The Nashville Public Education Foundation premiered its documentary “By Design: The Shaping of Nashville’s Public Schools” at the Belcourt Theatre on Tuesday night, showing roughly 200 city, state, school and community leaders the film, which aims to set the stage for conversations about education policy.
Pointedly, it looked to draw attention to the ways policies from the city, state and school district have shaped the landscape of education in Nashville today through a historical lens, complete with interviews from people instrumental in shaping those policies and from those who had to live with them, including desegregation policies like busing and redlining, which created lasting challenges for schools.
“The challenges that Metro Nashville Public Schools face today echo decadeslong struggles for resource equity and access to opportunity,” NPEF CEO Katie Cour said. “With this documentary, NPEF is aiming to create the space for community conversations and citywide solutions to build schools where all children can thrive.”
The film premiered at 7 p.m. to a packed audience of invited guests, including multiple Nashville desegregationists interviewed in the film.
After the screening, The Tennessean’s David Plazas moderated a panel discussion between Rich Milner, the Vanderbilt chair of education in the Department of Teaching and Learning, and New York historian Ansley Erickson.
Their discussion focused on inequities present in education systems today and the ways we can look to find solutions going forward, including through examining the past in Nashville and across the country.
Milner said there are many Black students who are “receiving outstanding educational opportunities,” but there are still problems, especially when it comes to an understanding of race.
Most students with whom he has spoken have said they never had an opportunity to have a serious conversation about race in schools. It’s a problem, he said, because it means the conversation is not advancing.
“We’re never going to have a significant conversation until we get real about race,” Milner said.
Erickson, who taught in Harlem and the South Bronx before becoming a historian focused on educational inequality and urban and metropolitan history, agreed.
“Everybody is, at some point, constructing a story about how we got to where we are,” she said.
If we aren’t examining history accurately, she said, we won’t be able to address problems that stem from the past, and we won’t be able to find solutions based on prior mistakes.
After the discussion, school board members and other city leaders mingled in the theater to discuss what they watched and heard.
Metro Nashville Board of Education Chair Christiane Buggs said she was trying to reconcile a few different feelings after seeing the documentary.
She noted that, if not for her grandfather’s purchase of a North Nashville home that she lives in now, she wouldn’t have been able to send her son to the same schools she went to because of zoning and increasing home costs in historically Black neighborhoods.
It’s frustrating, she said, and still more frustrating when she sees white neighbors pull their students out of the neighborhood schools like Buena Vista Elementary.
“I have community members sitting in this audience that are nodding, and are frustrated just like I am, but they will walk out of here and still pull children out of their neighborhood zoned schools that are predominantly Black, but they’re gentrifying those neighborhoods,” she said. “So they’re pricing us out, but they’re not sending their kids to school with us.
“And so how do I ask them to invest with their child, with their parent advocacy, with their community engagement, but not step on their toes in a way that makes them feel disengaged and makes them feel frustrated enough to leave MNPS?”
While the documentary was privately shown Tuesday, it will be made public over the next couple of months. NPEF said it is in talks with broadcasters to discuss airing it on TV, and the organization plans to release it online in August.
Those interested in finding out more can go to nashvillepef.org/by-design for project updates and to watch the trailer.