ALMOST READY—
The Episcopal School of Knoxville is (temporarily) setting up shop at St. Elizabeth’s church in Farragut.

 

A new wave of West Knox private schools raises questions about what parents are looking for

by Jesse Fox Mayshark

Christine and Richard L. Duncan moved to Knox County for its schools. They'd lived in New Orleans for 20 years and loved it, but when they had children they knew they had to look elsewhere. Philosophical supporters of public schools, they disliked the setup in the Crescent City, where everybody who could afford it sent their children to private, mostly Catholic, academies.

"We thought, 'We've got to get out of here,'" says Christine Duncan, a middle-aged woman with long brown hair and precise, forceful diction. "We can't send our child to private school. We just don't believe in that."

So, with their oldest child ready to start her education, the husband and wife—he's a lawyer, she was a medical researcher—did some homework.

"We called all around," Duncan says. "We shopped in Nashville, where it seemed that the private school trend had already started. People who said they went to public school were now acknowledging that their children were going to have to go to private school if they wanted to get into a good college.

"When we came to Knoxville 10 years ago, Richard would call up lawyers and say, 'What do you think of the schools? Do your kids go to public school?' And everybody would tell him, 'Yeah, I like the public schools, they all go to UT, it works out fine.' ...But now here we are, sending our kid to a private school."

She's understating the case a little. The Duncans aren't just patronizing a private school—they're starting one. Greenway School opened this week in temporary classrooms tucked into the woods off Canton Hollow Road in Farragut. Christine Duncan is superintendent. The sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade school promises an alternative to crowded public middle schools that the Duncans say are more concerned with processing children than engaging their minds.

Greenway—where every child will have a laptop computer and tuition is $6,200 a year—is part of a small wave of new and expanded private schools in Knox County. Or, to be more specific, in West Knox County. Down Kingston Pike from Greenway, the Episcopal School of Knoxville will open its doors Aug. 24. In the Cedar Bluff area, the Christian Academy of Knoxville (CAK) has a new, larger high school, while ground has just been broken on the new Knoxville Catholic High School slated to open in two years. And, just down Dutchtown Road from CAK, the county's best-known private academy will get bigger this week when Webb School opens its brand-new elementary building at full capacity.

Private school enrollment still makes up only a small percentage of the Knox County student body. But it's growing, and most of the growth is in the area of the county that ostensibly boasts the best in public education. A look at what some of the new or expanded schools offer suggests a number of reasons for the mini-boom, which could have both good and bad implications for local public schools.

The Greenway Way

Greenway School is the most novel of the private enterprises, a school with no real antecedents in Knox County. Right now, it's just a few buildings connected by wooden walkways in a clearing among deciduous trees that climb 30 or 40 feet into the air. The bucolic setting is more than window-dressing.

"This is the science room," Christine Duncan says, opening a door into a carpeted pre-fab classroom that, in the last weeks of July, is still awaiting furniture, books, and supplies. Duncan points across the room to a door that exits into the school's 15 acres of woods. "Of course, the science lab is out there," she says. "There are trails, and a mile away there's the lake."

Getting students out of the classroom—really, expanding the idea of the classroom itself—is one of Greenway's goals. The school grew out of the Duncans' dissatisfaction with their children's education. When their daughter (who's now in high school) entered middle school, they worried the bright student wasn't being challenged enough—even after she was certified as "gifted" by the school system. They came to see her large middle school as a mechanistic environment that encouraged compliance more than intellectual development, a place where both high- and low-achieving students were driven toward a dulling median.

"She learned a lot," Richard Duncan says of his daughter. "But the problem is, when you have large schools, they spend a disproportionate amount of time on keeping order. And that's because county administrators, the school board, and the state of Tennessee said we're going to build huge schools because they're cheaper. And then the teachers and administrators have to live with the consequences."

So do the students. Christine Duncan thinks the middle school grades are crucial, because they come when students are forging identities and interests. If they get turned off by school then, she says, they might never re-engage.

"If we lose them before they get to be 15," she says, "if they hit that stage resentful and having adapted themselves to a dictatorship where they're not expected to think—in fact, they're warned not to, they'll be punished if they read ahead in their history books...their brilliant intelligence and creativity is reduced to memorization."

