Friday, July 15, 2011

We should move both carefully and with conviction on the question of Salemtown's Fehr School

The planned exit of the Metro Action Commission out of historic Fehr School on 5th Avenue in Salemtown has been moved back once again, this time from June to August. The building has never been suitable to dispensing to large groups of people in need of federal aid to pay utility bills, and it was a strain on MAC staff, clients (many of whom lined up in freezing cold and broiling hot temps), and the neighborhood, which was sometimes trashed by the crush of clients. Moreover, the promises to move MAC to more realistic digs elsewhere have gone unrealized for years.

MAC client lines
Even though we are facing another delay, at least the Metro gears seem to be moving this time and MAC is talking seriously about the move when they attend Salemtown association meetings each month. So, the next item on the agenda for Salemtown is to make sure that the Fehr School Building, which was one of the foci of Nashville's famous civil rights history does not undergo any radical structural changes. Salemtown Neighbors has already approved an initiative for a petition to protect the old school. And at our June business meeting MAC mentioned that the building is already protected as historic property, including a plaque that will be posted. They told the association that the historic 5th Avenue side will not be altered, but that a 4th Avenue entrance will be created.

I conducted a search of the federal and state registers for the preservation designation that MAC talked about, but I could not find any record of it. I followed up with MAC officials who told me that someone in Metro General Services had told them. MAC also conjectured that the historical register for Fehr may still be in progress. They also told me that they would follow up to confirm and then get back to me. That was over two weeks ago, and I have yet to receive any confirmation.

About the same time, CM Erica Gilmore responded to Salemtown queries about Fehr by promising her support for historic preservation of the school building and she notified Tim Walker at the Metro Historical Commission. This was excellent news and we hope that CM Gilmore is vigorously pursuing this, although we have not heard back from her yet either.

Another wrinkle in these events is mention in yesterday's Tennessean that some Germantown parents, disgruntled by recent redistricting that knocked them out of wildly popular Eakin Elementary's bailiwick in West Nashville are now spying Fehr as an alternative to sending the kids to one of several other options in around the North End area (full disclosure: our 7-year-old attends Jones Paideia Magnet, one of those options):

Some Germantown residents hoped the city would consider converting the Metro Action Commission building at 1624 Fifth Ave. N. into a magnet school when a portion of the agency relocates downtown next month. But many of the agency’s departments, including one of its Head Start locations, will remain there.

[School board member Ed] Kindall says he’s open to discussing the issues with concerned parents and advises neighborhood groups to come up with a plan and make a recommendation to the Metro School Board.

For years on this blog I have advocated the preservation and the re-purposing of Fehr for education. But let's keep first things are first. We need to make sure that this living museum to school desegregation is historically protected from drastic alterations to the exterior and from the wrecking ball. Getting it on the historic register ought to be the number one goal now. Despite being a vigorous advocate of re-purposing the building as a school over the years, I frankly worry that if these Germantown parents move too fast it will be flipped into a privatized charter school or an objectionable group like Stand for Children will sweep in and take power away from the community in determining the educational needs of our children.

As someone who has been pushing for these changes at Fehr for 6 years, I would encourage the community to move a step-at-a-time on the building. Let's leverage protection, and then discuss re-purposing as a public school, including making sure that Head Start (which will stay at Fehr and is after all an education program) will continue to be welcome in our area. Salemtown is Fehr School's home, and we are one of the more economically and racially diverse neighborhoods in the North End. We should commit ourselves to the goal of converting Fehr into a place that invites diversity, remains open to all, and honors its history of desegregation. It should not become a shelter for mostly white, middle class gentrifiers with kids.


  1. People in Germantown were zoned for Eakin?

    Eakin still is an option school with a lottery, right?

    I get that parents are upset when plans change about schools. Their children are the most important things they have. But, that's the chance you take when you live outside the natural zoning area of a school.

    Sylvan Park is a good option with a lottery, and there's been some angst over the fact that Eakin students (zoned and lottery) have a guaranteed pathway to West End Middle, while Sylvan Park lottery students don't.

    It's a tough situation.

  2. A section of Germantown and I believe all of Hope Gardens were zoned for Eakin. As I have heard it, the logic behind the zoning was to motivate families with kids to move into those neighborhoods. The problem with that logic is that it does not necessarily attract parents who have a sense of ownership over the schools in North Nashville and who will invest their time as volunteers and prompters of neighborhood support for the schools.