Editor’s note: This story was reported in partnership with Nate Rau of the Tennessean.
The Martha O’Bryan Center surprised the East Nashville public housing project that it has served for 70 years in June 2017, when it decided to shutter its longtime preschool and day care program for low-income children.
Citing money problems and facility issues, the Martha O’Bryan Center, located in the heart of the James A. Cayce Homes, pulled the plug on the program with just a few weeks’ notice. Parents were left scrambling for a new place to send their children, and workers lost their jobs.
The organization faced more scrutiny when, after making some repairs to the building, it moved the kindergarten class from Explore, its newest charter school, into the former child care center. The new occupants are children from mostly middle-class families who do not live in Cayce.
The changes highlight the rapid evolution of the Martha O’Bryan Center, moving the century-old nonprofit from a community organization geared primarily toward providing public housing residents with safety net services to one focused on growing charter schools.
The Martha O’Bryan Center’s longtime CEO says the organization’s investment in charter schools has paid off, without hurting non-education programming.
Overall spending on non-education programs, such as eviction prevention, clinical counseling and youth job programs, has more than doubled in the last eight years, and academic results at the center’s first charter school have been excellent, according to the most recent state standardized test results. Charter school funding comes from a different bucket of money than other programs, which in some cases were cut after specific grants were lost, according to the nonprofit.
But former employees say the increased emphasis on charter schools has come at the expense of other programs and damaged the Martha O’Bryan Center’s standing in the neighborhood it has served for so long.
Martha O’Bryan, in fiscal 2016 and 2017, operated with budget deficits. As a result, former staffers say, the center cut core programs and workers were laid off or resigned, some after decades of employment.
“The mission and vision that was promoted, it was not the mission and vision anymore,” said Nina Lockert, who ran the child care center at the time of its closing. Lockert said parents felt disconnected from the nonprofit and viewed it as “not actually benefiting the community it was in.”
When Lockert began working at the nonprofit in 2016, the child care center’s enrollment already was waning, she said, and the facility was breaking down: plumbing issues, rodents, heating problems.
Cynthia Bodie, who has lived in Cayce for nine years, felt firsthand the impact of the child care center closing. After her two older daughters attended the day care, she went in August to enroll her youngest child, C’Yonna, only to discover the program no longer existed.
“I’m thinking my baby will go straight across the street to day care, and no,” Bodie said.
After scrambling to find a different day care, Bodie enrolled C’Yonna at McNeilly Center for Children, nearly 2 miles away.
Bodie said her two older children attend Explore. But she said the new focus of the nonprofit is reverberating through the neighborhood.
“Any problem you had, when I used to go up there, they used to help. … Now you go, and they’ll give you somewhere else to go to,” Bodie said.
‘We Knew The Community Was Going To Change’
Martha O’Bryan Center CEO Marsha Edwards said the nonprofit has not strayed from its mission to serve and uplift communities struggling with generational poverty.
The center’s increased focus on charter schools has generated support among its donors. And East End Prep, the center’s first charter school, with an enrollment of 76 percent black students and 52 percent economically disadvantaged students, has achieved substantially better standardized test score results than the Nashville district average for those demographics.
“I don’t think we’ve had any mission drift at all,” Edwards said, referencing the center’s longtime focus on education programs. “I think what we did do was we sat back 10 years ago and said: ‘Are we changing the trajectory in this community with after-school programs and summer camps and preschool?’
“We had to answer that: ‘No, we’re not. We have to do more.’ So that’s how we came to be a school operator.”
The Cayce Homes, where Martha O’Bryan has operated since 1948, is a densely packed cluster of low-slung subsidized apartments in East Nashville located a short walk from Nissan Stadium. But all around it, a radical transformation is underway. Once home to low-income and mostly African-American residents, in recent years East Nashville has become a magnet for families, many of whom are white, looking to buy single-family homes for half-a-million dollars or more.
Today, Cayce and its 63 acres of drab, barracks-style buildings dating to the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration are now sitting on highly valuable land.
In response, Nashville’s housing agency took the bold step of completely reimagining the complex. It calls the plan Envision Cayce. It’s a years-long, $600 million plan to demolish Cayce and rebuild it, with three times as many units, as a blend of low-income, middle-income and higher-income renters.
It’s the most ambitious transformation of public housing in Nashville since Cayce was built in 1939. It also put Martha O’Bryan at a critical crossroads.
“We knew the community was going to change,” said Daniel Smith, who worked at Martha O’Bryan in adult education for 15 years before resigning in 2015. “It almost felt inevitable.”
In other words, if Martha O’Bryan was going to survive this massive overhaul, it needed a makeover of its own. In 2015, it opened Explore, its second charter school, in response to the changing neighborhood.
The move to charter schools created a steady revenue stream. Unlike its other programs, which are dependent on fundraising and grants, charter schools come with a built-in revenue stream in the form of tax dollars from the state and local government that are attached to every student who enrolls.
But as the nonprofit shifted more toward education programs, there was, as Smith and other former employees described it, a fracture between the nonprofit and the neighborhood. A culinary training program, a class for fathers and a job training program were among those cut.
As a neighborhood, Cayce has a long fraught history of isolation and neglect: low-performing schools, high rates of violence, no grocery stores, sporadic mail delivery. Smith and other employees had spent years working with residents, trying to reassure them that they hadn’t been forgotten, at least not by Martha O’Bryan.
“And I can see that, when those programs started to dry up,” Smith said, “that the community would feel like they were being abandoned.”
