A Nashville Book Burning?

This past Friday, I received an email from Nashville school district officials forwarding a message from School Board Member Amy Frogge and anti-charter activist Chelle Baldwin.  This email caught my attention because Frogge made a particularly incendiary ask – that one of our schools be shut down.

WHAT SCHOOL IS SHE TALKING ABOUT?

She was talking about Nashville Prep, which is one of only two (the other being RePublic’s Liberty Collegiate Academy) public charter schools in the state’s history to be named a Reward School (top 5% performance) for absolute performance and growth. This is a school that had the highest 8th grade Reading performance of all open enrollment public schools in Nashville in 2014-2015, and at various points in its history has been ranked among the highest performing public schools in this city by the district’s own performance framework.

WHAT WAS THE OFFENDING ACT THAT PROMPTED FROGGE AND BALDWIN TO CALL FOR NASHVILLE PREP’S CLOSURE?

I will quote Frogge’s email:

"Attached are passages from City of Thieves, the book that 12 year olds are required to read (aloud) at Nashville Prep.  Chelle Baldwin skimmed through the book and took screenshots of inappropriate passages. (She said she may have missed some.) It's really quite stunning.  Read through the zip drive below. Here is the link to the entire book. This school needs to be shut down."

It’s striking how matter of factly this is written, and that Frogge took for granted that the audience for this email (which included Nashville’s two highest ranking school officials) would find her claim uncontroversial. I hope that these officials, tasked with the important job of running our school system, pointed out the folly of two activists spending time attacking the reading list of one of the best schools in the district - rather than figuring out how to replicate its success. This is the perfect embodiment of the misplaced priorities of Nashville’s permanent class of charter critics. Baldwin and Frogge took hours of their week to scan pages of a book for disagreeable material in an attempt to score political points. 

NOW, WHAT IS CITY OF THIEVES AND HOW COULD IT OFFEND?

Let’s start with a few reviews of the book:   

"A gripping, at times gory, but ultimately sweet story. . . . It has the phenomenal twists of, yes, a great movie." – New York Magazine

"Novelist and screenwriter Benioff’s glorious second novel . . . is a wild action-packed quest, and much else besides: a coming-of-age story, an odd-couple tale and a juicy footnote to the historic World War II siege of Leningrad. This gut churning thriller will sweep you along and, with any luck, propel Benioff into bestseller land." – Kirkus Reviews

"In its own modest way, “City of Thieves” becomes a commentary on the literary rigidities of our day. . . . Benioff’s opening chapter, “true” or not, is a gentle reminder that fiction is often nonfiction warped by artifice, and that nonfiction is unavoidably a reinvention of what actually happened. In exposing these seams — God bless his editor for leaving in that chapter — Benioff reminds us what a beautifully ambiguous world we live in." – New York Times

Let’s take the logic of this last review a step further. Maybe City of Thieves can also tell us something of the rigidities of our educational bureaucrats and politicians. In the same email chain, district officials inquired about whether this book was on their official list of approved books. As a charter school, we are, of course, exempt from following any district list of approved books. But teachers and parents throughout this district – including zoned and magnet schools – should wonder why someone sitting in an office on Bransford Avenue should overrule the ideas and desires of educators on the ground. 

These same officials also mused about whether our scholars could handle this book.  This is a direct quote from one such official quoted in the same email chain:

"This book is not listed on any of our middle school scope and sequences. I checked with a middle school lead coach and she has never heard of the book.  I’ve checked our 9th and 10th scope and sequence and it is not listed there either. I also checked a couple of websites and found that it has a lexile level for 10th grade and above and an interest level 10th. Jill is out of town so she might can give us some more information when she returns."

Nashville’s Executive Director of Instruction, one of the most senior officials in Nashville’s education community, is wasting time musing about what our kids are and are not capable of handling. But let’s answer this so-called instructional expert’s challenge. Let’s talk about what our kids can handle. First, we at RePublic have our scholars read advanced books because we want them to be successful in college and beyond.  We spend less time worrying about what they can’t read and more time finding ways to expand their options.  Second, this book is listed at a 910 Lexile (which is a measure of the difficulty level of the book’s vocabulary and sentence length).  According to both Scholastic and the Common Core, students in grades 6-8 should be reading books between an 860 to 1185 Lexile – putting this book comfortably in range.

WHAT ABOUT THE CONTENT OF THIS BOOK?

To start, this book is in the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) catalogue and is currently sitting on the shelf of Hillwood High School (the zoned high school in Frogge’s district) for any child in that school to check out and read.  MNPS must believe this book is appropriate for 9th graders, since any one of them could access this book for free in school. It seems a stretch to argue that a book deemed appropriate for 9th graders should incite a debate about a school’s very existence the moment it falls into the hands of a 7th grade scholar.