Greenway has a small staff—three teachers, all of them certified, plus Duncan—and an opening enrollment of 28. Duncan's goal is to hit 100 students in three years and stay at that level. The curriculum is a mix of standard course offerings—English, math, science, social studies—and hands-on, interactive learning. Classroom work will dominate the mornings, but the afternoons will be full of artistic, scientific, and exploratory activities. Outside instructors, professionals in a wide range of fields, also figure heavily into the plans. The school day will run until 4 p.m., but teachers will be in their rooms and available to students until 6 p.m.

The Duncans put up their own money to buy the property. It's a major investment and will be even more so once a permanent building is erected on the site. But they say they have market research to back it up. For two years, they distributed surveys to parents in public school parking lots, outlining the kind of school they had in mind and asking a crucial question—would you be willing to spend $6,000 a year to send your child there?

"We found a 10 percent increase from spring of '96 to spring of '97 in people who checked 'Yes,'" Christine Duncan says. "We know there's a market. And of course we're not the only ones."

Size Matters

Knoxville has never been much of a private school city. Apart from the prep school Webb, which opened in the mid-1950s, and scattered parochial schools, public schools have had little competition. Bruce Wheeler, a history professor at the University of Tennessee, offers a few reasons.

"[Across the South], a lot of the schools that sprang up in the '50s and '60s were openly segregationist academies. And Knoxville I don't think really had that movement," he says. He adds, "Now, maybe that was because the schools were de facto segregated by residence."

He doesn't think the new interest in private schools, if there is one, has anything to do with segregation. Instead, he suggests it's part of the same education reform movement that has produced public-school innovations like magnet programs and charter schools.

"I think the parents are just a lot more with it these days," he says.

That's especially true of parents in the county's suburbs, many of them transplants from other counties or states. They're not necessarily impressed by Knox County's high scores on state tests, for example, because they know Tennessee as a whole ranks low in national education standings. Maybe more important, they live in booming areas where schools and classrooms keep getting more and more crowded.

A.L. Lotts Elementary in West Knox had 1,000 students last year, with class sizes ranging up to 28 students in upper grades. Farragut Primary had 826, with 971 at Farragut Intermediate. Knox County has moved to eliminate the small schools that remain—three of them were consolidated into Dogwood Elementary in South Knoxville, and another three merged to form North Knoxville's Christenberry Elementary. These are mostly economic decisions—a few years ago, school data showed A.L. Lotts was one of the most cost-efficient schools in the county.

In contrast, when Webb's Lower School opens next week, it will have 240 students with maximum class sizes of 20.

"In my view, public school education is a herding process," says Allen Smith, visiting the new Webb school on a recent weeknight with his former wife Cynthia D'Andrea and their daughter Allison, who will enter Webb as a kindergartner this year. Smith speaks from experience—now in computer training, he spent three years teaching in Knox County schools. "There's very little room for self-actualization, for self-exploration and so forth," he says. "I used to refer to it as crowd control."

Webb's new school, a $3.5 million brick building filled with natural light and playful decor, gives the academy a full K-12 program for the first time. School president Art Scott, rail-thin with curly salt-and-pepper hair, shows it off with the enthusiasm of a new parent. He points out the kid-centric scale: in kindergarten rooms, even the toilet seats are just inches off the floor. Each classroom has a half-dozen Macintosh computers, in addition to the school's full computer lab, all of them wired to the Internet. And there are three clocks in each room, two of them set to time zones in places like Cairo, Calcutta, or Beijing. Students will start learning Spanish in kindergarten.

"As we see clearly by what has happened, the need was there and the interest and the demand," Scott says of the school, which had been discussed for years. "We basically ended up having two applicants for every spot."

In addition to the small classes, the school will have a full-time aide in every classroom for grades K-2, lowering the child-adult ratio even more. Like Duncan, Scott talks about "multiple intelligence" theory, identifying and catering to each student's strengths and interests.

Research on the impact of class sizes is mixed at best. Many studies have shown no appreciable student performance gains in smaller classes. But their appeal is intuitive and almost universal.

"The thing that attracted me to [Webb] is the student-to-teacher ratio," Cynthia D'Andrea says, watching her daughter cavort across Webb's geometrically inscribed carpets. In a big class, D'Andrea says, "My concern is if you have a well-behaved child who is [performing] above average, that they're going to get left alone."

