Changing Perceptions and Embracing Reality

John Overton High School, Nashville, Tennessee

John Overton High School is located in the Oak Hill section of Nashville. Just south of downtown Nashville, and close to the Governor’s Mansion, it has always been considered one of Nashville’s wealthiest neighborhoods. Since the school’s opening in 1958, Overton’s students looked like the population of the traditional Southern city that she served.  In 1999, Overton’s students were 70 percent white and there were no non-native English speakers. Only 13 percent qualified for free or reduced-price lunch. But as Nashville grew and geographic boundaries changed, many families in the Oak Hill neighborhood chose to attend different schools when Overton was forced to integrate. In the early 2000’s when Nashville was designated a resettlement city for thousands of refugees, change came fast to Overton and by 2006 the school was in crisis and grappled with the increasing numbers and new population. Many residents of Oak Hill said, “Overton used to be a great school.”  And, indeed, the school did struggle to find its footing amid such change.

In 2006, when the Academies of Nashville brought career-focused, smaller learning communities to schools there was a new kind of resistance. Initially, there was a perception of “dumbing down” to a vocational model but, Overton leadership and staff worked tirelessly to explode this myth.  Resisting the trend to isolate advanced academics in just one academy, every student, regardless of academy choice, has the opportunity to participate in the Cambridge college preparatory pathway, Vanderbilt Interdisciplinary Science and Research multi-year programming, Dual Enrollment, or Advanced Placement courses. Additionally, all students participate in the award-winning Fine Arts electives in music and theater regardless of their academy choice.  For Overton, all means all, and with a rich offering of comprehensive curricula, students concurrently complete a career-focused elective pathway in one of four National Career Academy Coalition “Model” designated academies. 

But Overton’s journey to “Model” status and incorporating the full academy philosophy of student choice took some change in the collective mindset. Dr. Jill Pittman, Principal of Overton recalls, “Just as the neighborhood made assumptions, we, at Overton learned that even well-meaning educators can fall into the trap of wrong assumptions and cultural misunderstanding. Early in the Academy design process at Overton, English Learners were assigned to the Urban Agriculture program with the notion that they would be interested in growing herbs and vegetables native to the cuisine of their respective heritages. The program was force-fed for several years, but new school leaders were quick to recognize the mistake.” With student choice in place, the Urban Agriculture pathway offered its final courses in 2018 based on a lack of interest.   “It was an ‘a-ha’ moment,” Pittman recalled. “We realized that we were also making assumptions for our Band and Orchestra students. They were scheduled for years into the Engineering Academy, so that it became the “smart kid” academy. We assumed that we knew what was best for students.” Over time, Overton’s practices shifted to include authentic engagement of Freshman in CTSO activities, purposeful marketing, and school-wide branding.  This year, when the 640 freshmen made their selections from among the four academies, ninety-eight percent got their first choice, with no qualifiers for anyone.

With the academy model firmly in place, Overton is thriving. It is one of Tennessee’s most ethnically diverse school. The students come from 63 countries and speak 38 languages. Almost 70 percent of the students live in homes where English is either not spoken or is the family’s second language. Many of the students are refugees and 76 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. In 2017, the pass rate for Overton Cambridge AS and A level assessments exceeded the pass rate for AP assessments at both of Nashville’s nationally ranked academic magnet schools, earning Overton, one of the best overall pass rates for U.S. Cambridge schools and the highest in Tennessee.  Community organizations that ten years ago awarded prestigious scholarships to graduates of the many surrounding private schools now award more of these to Overton students, whose post-secondary paths are heavily influenced by their academy experiences.

Principal Pittman is proud of the work that Overton has accomplished. “The positive impact of these changes has meant growth not just for kids, but for adults, too.   Overton alumni, young and old, are returning to the school in faculty, staff, and volunteer roles.  The community around the school now says, ‘Overton is a great school’.”


Case Story: 005

These Case Studies were collected at the 2018 NCAC Model Principal Collective, and compiled by Constance Majka (NCAC). The Model Principal Collective was attended by principals of NCAC Model Academies from across the country and sponsored by the Turner Family Foundation, Harold K. L. Castle Foundation, Hawaii USA Credit Union, Deloitte, First Tennessee Bank, and the College and Career Academy Support Network. Thank you to all of our sponsors and the Model Academy Principals who participated and shared with us!