Hillwood, in putting this book in their library, is actually following expert advice. The Library Journal, in their review of the book, endorsed putting City of Thieves on bookshelves in schools across America:

"With deftly sly humor, respect for the agony of warfare, and dialogue that elevates the boys-to-men story beyond its typical male ribaldry, this second novel . . . by screenwriter Benioff . . . deserves a bright spotlight in most libraries to attract readers young and old to its compelling pages." – Library Journal

But we actually didn’t assign this book as published. Despite the fact that we love this book in its unedited form, our curriculum staff met over the summer to discuss whether we could maintain scholar interest while editing out curse words and some of the more mature subject matter. We agreed that we could, so every scholar has received a redacted version of the book (excerpts of which were shared with the district).

We changed scenes involving "sex" to scenes involving "kissing."  We changed curse words like "s**t" to "poop."  We also redacted whole sections that involved mature scenes. I am sure we missed a word here and a word there, but the book as edited is far from the excerpts Frogge and Baldwin are circulating in terms of mature content.  I doubt this information will stop them from circulating pages from the original book though, because they seem more intent on creating a problem than solving one.

I sent sections of this redacted version to the district, who then shifted their attention to whether we committed a copyright violation in redacting sections of the book. These folks would have made Kafka blush. Our lawyers believe we are on safe ground, and I wonder whether the district wants to declare open season on any teacher in their system who adapts a book or text for use in classrooms. I doubt the district wants to wear a white shirt here. I suspect that if we asked David Benioff (the author) his opinion, he would be more outraged that a school district was attempting to ban one of his books than at the fact that a school is attempting to make his work accessible for younger readers. After all, the father of the main character in City of Thieves was killed in an act of literary censorship – making this debate all the more ironic.  

Instead of asking how we used this book, Frogge went from zero to sixty and called for the closing of a school that provides an excellent education for over 400 children. This fantasy of closing Nashville Prep seems to come up quite often amongst her circle. These very same activists, who protest any mention of closing underperforming schools, openly muse about closing one of the highest performing public schools in the district. 

As troubling as the content of their current diatribe against us may be, perhaps even more concerning is the fact that these officials, who have been elected to serve the families and students of our community, make decisions and cast judgment in such a rash, thoughtless way. Perhaps the question at hand is not whether or not we should challenge our scholars to engage with content above their grade level, but instead whether or not our elected officials should apply the same critical lens they aim at us toward their own choices, in the hopes of illuminating a path toward more thoughtful, reasoned discourse that is rooted first and foremost in what is best for kids. 

GIVEN THE EXTREME REACTION FROM FROGGE AND BALDWIN, COULD THEIR REACTION BE ABOUT SOMETHING ELSE?

This is just one example of the harassment charter schools receive at the hands of anti-charter politicians. The two people, Frogge and Baldwin, who are pushing the district to shut us down, haven’t stepped foot in our schools in years. When they did visit, they praised our schools and asked how we could replicate our work. Our staff at Liberty Collegiate reports that Frogge said upon exiting, “Why can’t more schools be like this?” Baldwin had a similar reaction upon visiting one of our schools.  Here is an excerpt from an email Baldwin sent to me in 2013 after her only visit to Nashville Prep, the very school she is asking the district to shut down:

"Then we see a school like yours that IS serving the populations of kids that are caught in that failing cycle we wonder what is going on and how you are doing it.  Poor Mr. Little was subjected to our endless questions and musings about how we can make the whole system better.  We appreciate his openness to talk and share what you all are doing and to mull over issues that plague our public school system that are totally out of the control of the district.  What I asked Mr. Little and others on your staff and will ask of you is this.  Do you have any plans to try and create more schools?

"I can see that your model is not for everyone but obviously it is doing very well for the students you have and it seems a shame that our city and state leaders are out there recruiting schools that don't serve the at risk populations.  In our minds they need to be knocking down your door and asking what they can do to broaden your reach in Nashville and perhaps even Memphis.  Why is the ASD not begging you on a daily basis to take over one or more of their ASD schools?  Why is our Mayor, Governor, Speaker of the House and Education Commissioner courting GH when they have you in their back yard?  It make [sic] no sense to us and frankly makes us want to call them out for the hypocrisy of it all.  

 . . .

Again, we really appreciate you [sic] opening your doors to let us take a peek.  We were both very impressed with your school and your achievements and the student's scores speak for themselves. I hope we can continue some kind of dialogue and perhaps find some ways to broaden your efforts.  I hope you don't mind but I will be holding our leaders to task over their seeming oversight that a school of your caliber, that serves the very children they claim to be concerned about, was approved within the current local school board approval process.  We feel like our school board is doing a good job in the charter approval process and don't see any reason to create a law that caters to Great Hearts.  With that thought I'm going to sign off before I get on another tangent. :)"

I err generally on the side of not publishing email correspondence, but it seems I am left with little choice when someone is calling for closing a school down that so many (mostly underprivileged) children attend.

WHAT HAPPENED BETWEEN 2013 AND NOW? 