Knox County schools have been trying to lower their elementary class sizes for several years to meet new state guidelines. But the effort has been delayed the last two years as County Commission has slashed school budget requests.

Getting Religion

George and Beth Combs also want small classes for their two children, one of them in kindergarten and one in second grade. But they chose a different route—the new Episcopal School of Knoxville, opening in temporary buildings in front of Farragut's St. Elizabeth's Episcopal Church. (The church is lending the property, but the school is actually run by the East Tennessee Episcopal Diocese.)

"We feel like it'll be a well-rounded and grounded experience for the students," says George Combs, who owns several Knoxville businesses including the Blue Moon Bakery.

Public school administrators often write off parochial school parents as people willing to place religious instruction—something public schools can't provide—above academics. But while the Combses, who are Episcopalian, say they do want some religious framework in the instruction, they're looking for a lot more—high academic standards, well-organized classrooms, personal attention from teachers.

"In the public schools, there are different expectations depending on which teachers you have," says Beth Combs, a nurse. "In the Episcopal School, I feel like the expectations are written, they're handed down, and they're expected to follow them."

Kae Bridges is the new school's director. It will open with grades K-4, including a mixed third- and fourth-grade class, and add on grades each year until it runs K-12. Bridges, a friendly, soft-spoken woman, says Episcopal schools are unique among religious academies. While in many respects they resemble Catholic schools, with their emphasis on order and academics, Episcopalians are often a minority of the students. The Episcopal School of Knoxville will open with about a 50-50 Episcopal/non-Episcopal mix.

"There is no religious indoctrination at all in our school," she says, seated in a church office decorated with posters outlining the school's approach. "Because we have different factions and even different faiths represented in our schools, we're concerned with the faith development of a child, whatever the denomination or creed of a child or their family."

Walking to one of her posters, Bridges explains the school's "expanding world curriculum," designed to teach children to see themselves as part of a family, community, nation, and universe. She talks about "multidisciplinary" approaches. Like Webb, the school will offer foreign language at all levels, although the tongue of choice here is French. (Why? "Because God sent us a French teacher," she says with a grin.)

"The biggest difference, I think, is we will make every effort to educate the whole child," Bridges says. "We're not here to adopt some lofty approach unless it fits with the needs of the children we're working with."

You might expect to find more fire and brimstone at the Christian Academy of Knoxville a few miles away. But CAK headmaster Steve DeGeorge seems no more inclined to thump a Bible than Bridges. Talkative and candid, with receding russet hair, DeGeorge neither downplays nor over-emphasizes the school's religious orientation.

"Our mission, our reason for existence, is to help Christian families educate their children in the context of that understanding of the world," he says. But as the 21-year-old school has grown, so has its definition of that mission.

The new high school building will accommodate more students—DeGeorge expects its enrollment to eventually grow to 350 from its current level of 250—and a broader range of courses. When DeGeorge arrived at the school five years ago, he says it was strong in the basics but lacked breadth. Now, students can take journalism, drama, three languages, a host of advanced placement courses. That has helped keep them at CAK past elementary school.

"Five, six, 10 years ago, we bled [students]," DeGeorge says. "At fifth grade, we bled to Webb. At 9th grade, we bled to everybody."

These days, CAK gets students like Andrea Blevins, a senior who came two years ago after being homeschooled for several years. Articulate and unfailingly polite—she responds to questions with a cheerful "Yes, sir"—she says she's glad she doesn't have to put up with "bad language and bad behavior" at CAK, but she talks more about the demanding classwork.

"When I was going to public [elementary] schools, I was making good grades and really was spending a lot of time at school that was not well-spent," she says. At CAK, "It's difficult to make good grades, you have to really strive. And when you do get good grades, they mean more to you."

Last year, she took AP English, AP history, art, algebra II, Bible studies, and Spanish IV. This year, her younger brother is transferring to CAK from Bearden Middle School. "I think my parents just want him to have the same things I have," she says.

The Elitism Issue

As Knoxville Catholic High School prepared to expand a few years ago, principal Philip Dampf says studies identified Cedar Bluff as the logical place to go. Work is under way on that school, which will open in 2000 with a capacity of 600 students. Catholic currently has an enrollment of 381.

