When I was in fourth grade at an elementary school in Nashville, Tennessee, my teacher held a career day, where my classmates and I were to come dressed for the jobs we hoped one day to hold. I knew exactly what I wanted to be: President of the United States. At home, I pulled out my Easter suit, donned a patriotic red tie, and prepared to tell my teacher and my fellow students about my dreams.
When I got to school, I scanned my classmates’ outfits. I saw a McDonald’s polo and what appeared to be some kind of sanitation worker uniform. When those students declared their intentions, my teacher praised them.
“Oh, good for you, you want to feed your community!”
“Oh, wonderful, you want to clean up your neighborhood.”
When she got to me and I told the room of my desire to become president, the class laughed — and so did my teacher. My teacher even told me there would never be a Black president in my lifetime.
Overt racism like this is, I hope, less prominent in today’s public-school classrooms than it was 30 years ago in my own — if for no other reason than no one can ever again claim that a Black person can’t become president of our country. But in the wake of the brutal killing of George Floyd and countless other Black people at the hands of police officers, the nation seems to be awakening to the reality that systemic racism — a kind of racism that is harder to pinpoint and slower to change — remains prevalent in nearly all of our most fundamental institutions: health care, housing, government and education, to name a few.
“… many Black families are choosing charter schools, where achievement gaps between Black and white students are closing, and longstanding systemic racism is being dismantled by an underlying belief that all children from all backgrounds are deserving and capable of academic success.”
Here in Nashville, 1 in every 5 Black elementary and middle school students attending district schools is on grade-level in reading and math. Now, compare that to the academic achievement of white students in the same schools, where closer to half of students are on grade-level. This disparity not only undermines our students’ futures, it feeds into the false narrative on which racism is built — that somehow we are lesser. We will never dismantle systems of oppression and white supremacy as long as achievement gaps persist.
But what if I told you that in Nashville, we have something that’s been chipping away at educational inequities and changing the lives of Black and Brown children in our city? We have a handful of public schools getting better results for students of color and students from low-income families — schools in which the academic success of students of color is the rule, not the exception.
What makes them different? They’re public charter schools, which in Tennessee are all run by nonprofits. Metro Nashville Public Schools, a bureaucratic institution, runs the city’s traditional public schools. For example, the success rate of economically disadvantaged students, who make up the majority of students enrolled in public charter schools, is higher than that of their peers in district-managed schools by 50 percent in English language arts, 83 percent in math and 81 percent in social studies.
After decades of having no choice but to attend abysmally performing neighborhood schools — like the one in which my presidential hopes were dashed at a tender young age — many Black families are choosing charter schools, where achievement gaps between Black and white students are closing, and longstanding systemic racism is being dismantled by an underlying belief that all children from all backgrounds are deserving and capable of academic success.
When my first child was born, my instinct, like that of many Nashvillians, was to move my family to Franklin, the affluent suburb to our south, as soon as she was school-aged, where the schools are “better.”
The reality? I don’t have Franklin money, so we stayed put. As I went on to have four more children, I remained on the lookout for better school options for my growing family. It wasn’t until my youngest son was ready for elementary school that I hit a home run and found Purpose Preparatory Academy in North Nashville.
Charter schools like Purpose Prep have the ability to be responsive to the unique needs of the kids in their school. I’ve seen this firsthand with my youngest son, who has autism. When my son, a founding scholar at Purpose Prep, started kindergarten, he was essentially nonverbal, and his doctors prepared my wife and me for a future in which he would likely live with us the rest of his life. Now, four years later, he can read, he is wildly opinionated and no one questions his independence. If his teachers find that a certain teaching method isn’t working, they can shift gears.
My son was one of Purpose Prep’s very first students in special education, and his teachers immediately swooped in with physical therapy, occupational therapy and thorough academic support. Several of his teachers even came to our house to read to him. Through it all, I was always a valued member of my son’s team.
In traditional district schools, teachers teach the same curriculum through a one-size-fits-all approach. They are beholden to the bureaucracy of the school district and their top-down decision-making and funding. Charter-school administrators have greater autonomy and can, for example, look for cost savings on a line item such as transportation if they see a need for an additional special-education teacher or a math coach.
In the wake of our collective national reckoning on race, communities across the country are turning to big and innovative ideas to reform police work in order to build new systems of safety and wellness resources that better meet community needs.
This is the type of innovative thinking that we need to encourage in public education — and it’s exactly what charter schools bring to the table. I am a product and proponent of public education, but racism is too pervasive a problem to think we are going to remove it from our schools through micro-improvements over decades.
Charter schools are a robust contributor to our public education ecosystem in Nashville, and in many cities across the country. But here, our leaders — many of them white progressives who themselves have chosen to not send their children to Nashville’s traditional public schools — have been so busy fighting the existence of these nonprofit-run schools that they fail to recognize that charters are doing exactly what these community leaders claim to stand for: leveling the playing field for historically underserved students.
The message from these leaders to Black parents like me is clear and all too familiar: Fighting racial injustice is a priority until it starts to make us uncomfortable or threatens the status quo.
When the status quo has failed Black people in this town for decades, why would anyone expect it to improve overnight? Students like my children don’t have time to wait.
This story about charter schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.
Tremayne Haymer is a North Nashville native with two sons who attend MNPS charter schools Purpose Prep and KIPP Academy. He is in the process of organizing an education advocacy group called P.O.W.E.R. Nashville (Parents Organized Working for an Educational Revolution).