It’s hard to say how we’ve come to this utter want of any grace or generosity. It would be foolish to absolve myself completely. I certainly would love to turn back the hands of time and fight harder against certain reform overreaches or avoid some of our more public ad hominem exchanges (in which I regrettably played a prominent part). I would sit down with those reform critics and explain that we don’t want to “charterize” the whole district, which many of them seem concerned about. I would then sit down and agree to a set of common sense policies, like linking approval of future growth to the size of the wait list of an existing charter organization’s schools and the organization's academic results. I could deliver many reformers to the table for this kind of a dialogue. These conversations are still possible, but the rhetoric and scorched earth politicking must end.

One critical turning point in these reform wars came when Frogge, Baldwin and other anti-reformers started calling charter leaders corporate profiteers and accused us of kicking out underperforming students to pad our results. At the time, I wrote a response to Frogge when her rhetoric started to become more extreme.  Here is an excerpt from that piece, which is as true today as it was back then:   

"We need better schools, yes, but we need to get beyond the ALL CAPS Facebook posts blaming vague, profit-driven conspiracies and demonizing those (except you folks in the parentheses, not you) who have a different perspective on how to educate kids."

After that unfortunate summer of back and forths, the anti-charter crowd became even more extreme and started to drift from any meaningful self-reflection. One salient incident was when Frogge called on Vanderbilt University to study student attrition at charter schools but then attacked the credibility of the researchers when the results of the study disproved Frogge’s beliefs:

When the study was commissioned:  ""Having a neutral third party review data from all MNPS schools is a good step toward resolving this issue," said Metro school board member Amy Frogge, who has suggested there’s higher attrition at charters." (Article available here)

When the results came out:  "But board member Amy Frogge, who led much of the discussion on attrition at charters, called the report "at best, inconclusive." She said she supports improving the district's monitoring, but questioned the backgrounds of the researchers, one of whom works at KIPP Atlanta, a charter school that is under the same network as KIPP Nashville." (Article available here)

Since then, Frogge has moved onto even more inflammatory attacks.  As you can see from the Tweets below, over the past few weeks alone, she’s compared charter school leaders to slave owners and said educators at KIPP don’t care about the outcomes of the children they serve.

These are actual comments from an elected representative – and this is just the past few weeks. If citizens of Nashville don’t hold our elected officials responsible for this type of behavior and rhetoric, it will be become the new normal. Do we want to live in a city where this kind of discourse from politicians is both commonplace and widely accepted?  

HOW DO WE MOVE FORWARD?

At the start of the year, we test all students using the Scholastic Reading Inventory (SRI), which tells us the grade level at which our students are reading. This year, scholars who entered our fifth grade (our earliest grade), read at a 3.58, 3.77, 3.65, and 3.21 grade level on average at Liberty Collegiate, Nashville Academy of Computer Science, Nashville Prep, and Reimagine Prep, respectively. These same scholars, as evidenced by our current ninth graders, will enter high school approximately one year above grade level, on average. Liberty’s 5th graders last year had the highest reading growth of all public schools in the state (a distinction Nashville Prep previously held).

Instead of debating how to close these schools, our elected representatives, activists, and district officials should ask the original question posed by Frogge and Baldwin:  How do we replicate this success?  These folks should also ask why so many kids across the district are reading so egregiously below grade level. We would be happy to be thought partners in this excavation and problem solving exercise, as we were when the district asked us to share our computer-programming model

Sadly, many of these anti-charter folks have abandoned any attempt at collaboration and are intent on dragging this district into a street fight. Distractions like Friday’s happen quite often. We serve over 1000 families and over 100 educators. On any given day, just as in the district, we will make mistakes and folks will be unhappy with us for one reason or another. If history repeats itself, it’s likely that Frogge and Baldwin will parade out a few RePublic families who’ve they whipped into hysteria with the unredacted copies of the book's text, and ignore any kid or family who enjoys the work. Instead of working to solve issues together, the anti-charter folks are spending tremendous amounts of time and resources curating anecdotes about what our educators choose to teach, which kids do or do not enroll, and teachers who quit. They rush to any perceived drop of a negative story and ignore the ocean of good happening in our buildings every day. They pressure reporters out of writing any positive stories on charter results - and instead traffic in anecdotes, rumors, and fantasies in an attempt to pull attention from the miracles happing in Nashville’s charters (which represent 9 of the top 10 performing public middle schools according to MNPS’ own performance framework).

Thankfully, these politicians, activists, and bureaucrats don’t have a right to dictate what schools our families choose, what books our teachers teach, or what facts our kids learn. These folks should stop pushing their worldview onto our educators, scholars, and families.

One positive will come from this unfortunate episode though. Given the overlap of censorship themes in this book and the real life reaction to our scholars having read it, this episode will provide great material for the first 7th grade argumentative essay and debate. We can frame the question as follows: Was City of Thieves too advanced for you, and should Nashville's school board have a right to make that determination?   

I have a strong suspicion of where most RePublic scholars will come down on this question.

Moira Moynihan and Liz Friedland contributed to this piece.