Saw this little diddy (Sacred Cows and Segregation at Hume Fogg) by blogger and KIPP Nashville educator Josh Rogen and could not ignore it’s relevance to today’s education discussion in Nashville and beyond.
You see Rogen does something here that no one else is willing to do and that’s question the demographics of the crown jewel of Nashville schools – Hume Fogg Academic Magnet. The prized public school that sits squarely in the heart of downtown Nashville donned in digs befitting royalty and is an educating dynamo; one of the best in the country.
It seems like yesterday parents disgusted with the idea of this school skimming the best and brightest from other high schools attended nearly every school board meeting demanding more high quality choices — like Hume Fogg.
Fast forward a decade and the focus is almost solely on charter schools (to the detriment of the remaining 90% of students) and accusations of draining money from traditional schools, shunning English Learners and Students with Disabilities, and recreating a segregated school district.
This post was originally posted on Rogen’s blog Teach Run Eat Repeat on Sunday, April 2, 2017.
I wanted to start off this week’s blog post with a shout out for everyone who has let me know that they are reading and enjoying the blog. It means a lot to mean when you leave a comment or shoot me a text message, so thank you.
So, if you know me, you know that I love talking about school choice. As a private school kid myself, I recognize the positive impact choice made in my life, and so I’m not quick to deny choice to anyone based on race, class, socioeconomic status, etc. At the same time, my marching cry is: “agnostic on system, religious on result.” If a public school is better than a charter school for your child, that’s phenomenal. Send your child there. If a charter school is better than a public school, same idea. Send your kid there. I recognize that “better” is a sketchy term; perhaps what makes a school better for your child is not standardized test results but arts programs or a different discipline system. That’s fine. You should have the choice to do that. Historically, rich people have used private schools as a school choice mechanism, and so I’m down with extending that to people who don’t have the means to afford an MBA, or a USN, or a Hawken.
But with public schools, “agnostic on system, religious on result” does have certain caveats. The biggest one is related to discrimination and segregation. I am firmly opposed to any school that claims to get a phenomenal result for its children while at the same time being discriminatory. To me, that’s malpractice, and it’s not something a public system should support.
All of this brings me to the number forty-nine best public school in the country, located right in the heart of downtown Nashville: Hume Fogg.
I was inspired to write about Hume Fogg when a school board member promoted the school as an example of how public education in Nashville works. Additionally, the school board member compared results at KIPP Nashville, the charter that I work at, to the results at Hume Fogg. This board member used the difference in results to claim that charter schools aren’t worth the investment. But while this comparison to charter schools inspired the blog post, that is not what this blog post is really about.
I want to introduce you to Hume Fogg.
Hume Fogg is an exceptional public magnet high school located in the heart of Downtown Nashville. It is, literally, housed in a castle. Walking through the hallways has a distinctly private school feel to it, with kids sitting, studying, and being given autonomy that is not common in many high schools across the district. In terms of results, none in MNPS surpass it. HFHS students average a 27 on the ACT, and it has a whole host of alumni who have been successful in any field you can imagine. While it’s recent TVAAS growth numbers are not blowing the roof off, they can perhaps be excused by the fact that the vast majority up students who attend are already in the upper quartile for achievement. Growth for the highest students does look different than those who are less-skilled.
If these numbers are shockingly high, let’s quell the excitement for a second.
HFHS is an academic magnet, which means that it, unlike charter schools in Nashville, has an entry requirement. In order to even apply to HFHS, students must hit a certain percentage on both their math and reading standardized tests at the end of their eighth grade year. Theoretically, no student is entering Hume Fogg behind in reading or math. And so, even the strongest advocates at HFHS have to admit that their high standardized test numbers should be viewed with at least a hint of skepticism, and comparisons to local publics or charters are, off the bat, inappropriate.
Let’s jump back for a second and review a bit of magnet school history. Why did they start? Why do they endure? Have their values changed over time, and if so, why?
So we should start with the first question. Why did they start? The answer is either exceedingly simple or more complex. The exceedingly simple answer first: parents were unhappy with the choice offered to them by the public school system and wanted another free and public choice. Magnet schools marketed themselves via hocus-pocus educational methods and claimed, many times correctly, that their schools were harder and led to better results for kids.
But a deeper dive here reveals that parent dissatisfaction with public schools was largely driven by fear of desegregation. After the courts ordered that public schools integrate, a great many white families decided that it was time to up and leave their public school district for another, whiter, district. The courts and public school administrators identified this “white flight” as an essentially democratic problem; if white families would flee one diverse public system for a non-diverse system, schools would not quickly and probably never fully desegregate. Thus, public school administrators needed to find a solution to “stem the tide” of white flight. (Of course, our public school systems are now quite segregated, but I digress).
Magnet schools emerged as a promising way to keep white families in more diverse districts and to less controversially integrate public schools. A magnet school could attract white families by offering a rigorous, unique public school experience while also admitting students of color. As Christine Rossel notes, you can just look at the names of the emerging magnet schools to get a sense of their recruitment philosophies: “The Thomas Pullham Creative and Performing Arts magnet…Copley Square International High magnet…Greenfield Montessori magnet school. ”Think of magnets as the Field of Dreams approach to desegregation: if you build a better, or at least more unique, public school, they will come (or at least not run away to the all-white suburbs).
Or, think of magnet schools as magnets. They attracted white families who were otherwise compelled the leave the district due to desegregation. They attracted black families because, well, they were halfway decent schools, which gave their child a shot at upward mobility.
Of course, if these magnets ended up being all white, or even predominantly white, we might tell a different story. We might wonder if these white families had not simply found a clever way to maintain their segregated lifestyle within their same public school system. And if, by 2017, these magnets had not reached some level of racial equivalency to their surrounding areas, we might expect some sort of uproar.
