But What are the Schools Like?

The center-city school zoning conundrum

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Commentary

by Matt Edens

"Every neighborhood,â” as a Fourth and Gill friend of mine is fond of saying, â“is zoned for Webb.â” It's a jest, mostly, to make light of the oft-repeated concern when someone explores the possibility of purchasing a home in one of Knoxville's historic center city neighborhoods. The question, â“But what are the schools like?,â” is one most sellers would rather skip.  

Maynard, Beaumont, Christenberry, Vine, Austin/East and Fultonâ"when it comes to test scores and other measures, all are among the lowest performers within Knox County. That's not intended as a slight. It is a simple, sad statement of fact.

I don't blame the schools themselves, or the teachers, or the students; the odds, after all, are against them. Compared to the county's highest performers (largely, but not limited to, suburbia) the student body at all these inner-city schools is disproportionately what the state classifies as â“economically disadvantaged,â” qualifying for a free or reduced price lunch.

Skim through the state's online â“Report Cardâ” and the numbers are startling. Among the inner-city schools I mentioned above, according to 2006 data, the number of economically disadvantaged students ranges from 74 percent at Fulton to 97.4 percent at Vine. Vine's percentage is perhaps even more interesting considering it houses Knox County's only middle school magnet program aimed at drawing students county-wide. (Beaumont, with 87 percent of its students classified as economically disadvantaged, is the only one of the county's five magnet schools to manage less than 90 percent.)   

Doubly depressing is how those percentages tend to track with school performance. None of the schools with more than three-quarters of its students economically disadvantaged scored above a C in any of the academic categories the state tracks. Ds and Fs dominate. Meanwhile, an overwhelming majority of the As were earned by schools where the disadvantaged demographic runs under 10 percent.

It's a chicken or egg argument, really, whether the schools score low because they are predominantly poor kids or if students are predominantly impoverished because the schools are poor performing. Either way, it seems unlikely those numbers will change dramatically in the near future. Programs such as Project Grad may have produced some improvementsâ"or not, depending on whom you askâ"but considering the scant success of the specialized magnet curriculum at attracting middle-income students, I suspect achieving bare proficiency in basic skills isn't going to attract any more. The school system itself admitted as much, when it rezoned downtown's new lofts from nearby Green Magnet, also a Project Grad school, to Sequoyah Elementary.

Unlike many of the six or so elementary schools geographically closer to downtown, Sequoyah is neither a magnet nor a Project Grad participant. But, with only 9.3 percent of its students economically disadvantaged, Sequoyah consistently has some of the system's highest test scores.

The gesture was, to some extent, a token one. So far, few families with kids have settled downtown. The same isn't quite as true of neighborhoods such as Old North, Fourth and Gill and elsewhere. They are also, contrary to conventional wisdom, often settling to stay. It's only anecdotal evidence, but I know numerous families who, after the birth of their first or second child have, rather than move out, moved up to a larger home in the neighborhood (and, despite the poor performing schools, are paying a premium to do so).  

They are, however, largely following the signal the school system sent with the downtown rezoning. The influx of middle- and upper-income households, however, has so far had little if any impact on the school demographics. For instance, the student body of Whittle Springs Middle, whose zone includes much of Fourth and Gill and Old North as well as the relatively middle-class areas of Emoriland/Fairmont and North Hills, tops the scale with an astounding 99.1 percent of its students economically disadvantaged. More than a decade into the revitalization of sizeable chunks of inner-city Knoxville, the area's schools show little result. And that quip about â“all neighborhoods zoned for Webbâ” is certainly a factor.   While it may not be Webb, way off in deep West Knox County, many of the parents I know in center-city Knoxville do send their kids to private school.

Despite the fact that quarter-million dollar homes are becoming a common sight in neighborhoods such as Fourth and Gill, in the saddest sort of Catch-22, Knoxville's center-city public schools are failing to attract the non-disadvantaged students they desperately need.

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