support the classroom teachers, are nothing but self-seekers and weak-sisters.

Those who have spent some time in the classroom have often not taught in the last 20 years, and are therefore ignorant of the current classroom environment.

One of the most effective teachers I remember having was Tony Norman, and his teaching record shows it.

His absence in Central Office, and his criticism of it speaks volumes.

Treehouse's picture

Hey Cathy


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