When Reverend Jay Hartley visited his oldest son at college this past school year, he heard the kind of feedback just about any parent would want.
At lunch with one of his son’s engineering professors, Rev. Hartley – parent of three past and present students of 2015 SCORE Prize finalist school Martin Luther King Jr. Magnet School in Nashville (MLK) – learned that it can be hard to predict how young people will fare as college freshmen. The professor told Rev. Hartley that even the best of students can be distracted by everything available in college.
This hadn’t been an issue for Rev. Hartley’s son, the professor told him.
“He’s able to focus and do everything,” Rev. Hartley said. “I think MLK is definitely a part in that.”
MLK builds high expectations and rigor into every facet of student life. Students are well supported through demanding courses of study, while picking up values that encourage lifelong learning and independent ownership of their progress.
“We try not to let them fly under the radar or accept mediocrity. I think the majority of our students rise to that expectation,” said Christopher Dowlen, an MLK teacher and chair of the school’s English department. “We try to put them in situations and circumstances where they have to have autonomy, they have to have choice, they have to grapple and feel uncomfortable. I think that’s key.”
As a public academic magnet school within Metro Nashville Public Schools, students must meet academic requirements in order to qualify for MLK. Typically, this includes a grade-point average (GPA) of 85 or above, no failing grades, and TCAP scores that are “proficient” or “advanced.” MLK serves students in grades 7 through 12, with 800 students in the high school grades.
Even with these requirements, achievement levels and student needs are far from uniform, MLK Executive Principal Angela McShepard-Ray said.
“Students do score higher on state-mandated tests. However, those scores range,” Dr. McShepard-Ray said. “There’s the highest of the high, middle of the high, and lowest of the high. It can be challenging, especially when you have a high range in one classroom.”
MLK has achieved remarkable success in fostering high-level achievement among students at the highest tiers, and significant growth for middle and lower tiers. High expectations are built into the curriculum. At MLK, every class starting in ninth grade is honors-level or higher. Advanced Placement (AP) class offerings are extensive. MLK currently offers 25 AP-level courses, with another due to be added in the next school year. Students choose their own courses, but all paths available are challenging.
“When students come in, they are expected to achieve at that Advanced Placement level, or at minimum, at the honors level,” said Dr. McShepard-Ray.
Transitions to high school grades are eased through the Freshman Forum, a program that keeps teachers in regular contact with ninth-grade students and their parents. Students across MLK in the “low-high” range receive support through study hall time and tutoring opportunities, plus teachers make time during lunch and after school to provide skill foundations. Assignment selection within classrooms can be differentiated according to student need. The highest achievers are monitored to ensure that higher-level work is taking place – students can opt to add AP classes, and a few elect to trade study hall for extra class time.
For all students, coursework is intended to be challenging. Dr. McShepard-Ray said the school works to keep parents and students aware of course and GPA requirements at MLK, so students aren’t shocked by the workload.
“That’s a message going out from seventh-graders to seniors: ‘You worked hard to get into MLK. Now that you’re here, the work is just beginning,’” Dr. McShepard-Ray said.
While many MLK students could be considered academically driven, Dr. McShepard-Ray said that some days are inevitably better than others – and everyone needs support at some point. The school takes motivation seriously, for students at all levels.
One issue that often arises is that students will falter in their willingness to tackle the demands of AP classes. Mr. Dowlen recalls working with a student this year who decided in October that an AP English course wasn’t right for him. The school responded with a conference that included the student, his parents, teachers, and administrators. It was Mr. Dowlen’s recommendation that the student remain in the higher course – while the class was pushing students out of their comfort zones, this was beneficial.
The student ultimately opted to remain in the course. For Mr. Dowlen, this was ultimately a significant success story. Later in the year, the day after the AP test, Mr. Dowlen chatted with this student about the test and was delighted to hear him speak “in a wonderfully academic way” about the tasks he’d been asked to complete.
“It was one of those moments. He would never have talked that way in October,” Mr. Dowlen said. “I’m hoping that eventually when he looks back, he’ll say, ‘I did that.’”
Rev. Hartley said the culture of the school is exemplified by support and achievement. In the most recent school year, one of his children took five AP classes – one more than the typical maximum of four – because a devoted instructor taught an extra AP class during lunch. The workload was “huge,” Rev. Hartley said, but his child chose to take it on.
“There were several other students there doing that, but they push each other,” said Rev. Hartley. “They’ve had some good, challenging peers to work on projects with.”
Strong teacher collaboration and dedication helps MLK bring out the best in students. Though schedules can be complicated, with some teachers working in both middle and high school classrooms, MLK works to build time in the day for collaboration. Colleagues reach out to one another to discuss students who might be struggling, or potential interest and aptitudes for AP courses. Instructors work together to visualize current underclassmen as juniors and seniors, thinking through how best to prepare them. The priority is always academic experience and improvement of thought processes, Mr. Dowlen said – not specific test scores.
“Teachers take the work exceptionally seriously. They embrace that level of inquiry. They embrace that level of rigor. They embrace the pace of that work,” said Mr. Dowlen. “I think that’s part of that college-going kind of culture that we have going here at our school.”
Another exceptional feature of MLK is student body diversity. Rev. Hartley said his kids have had school friends and project collaborators from all over the city, and from countries around the world.
“The racial diversity and the ethnic diversity – it’s that horizon-broadening thing that college is supposed to be,” Rev. Hartley said.
For Mr. Dowlen, the diversity within each classroom provides powerful learning opportunities. Students learn to be respectful of one another, which shines through in all contexts and further prepares them to continue learning and growing long after high school.
“It’s really, really powerful when you can sit down in a class like mine and students are working in a group. They are exceptionally gracious to one another. They help each other along. They don’t judge each other. They know they have to work together for this common goal,” Mr. Dowlen said. “That diversity existing within a context of excellence and a context of challenge is particularly special.”