"When they studied the Catholic population in Knoxville, that was more centrally located," Dampf says.

Likewise, when the Episcopal School moves in a few years to a permanent home, Bridges says it won't move far.

"It will be west," she says. "That's where the available land is. We need a lot of land."

By no coincidence, it's also where the money is. And private schools inevitably mean money. Tuitions range from a low of $3,500 a year at Catholic to nearly $10,000 at Webb's high school. The average is in the $6,000 range. The skewing effect on the schools' student populations is predictable.

"It does cost money to go here, and we worry about this issue," DeGeorge says with a sigh. "It's not our goal to be elitist. And yet this is a product that costs a certain amount of money."

It's an issue all private schools grapple with. Most set aside some portion of their budget for scholarships and financial assistance. Cynthia D'Andrea's daughter is one beneficiary. "It's wonderful Webb does that," D'Andrea says. "We're not rich. We're not even close. We're a middle-class family."

Episcopal and CAK both offer some aid. At Greenway, Christine Duncan says the school can't afford financial aid in its first year. But it is on the long-term agenda.

Located some 12 to 15 miles from Knoxville's predominantly black neighborhoods, the schools also tend to be overwhelmingly white. Again, administrators are well aware of it.

"We feel we're a little handicapped right now because we're not diverse in that way," says DeGeorge, who estimates his students are more than 95 percent white. Part of the school's new marketing campaign will target minority families.

Public School Anxiety

Allen Morgan isn't much impressed with the private school expansion. Knox County's school superintendent is just a few weeks from leaving education altogether to go work for Clayton Homes (which built Greenway's modular classrooms), but his defense of public schools has lost none of its ardor.

"I think that when you look at other metropolitan districts, our percentage of youngsters who attend private schools is much less," he says. "I think that is a credit to Knox County....I don't see the numbers going up that much."

Confronted with criticisms like Allen Smith's, Morgan says, "It depends on the teacher, it depends on the child, the family. I don't believe a child can get necessarily a better education in a private school." If anything makes a difference, he says, it's having parents involved enough to care where their kids go to school in the first place.

And like public educators everywhere, he warns about the impact of private school growth.

"If you have a great number of your advantaged children going to private schools," he says, "then what the public schools become is a school for the disadvantaged, the youngsters who are facing problems whether in learning or behavior or in some other way."

Even some who have lobbied for changes in the public schools see private schools as a threat.

Tom Ingram, president of the Knoxville Area Chamber Partnership, led an effort last spring to bring the for-profit Edison School program into Maynard Elementary School in Mechanicsville. Ingram, who used to work for Edison founder Chris Whittle, urged the school board to open up the system to other approaches. He thinks parents want choices.

"At least among my peers, I do sense parents are becoming more diligent consumers of education," he says.

But if that means more of them are turning to private schools, Ingram doesn't see that as a good thing. The longtime Nashville resident saw what happened when desegregation led to a flight from public schools in Davidson County.

"The negative impact of that on the public schools is still present there," he says. "It took a lot of the parents with more resources and time out of the public schools, and it took a lot of students who raised the bar for all students out of public schools. And it diluted the commitment to public schools financially and in other ways."

He doesn't think the same thing is happening in Knoxville—there's no forced busing or other crisis driving parents away. But he does think public schools should pay attention to parents looking for options.

"I think that's a message being sent here to some degree," he says.

It's possible the new set of private schools will help amplify that message. Private educators say they can be laboratories of sorts for new ideas, and the public schools can learn from their successes. Most of them are also careful to say they don't want to "compete" with public schools, just offer "alternatives."

"I think the more choice the better," Art Scott says. "It's going to make us all get better and diversified."

But there is some underlying frustration at the "brain drain" accusations. If public schools don't want to lose their best students, private educators suggest, they should get better. (In fact, public administrators love to brag when they do manage to lure students back. Morgan proudly cites the transfer of dozens of Webb students to the newly energized West High School over the past five years. Scott says the transfers haven't affected Webb enrollment.)

One private school teacher confronted with the question replies bluntly, "Well, why do people apply to us?"

It's a question Knox County administrators might be asking themselves more in the next few years.