Impossible to Ignore: New Season of “The Promise” Examines Inequities in Nashville Education

Warner Elementary students in class. Photo by William DeShazer/WPLN News

By Ashley Benkarski

NASHVILLE, TN —  WPLN released the second season of its Nashville-focused podcast, “The Promise,” Monday, Aug. 31.

Following the thread of racial inequities in housing featured in season one, host Meribah Knight digs deeper into the disparities in education to unearth an uncomfortable truth, especially for well-meaning white families who, despite their liberal leanings, aren’t sending their kids to diverse schools.

So many in public housing, such as the first season’s locus of the James Cayce Homes, are kids, Knight said, and that led her to ask: What’s going on with the children? 

She spent about a year with the faculty and students of Warner Arts Magnet Elementary located just off Woodland Street near Interstate 24. 

If you follow Woodland St. east for about 1.6 miles, you’ll come to Lockeland Elementary School. But the two couldn’t be more different—Warner’s student population is nearly 90 percent Black with 92 percent of students in poverty; Lockland’s is 90 percent white with three percent of students in poverty.

Knight wondered how two schools could be so close to each other yet so inverse in terms of their student populations. There was a clear reckoning with race that needed to happen—As a white reporter Knight said she felt unsatisfied with white residents whose answers about racial justice didn’t live up to the reality of their actions. 

As she explains in season two’s first episode, “A Tale of Two Schools,” on paper Knight began to see a deep racial divide in the numbers. Despite students from both being mostly in the same neighborhood and even mostly in the same zone, these two schools were a microcosm of a much larger picture.

Most of Warner’s students live in the Cayce homes and their families have a yearly median income of just $12,128. About seven minutes away, the families in the mostly white neighborhood surrounding Warner have a yearly median income of $96,295. 

When Knight began her reporting, there was no PTO at Warner. Lockeland’s operated on a $101,000 budget, Knight stated. There are rarely parent volunteers at Warner, but that isn’t because parents don’t want to– it’s that they can’t afford to, with many working low-wage jobs that don’t pay enough to offer such opportunities.

 “The divide of the neighborhood is realized in these classrooms,” she said.

In addition to a school system inherently protective of the resources white households provide, it’s often the little acts of self-interest by well-meaning white people that reverberate throughout communities and leave lasting consequences, such as choosing to send their children to schools with better scores and resources.

Simply, Warner is in danger because white parents aren’t sending their kids there. 

Those decisions have resulted in a stall of progress in Nashville’s desegregation efforts, namely 1955’s Kelley v. Board of Education of Nashville, and in many ways have reversed what that case sought to achieve.

Knight spoke with Warner’s Principal Ricki Gibbs, who took on the role in the fall 2018 school year, and he plans to make big changes to get the school off the state’s priority status list and ensure its success.

The school’s lifeline, Knight said, is a federal grant that allows for a transition into an art-focused magnet school in hopes of attracting the very families that many times don’t even tour it. Magnet grants are one of the last remaining tools for school desegregation, but schools around the country continue to be racially isolated.

For Warner Elementary, it’s the promise of a new beginning, Knight said.

Eight episodes are planned for this season, with the first episode of season two and all nine episodes of season one available on any podcasting platform.

“The Promise Season 2 is incredibly timely,” said Steve Swenson, president and CEO of Nashville Public Radio. “The recent protests rippling across the U.S. remind us these issues of race and equity remain today — and have become front and center in the country’s conversation about how this nation forges ahead. We are grateful to Meribah for bringing to light Nashville’s piece of the story.”

“I’m so excited to share Season 2 of The Promise,” Knight said. “It is my hope that this season will provide greater context for one of the most fundamental struggles facing communities of color, and the responsibility white families bear in working to fix it.”

The Promise Season 2 is made possible by QuaverEd, equipping teachers with music-based resources to support students’ social and emotional learning.