A North Nashville school, Buena Vista Enhanced Option Elementary School, is fighting declining enrollment by trying out some innovative programs. It hopes these will broaden the horizons of the low-income students it’s traditionally served — and also entice wealthier families moving into the neighborhood to give the school a chance.
One of those programs, called the Trap Garden, is a nonprofit group founded in 2014 by Rob Horton, an urban farmer and activist.
Horton grew up in a low-income St. Louis neighborhood, where he and his friends often depended on one corner convenience store for food, because there weren’t any supermarkets. He says his experience at Tennessee State University was similar.
"That’s how I came up with the Trap Garden, because I was more likely to see a Trap House within my community than a community garden space," Horton says.
His project involves lesson plans on healthy eating and the business of agriculture. Horton says the point of this program is to give students the opportunity to try healthy food they may not be able to get from their parents. And so they can perform better in the classroom — like their peers who might get more protein and fresh vegetables in their diet.
At the same time, kids are also planting seeds in their community garden, coloring in a sheet on the farm cycle to learn about the business of agriculture and learning what it takes to sell the plants.
"Showing them what it is they are doing today that could lead to actual business ideas and for them to be able to build something that matters within their community," said Horton.
Enticing Wealthier Families
Horton partnered with Buena Vista because he wanted to help kids in communities that are similar to his own. The school serves predominantly lower-income families, including parents from the homeless shelters just blocks away, says principal Myra Taylor.
"They are parents who are unemployed, folks who are on disability. It’s a really tough area," said Taylor.
Because of that, the school has long dealt with high turnover. Around 70% of the students come in and out of the classroom, according to a 2016 school board meeting, because parents may not know where they’re going next.
But over the last several years, the school has been dealing with another challenge: gentrification. According to state data, Buena Vista has seen enrollment has fallen by nearly a third over the last five years, as wealthier families and singles have started moving into the surrounding neighborhood.
Taylor hopes innovative programming will appeal to more middle-class families and convince them to enroll. In addition to the gardening project, there are also programs on yoga, golf and dance.
More Work To Be Done
But it's still unclear whether this strategy will work. Buena Vista has tried this type of work for a while, says Freddie O'Connell, the Metro Council member who represents Nashville’s urban core, including Buena Vista.
"These schools serving predominantly African-American student bodies and families now are surrounded by neighborhoods that are much more diverse, but they aren’t attracting that student body," said O'Connell.
He thinks it’s going to take more funding and better academic performance for Buena Vista to look appealing. And, he says, newcomers will need to feel a responsibility to send their kids there.
"You’d almost have to have a multi-neighborhood conversation wherein the school and the community and some leadership all together said, 'Alright, who in this room would consider sending their kids to Buena Vista?' "
Whether that conversation can actually happen, O’Connell says, is uncertain.
But Buena Vista principal Myra Taylor says there are also benefits to bringing in these programs for the existing students at the school.
"It’s about our students being able to function outside of this community and being exposed to things that sometimes parents may not know to expose them to ... to gives them a leg up," she said.
"They won’t always be the person in the room who knows the least."