As a civil rights attorney for the Tennessee Fair Housing Council, I have seen time and again how peoples’ circumstances can either open doors or close them. If you’re born in the right part of town and the right income bracket, then the world’s your oyster, but if your situation is less fortunate, opportunities can be severely limited.
Just as this is true for housing and neighborhoods, it is also true for education. In many historically underserved communities, families feel trapped in underperforming public schools, and their children simply don’t have the same smoothly paved pathway to opportunity that may be available to kids in wealthier communities.
My children's experiences
When I moved to Nashville from Chicago a decade ago and began exploring public schools for my kids, I chose a metro public school in our neighborhood, one that was close enough for us to walk to and that had a strong reputation. And the school was fine, but not great. We gave it a few years, but by the time my son reached fourth grade, I recognized that he wasn’t being challenged. His test scores had started backsliding and he just wasn’t growing the way I knew he could. I’d had enough.
My daughter is a few years younger, and I chose to enroll her at Nashville Classical Charter School, a public charter school in East Nashville. The school had earned an impressive reputation for student achievement and parent satisfaction, I liked the diversity among the faculty and student body, and I was especially appreciative of the way NCCS prioritized outreach to families in underserved communities.
My daughter immediately loved NCCS. She made friends from different backgrounds and got so excited about learning. I was particularly grateful for the steps NCCS took early in the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure kids didn’t fall behind. Unlike my son, who was lucky to get two hours of remote instruction a day from his school, my daughter was spending between four and six hours in the virtual classroom, with additional quiet time for assignments. That made a huge difference in keeping her mind active, while my son was bored.
Seeing my daughter blossom made it an easy decision to enroll my son at NCCS in fall 2020, and within a few months, his test scores jumped by more than 20 points. Not only that, but he also began to enjoy reading, which was something we’d always struggled with at home. His teachers at NCCS have a fantastic program where they tailor the reading options to the child, helping students find books they actually want to read. That made a world of difference for our family.
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NCCS believes in holding students to high standards because they know kids will rise to the occasion. As my daughter once told me, “It doesn’t matter if I don’t get it right the first time, I’ll just keep doing it and try harder until I get it.” That’s the attitude they encourage at NCCS, and it’s also a pretty great life lesson to learn at 5 years old.
My son went to NCCS for only a year before we enrolled him at Head Middle Magnet School. I would have loved for him to stay at NCCS through eighth grade, but we wanted him to experience the STEM and robotics pathways available at the magnet school. It seemed like the right fit for his abilities and interests (he’s always been a LEGO kid, fascinated with building and engineering). Meanwhile, my daughter is still excelling at NCCS, and I’m already planning for my youngest to attend the West Nashville branch of Nashville Classical that’s opening this year.
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All children should get the education they deserve
I’m very fortunate to have had the time and support to research school options and select the schools that work for my kids. I know that. And I want to share my story with other parents in our community who may be considering whether their child is getting the education they deserve.
No matter their background or circumstance, every single child in our community should have access to a quality public school. If their zoned school isn’t the right fit to help them learn and grow, parents should be empowered to choose a different school that is. It comes as no surprise to me that parents across the state agree public school options are important; a recent survey confirms 9 in 10 Tennessee parents want more public education options, and more than three-quarters want the opportunity to send their children to any public school, not just the school to which they’re zoned.
Just like housing, it’s clear to me that education is a civil rights issue. As we recognize National School Choice Week, I hope more parents will exercise their right to choose the school they want for their child to have the best opportunity — academically, and in life.
Julie Yriart Choppin serves as interim executive director of the Tennessee Fair Housing Council.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Parents should be able to choose school that best fits their children