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‘Diverse by Design’ School Unites Students from Different Racial, Social Backgrounds

September 18, 2018
In Nashville, Valor Collegiate draws on diversity to develop strong students

Near the heart of Nashville — one of the country’s most segregated cities — sit public schools where students of all backgrounds come together, by design.

Unlike nearby urban schools with largely homogeneous student populations, Valor Collegiate Academies has sought, and achieved, a student population that is intentionally diverse by both income and race. Currently, Valor scholars are 8% Asian, 15%Hispanic/Latino, 17%African American, 20%Middle Eastern/North African and 40%white. Half of students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Valor operates three of the more than 100 intentionally diverse schools across the country, according to the Diverse Charter Schools Coalition, a Walton Family Foundation grantee that is working to strengthen and create more socioeconomically and demographically diverse schools.

Students who attend mixed-income schools have higher test scores, are more likely to enroll in college and are less likely than peers in schools with similar poverty levels to drop out of college. “They gain valuable experience thinking in terms of ‘we’ instead of ‘us’ and ‘them,’” says Sonia Park, executive director of the Coalition. “They’re better prepared to live in, work in and contribute to the multicultural, polyglot world.”

Valor’s diversity attracts a wide range of parents and students to the school.

Fearful of what she calls the “pervasive discrimination” she’d witnessed growing up in east Tennessee, parent and professor Brandi Kellett was eager to raise her children (three of whom are white and one of whom is multi-racial) in Nashville’s diverse, urban 12 South neighborhood.

“We wanted our kids to be in schools that reflect our city’s makeup, but there are not a ton of schools in Nashville that offer that,” says Brandi.

When her neighborhood began to gentrify, she enrolled her two oldest children at Valor Flagship Academy in 2015. Today, they are blossoming as sixth and eighth graders. Valor’s teachers challenge Brandi’s children to work at high levels and overcome their unconscious biases.

“This is not just diversity with a bunch of different people in a room, it’s diversity with a bunch of different people in a room who are taught about how to hold and learn about their bias and question it,” says Brandi. “If I could design a school, I couldn’t create anything better.”

Meanwhile, second generation Somali-Americans Zain and Ismael Ahmed commute to Valor Voyager Academy from the West Nashville area.

After attending private K-8 school, their mother Fatima — who grew up attending local public high schools — was not interested in sending them down the same path. “Valor not only had a good academic program, but it felt safe, with teachers and staff that know kids individually,” says Fatima. “My sons are so willing to correct their mistakes, and more motivated than ever.”

Valor Collegiate was founded by educator Todd Dickson, who was dismayed to watch his peers tracked into different pathways based on their performance and race at his own Colorado high school.

While working at Summit Public Schools in California, Todd was recruited to Nashville by then-Mayor Karl Dean. Todd believed the Metro Nashville School District offered a chance for real socioeconomic integration by drawing from schools in both the city and surrounding suburbs.

However, simply enrolling a diverse student body isn’t enough, Todd discovered.

“At our schools, students are learning to reach across boundaries and learn from one another,” he notes. Valor’s social-emotional curriculum, dubbed “Compass,” teaches students to reflect on their own identity and work to understand others’ identities as well. With support from the Walton Family Foundation and others, Valor will share Compass with other schools locally and nationwide.

Valor combines this learning with rigorous academics. African-American seventh grader Saniah Middlebrooks came to Valor Voyager from her neighborhood elementary school, which her father felt was mediocre.

“As a youth sports coach, I try to get my kids not only prepared for the game but also for the next level,” says Terrance Middlebrooks. “Valor gives these kids a desire to want to learn more and do better.”

Focusing on diversity and rigor has helped Valor “invert” the achievement gap. Valor students from low-income communities outperform their more advantaged peers statewide.

Valor opened a high school this fall, and will nearly double to serve 1,750 students by 2022.

Terrance looks forward to watching his daughter extend her diverse friendships and reflective learning into high school.

“Racism and segregation are learned behavior,” says Terrance. “In so many places, kids are taught how to separate, but Valor is bringing us together.”

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