Tucked away on a leafy side street in East Nashville, Lockeland Elementary Design Center is ranked the fourth-best in the district. But in recent years, the student body at Lockeland has gone from half African-American to nearly all white. It’s a shift so stark that a group of parents say the school must do something to change it.
Parents like Brandy Berry Fenderson, whose daughter, Ella, is a third grader.
Fenderson, who is white, had moved into the neighborhood in 2011. She was drawn to the school for its stellar academics, its small size and how close it was to their new home. At that point, Lockeland was nearly a third African-American.
That also appealed to Fenderson since Ella is biracial. “We definitely wanted her to have a more diverse setting for education,” Fenderson says.
But the year before Ella entered kindergarten, Fenderson went on a tour of the school and noticed something.
“Oh wow,” Fenderson says, recalling the tour. “This is a lot different than what we were expecting.”
In 2004, the year Lockeland opened in its current form, transitioning from a zoned neighborhood school to one with a lottery system, it was 49 percent African-American, 48 percent white and 1 percent Hispanic. And, in fact, it’s goal was to be as integrated as possible. Nashville Mayor David Briley, a Metro Council member at the time, was instrumental in its creation.
But the area was already beginning to gentrify, and as Lockeland’s test scores rose and word spread of this hidden East Nashville gem, people — mainly white people — flocked to its priority zone, boosting their chances of winning the school’s lottery.
They enrolled their kids, then their kids’ siblings. The school stopped doing much outreach since its waiting list was already long. And by the year Ella enrolled, in 2015, African-American students had dropped to just 12 percent of the student body. She was one of only two students of color in her class.
“And then in the next school year, she was the only one in her classroom of color,” Fenderson recalls.
This year, preliminary data show the demographics are even more glaring. Lockeland is 88 percent white, 7 percent African American and 2 percent Hispanic.
That’s in spite of the fact that African-American children still make up nearly two-thirds of elementary-age students in the school’s priority zone. A fact not lost on Fenderson, who worked with some of them at her job for a literacy nonprofit in the neighborhood.
What she saw when she’d pick Ella up from school and head back to work nagged at her in ways she just couldn’t shake.
“We would drive one mile down Woodland Street to my work from her school, and we would go from a world of white children to a world of black children. One mile apart, but not attending the same school.”
At Warner Elementary, Lockeland’s lower performing sibling school, 92 percent of students are African-American. And many parents, like NauKeshia Washington, whose 8-year-old son Tyrell attends Warner, didn’t even know that Lockeland was an option.
“I actually didn’t choose Warner. It was the school that was in my zone,” she says.
It’s true, Tyrell was guaranteed a spot at Warner, as his zoned neighborhood school. But Washington lives in Lockeland’s priority zone, which gives her a great chance of getting in. A fact she hadn’t realized.
It’s strange, she says, because the neighborhood’s charter schools are always trying to recruit her kids.
“They have commercials, you get letters, you get postcards,” Washington says. “You get all that information to be aware of these schools.”
But for Lockeland, she adds, “I don’t remember getting any kind of mail or postcard, even a phone call. Some schools have called me. I’ve never gotten any of that, so I didn’t know.”
The other barrier is the apparent lack of transportation. When Washington puts her address into the Metro Schools website that tells parents what schools they are zoned for, Lockeland does come up below Warner under “school options.” But next to it a line explains: “no transportation.”
Metro Schools says in the past they scheduled a bus to help nearby families get to school, but it must be requested.
This lack of outreach worried another Lockeland parent, Heather Wood. Her son had already noticed the difference between his new kindergarten class and his pre-kindergarten class. And, like children do, he explained it to his mother in the frankest of terms.
“‘Back at my pre-K there were like some brown people and some pink people. And now it’s almost all pink people like me,'” Wood says, imitating her son. “And I am sort of like inwardly dying.”
Like Fenderson, Wood couldn’t ignore what her son was telling her.
“I am afraid that our school is following a national trend of schools quietly re-segregating, with a lot of people throwing their hands up and saying, ‘That’s unfortunate but there’s nothing I can do about it,'” Wood says.
Which is why in March, Wood and Fenderson and a few other parents drafted a letter to Lockeland’s principal, Christie Lewis. It was signed by 57 parents and read, in part, that they were “concerned with the school’s growing lack of racial and socioeconomic diversity.” They wanted to meet to discuss.
It was a bold move. And Lewis did agree to meet, along with a district representative—but with only one parent, as a representative of the group. They said they supported the integration efforts, but ultimately they couldn’t play favorites. It was up to the parents to make it happen.
In an email, David Kovach, the Metro Schools representative who attended the meeting, said that “while we value choice and diversity, MNPS does not target any specific race to attend any specific school.”
Lewis declined WPLN’s request for an interview.
Parents then asked if the district would send out a flyer to help recruit families of color. It declined, but said parents could distribute their own. Which is exactly what they’re doing.
One of the parents pushing for change is Willie Sims. Sims is black and his daughter attends Lockeland. He was quite content with the school until a day last fall when he volunteered to chaperone a class field trip.
“I go outside to get on the bus and I look around at all the kindergarten kids and I say, ‘Damn, is she the only black kid in the kindergarten?'” Sims says.
It appeared she was. And it troubled him. But honestly, he felt like pushing for more diversity wasn’t his battle. Let the white parents take care of it, he thought. “We are your diversity. You want some more, make it shake,” Sims recalls thinking at the time. Except he couldn’t let it go. He eventually called Wood, told her he wanted to help.
But now he’s wondering whether Lockeland is really the best school for his daughter. He worries how she feels being such a minority at the school.
“Ain’t that terrible to have to contemplate?” Sims says. “I am going to have to take my daughter out of one of the best schools in the city just because she’s black?”
And he’s unsure if parents alone can reverse the demographic trend. This school year, Lockeland admitted 57 kids from the neighborhood into the kindergarten class. Four of them were black, and another four were Hispanic.