Kitchen Program Shuttered; Food Service Outsourced
Among the services axed by Martha O’Bryan Center in recent years was a thriving culinary program, which prepared 1,500 meals a day for the daycare, charter schools, Meals on Wheels and other Martha O’Bryan Center clients. The program also included Second Rise Kitchen, which was a job training service for ex-offenders.
Keith Batts, the director of the program when it closed, had ties to Martha O’Bryan dating back to his childhood, when he was enrolled in day care at the center. While attending Tennessee State University, he volunteered once a week at the center, teaching young men how to tie ties and helping them with homework. After graduating from college and taking a job in Charlotte, North Carolina, he returned to Nashville to work at Martha O’Bryan. He viewed the job as a calling, a way to give back to the community.
The culinary program was cut in December 2016, leading to three staff layoffs, according to Batts.
“I was very surprised, and I didn’t really understand it,” Batts said.
After cutting the program, the nonprofit partnered with Second Harvest to provide meals.
New School Building Criticized
Anticipating the changing demographics that would result from the Envision Cayce plan, the Martha O’Bryan Center made the decision to open Explore, which is geared toward mixed-income students.
In September, the Martha O’Bryan Center finalized a complicated $28 million financing agreement with the Metro Development and Housing Agency. The housing agency has agreed to build the nonprofit a new home for Explore, right in the center of Cayce Homes. Financing for the deal includes fundraising by the nonprofit, a private loan and federal tax credits.
MDHA has touted the new school building as a centerpiece of the massive Envision Cayce overhaul. The housing authority’s chief, Jim Harbison, has called it “the glue” of the new development. In a memo to MDHA’s board chairman, Ralph Mosley, Harbison wrote that the success of breaking up the concentrated poverty within Cayce “is intrinsically linked to the new high-performing elementary school.”
But the new school building has received pushback from several leaders in the city government. Once it’s completed, it will be next door to another charter school, KIPP Kirkpatrick, which is in a rundown building.
“This neighborhood has a capacity issue in that there will be far more eligible seats than students projected over the next 10 years,” said Randy Dowell, executive director of KIPP Nashville.
The two schools serve drastically different student populations. Explore is 46 percent black and 39 percent economically disadvantaged, compared with 93 percent black and 84 percent economically disadvantaged at KIPP Kirkpatrick.
MDHA also picked Martha O’Bryan as its partner for the charter school without a formal bidding process, even though East Nashville has several charter school operators.
Melvin Black, an MDHA board member, has spoken out against the plan since its inception. “We are in the business of building housing, not schools,” Black said at a board meeting in December.
When it became clear that no formal contract or agreement had been drafted for the deal, he openly lamented the risk the agency was taking on if Martha O’Bryan couldn’t make good on its payments. “Should we move ahead on a school if we’re unsure they can repay?” Black asked in a finance committee meeting on the issue.
“We’re doing a lot of this on trust,” Harbison said at a later meeting. The deal was subsequently solidified with a contract.
Edwards described the financial health of the Martha O’Bryan Center as strong. She said difficult financial decisions — like closing the day care and pre-K and cutting community programs — come with the territory of operating a nonprofit that relies on grants and fundraising to pay its bills.
Over the past two years, Martha O’Bryan Center has operated in the red, accruing a $550,000 shortfall for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2016, and a $5,000 shortfall for the year ending June 30, 2017, according to the most recent year of its tax documents. The center has an annual budget of about $15 million.
In addition to raising $5 million for the Explore building, the school also is seeking to raise another $5 million to upgrade existing facilities.
Some of Martha O’Bryan’s major donors support the focus on charter schools.
“They are in the community and listening carefully to what they can do to help, and they are adaptable,” said Joe Cook Jr., chairman of the Judith E. & Joseph C. Cook Jr. Foundation. His organization gave Martha O’Bryan $100,000 in 2016, and continues to support it.
But the fundraising hasn’t gone as originally planned. In July, just as the housing authority began construction on the Explore school, the Martha O’Bryan Center was granted an 11-month extension on the first of its three payments totaling $5 million to MDHA.
Edwards said the extension was necessary to match up the fundraising effort with the timeline for the school’s construction. She said it is difficult to ask donors for money for a project that hasn’t begun.
But Black, as well as other skeptics, such as Metro Councilman John Cooper, worry that the extension could be a harbinger of what’s to come.
“If there is a failure on the financial part (of Martha O’Bryan), then MDHA is going to have to step in and make whole the transaction,” Cooper said, referring to the debt MDHA took on to build the school.
Cooper also worries about what building a new school across the field from an old school signals to the longtime residents of Cayce.
“That’s probably the big concern,” Cooper said. “Is it just an amenity for gentrification?”
Nashville school board member Christiane Buggs, who represents the East Nashville area but was not serving on the board when Explore was approved, said in the future the school board needs more specifics about where charter schools plan to be located.
“The board has to admit that we dropped the ball on this,” Buggs said.
‘Education Is The Pathway Out Of Poverty’
With construction of the new Explore school underway, the project is moving full steam ahead.
At the housing authority’s board meeting in late September, Black used the moment as a chance to express his dismay one last time.
“I’m still the lone ranger against this development,” Black said, shaking his head.
Harbison pushed back. “There is a long history here,” he said. “Education is the pathway out of poverty.”
Edwards agreed that education is central to helping poor residents in the neighborhood. She concedes, though, that Martha O’Bryan does need to be more present in the community to make a difference.
‘What we need to show is that it doesn’t matter who moves into this neighborhood,” Edwards said. “We are still here for the original residents.”