All of which brings me back to Hume Fogg, our top-100 magnet school, located in the heart of downtown, right on the bus line.
Agnostic on system, religious on result, right? If HFHS works for the students who attend it, why criticize? Well – this is where we need to check for the caveat. Is HFHS, by means of its admittance requirement, and by lack of support, discriminating against kids of color and poverty? If so, the deal is off.
Simple numbers tell the story. In Nashville, around 37% of the student population is White. At Hume Fogg, 63% of the student population is White. In Nashville, 4% of the student population is Asian. At Hume Fogg, over 8% of the student population is Asian. In Nashville 17% of the student population is Hispanic. At Hume Fogg, only 6% of the student population is Hispanic.
And now the number you really wanted. In Nashville 40.6% of the student population is Black. At Hume Fogg, 21.4%.
Yikes. But the numbers get scarier. (By the way – I am relying on StartClass for this data set).
But there’s an exculpatory thought floating in the back of your head right now, and I want to address it.
Perhaps the underrepresentation of African-American students is because there are not enough African-American students who meet the entry requirements. Possible? No. Let’s break down why. In MNPS, 40% of students are African-American, and there are about 82,000 students overall. That means there are about 33,000 African-American students in our district. Now, let’s assume an even distribution across 12 grades. That means there are about 2733 African-American students per grade. Now, let’s make one more assumption. Let’s assume that just 20% of students meet the academic requirements to even apply to Hume Fogg, much less get in. Then, you get right about 550 African-American students who are eligible, each year, to apply to Hume Fogg. Now, Hume Fogg is 577 students large, which means that for each class, in order to be representative on Nashville, they would have to convince 58 families to send their child to the top achieving, on the bus line, ticket to the top magnet school located right in the heart of our city. 58 families out of 550 is all it would take. Given that Hume Fogg is basically the Nick Saban/Urban Meyer of public schools in Nashville, 58 out of 550 seems easy. Given that the magnet down the road, MLK, seems to find and keep children of color, why can’t Hume Fogg?
But let’s assume my numbers are wrong. Let’s start with the 2733 African-American students per grade and say that rather than our very low 20% number, let’s drop it to 5%. And let’s stop right there. Would it actually be okay with you that only 5% of students were eligible to enter the lottery for this public school? That would seem to prove two things. One, our public school system is utterly failing its Black and Hispanic children and/or the admittance requirements at Hume Fogg are too high because they are so exclusionary to children of color. And when did the exclusion of children of color ever a part of the magnet school mission?
By the way, none of this stops Hume Fogg and MNPS from showing off their exemplary diversity on their website, which has 8 people of color on it and only 6 Caucasians. Hmm. This never happened.
Now let’s take another approach. Forget race. (No). But do it for a second. Let’s talk about class and income. Given the intersectionality of race and class, you can see where this is going. So let’s just go to the numbers. In Davidson County, 53.9% of students are classified as “economically disadvantaged students.” At Hume Fogg, that number is 11.4%.
Hume Fogg is exclusionary towards children living in poverty. Can we drop the mic yet?
A public school should, ideally, serve a representation of the wider district including race, class, and also students with disabilities. In Davidson County, 12.8% of students are classified as having disabilities. At Hume Fogg, 2% of students are classified as having disabilities.
Can we drop the mic yet?
Let’s switch everything up for a second. Let’s pretend that Hume-Fogg’s admittance aren’t exclusionary. Or, let’s say that they are exclusionary, but that this exclusion is strategic. By this theory, students of color who enter Hume Fogg will, by their closeness to other high-performing students, close the achievement gap. Is that happening?
In their own executive summary, the number one area of improvement: “We have managed to increase the average student composite score on the ACT to just above 27 over the last three years…. Still, we notice a gap in ACT scoring for our Black and Hispanic students.”
I’m positive there is more to get into here. Questions I’m wondering about: what is your retention rate for Black/Hispanic students throughout four years at Hume Fogg? What is your college persistence rate for Black/Hispanic students versus your White students? What is your ACT differential for students who live in poverty? How diverse is your faculty (uh oh…)? We could go on for days.
But the big one is this: why do you exist?
Do you exist to offer a choice for white parents who are uncomfortable sending their children to schools with predominantly children of color? Do you exist to exclude children who live in poverty? Do you exist because richer parents don’t trust the traditional public school systems with their children?
The answer to these questions is, obviously, yes and no. Yes, in practice. No, in theory.
So should we close Hume Fogg? Hell no. It’s a great school! It’s a top-100 in our downtown. It’s faculty and staff don’t leave every year, and they must be experts in their field given that their (white) students do so well. None of this is to attack them! The students average 27 on the ACT. Admittance is widely considered a golden ticket across the city.
But, let’s also be real about the “results” we are seeing at Hume Fogg. They are mostly for white people. And the public system has always been good at educating middle-class white people. It’s brown and black and poor children that the public school system fails, and Hume Fogg is no exception.
Moving forward, I hope a few things happen. First, I hope Hume Fogg (a) names that they have a diversity problem and (b) finds a way to address that problem. If they aren’t already, a bus going into N. and E. Nashville would probably go a long way to addressing that issue, as well as a targeted campaign in MNPS schools. If Hume Fogg is the great school that they are advertised to be, they won’t be scared of letting black and brown and poor children into their building. They also will build supports to ensure that those kids stay. I think Hume Fogg probably has great faculty, so let’s make this happen.
Last, I hope that the school board, the media, public officials, the public at large, stops holding up Hume Fogg as an example of a “good public school” right here in Nashville. It’s a good school, but it’s barely public. Comparing what Hume Fogg does to what schools in N. and E. Nashville, public and charter, are doing is at best ignorant and at worst, a lie.