By Ms. June
NASHVILLE, TN — You do not judge a book by a cover and you certainly do not judge the academic success of a school based upon the zip code. Unfortunately, a powerhouse school
called Napier Elementary is nestled in the middle a judgmental minority neighborhood which causes the community to miss out on the excellence occurring behind the classroom doors. Napier Elementary, has more cultural and historical roots than many would care to admit. From the pedigreed position of historical lineage, James Carroll (J.C.) Napier, Alonzo Napier, and his sister Ida Napier married into the family of the great poet, social activist and novelist Langston Hughes.
Napier was one of the first black Tennesseans with a law degree, he led protests in the 1880’s to force Nashville to hire black teachers and was one of the black businessmen who founded One Cent Savings and Trust that is now known in the Black community as Citizens Savings Bank. Many Nashvillians instead of boasting of the rich lineage of the Napier family, regarding the current Napier Elementary School, they choose to focus on the poverty stricken Napier Homes and the tiny Napier Park. Both of which represent the plight in life Napier worked so hard to be liberated from. Napier Park is essentially a slap in the face to those who know history and the fact J.C. Napier was instrumental in founding Green Park as the first park for black citizens.
Although the park is closed, the Napier name and the historical legacy is still alive and well in the elementary school named after Alonzo Napier. Dr. Watechia Lawless is the executive principal going on three years, after being the assistant principal for two years and a teacher for seven years. She indicated that she was led by her heart to come to Napier when she initially transitioned into the teacher role.
Dr. Watechia Lawless stated, “I cried all during the first week after being here because I didn’t think I was the right person to meet the needs of the kids.” Although the transition appeared seamless, the landscape and horizon presented was significantly different than Franklin Road Academy and Bellevue Middle to name a few. With an MBA in economics and success in banking at Morgan Stanley, Vanderbilt and the Chancellors office, it was a higher power that led her to Napier Elementary School. Dr. Watechia Lawless is very realistic and acknowledges that a portion of her upbringing reflected the background of the same children that the school serves.
Dr. Watechia Lawless created a focused plan to maximize the greatness at Napier. She believes that people treat you how they see you and she has worked tirelessly to ensure that people see the students and families in the Napier community as beautifully made and deserving of an excellent education. She sought to hire and retain educators who believe in the potential of all children and who were willing to adopt The Napier Way. With district support from Dr. Shawn Joseph, Director of Metro Schools and Dr. Lisa Coons, Executive Director Schools of Innovation, Napier began to thrive. She strongly stated, “Napier is not a school that lacks resources, and has more resources than people imagine.” She went on to further elaborate that the gaps lie in meeting the needs of the children after they leave school. Napier Elementary School’s vision is to work together to inspire leaders, learners and high achievers. The school has implemented The Leader In Me program based on Stephen Coveys book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” and have transformed the culture to represent “The Napier Way” for these bright elementary school students. The values system embraces leadership, learning, high achievement and being a pro-active winner with mental prowess. The students thrive because they are loved each moment, greeted with a smile and called by name every morning. All the staff ensure the students are supported and groomed, if needed, so that all children have the utmost presentation of themselves in the classroom. They have hygiene kits, extra uniforms and toiletries readily available in the event a student needs to get organized before starting their day. To show just how supportive Napier is of their students, Dr. Watechia Lawless said, “We have given out over 70 uniforms per week to ensure every child is well dressed for learning.”
The community only sees the neighborhood and does not venture into the corridors to see the little Ambassadors dressed in cardigans and blazers, the little band, the cheerleaders and the Resolution Tree that teaches children how to solve their problems through dialogue, or the banners of the black colleges and Ivy League schools adorning the walls as motivation. Many of these learners are passing at or above state standards and they just may be surpassing achievement scores in some of the better dressed neighborhoods. This year the school’s TVAAS scores rose from a Level 1 to a Level 5 demonstrating that even though the students face many challenges, they are very capable.
Dr. Watechia Lawless indicated, “We don’t need pity from the community and will not just take anything in the form of support — Napier is not a charity.” Even in the middle of budget cuts, sometimes severe, Napier does not complain but instead remains grateful and manages what they have. She is selective with the corporate sponsors she allows to use Napier as a bragging tool. Napier has had tremendous support from over 80 community partners. Pillar partners include Harpeth Hills Church of Christ, William Morris Entertainment, Charles Davis Foundation, Midtown Fellowship, Vanderbilt University, Trevecca Nazarene Church, and many more. The most recent donation came from Ingram Industries who committed to building a computer lab for the students. The community support from elected officials such District 19 Councilman Freddie O’Connell, Representatives Brenda Gilmore and Harold M. Love Jr. and At-Large Councilwoman Erica Gilmore is consistently evident. Napier takes their school feeding program to another level as they provide not only the traditional breakfast and lunch meal, but they also provide dinner in the event a student may not be able to eat that evening and they offer a discrete backpack feeding program to send food home to a needy child’s family.
Dr. Watechia Lawless said, “The students know what goes on in their neighborhoods from the shootings, drugs, and things no child should see.” “They have come to accept these things as a way of life and may think it’s normal.” However, Napier is a place to express leadership and respect and the children are taught how to self-regulate themselves.“ All staff are trauma informed and trained in the event a child comes to school distressed because of things that may have happened in the home.
The community is invited to visit Napier and see the greatness anytime as Dr. Watechia Lawless and the staff clearly want the community to know that Napier can compete with other elementary schools in terms of curriculum, achieving the student learning objectives and achievement. They progressively engage the parents monthly and elevate them with a family dinner, the students take pride in their school and work together to keep it nice. According to the Tennessee Tribune interviewer, “Napier is maintained rather well, if not better than the newly built Cane Ridge Middle School in Antioch.” This of course, is the open invitation to get involved and come and see Napier for yourself.