I sat with Jill Levine in her office at Normal Park Museum Magnet School recently. She had a copy of my recent column -- the one I wrote about the nearby Hill City neighborhood being kept out of her school's zone -- on her desk.
Levine, principal of Normal Park, had highlighted in yellow the parts she said were false and misleading. There was lots of yellow.
"I read this and felt like I got punched in the gut," she said at the end of our two-hour visit. "Actually, you punched about 800 people in the gut with this."
I write this column for many reasons.
Insulting an entire school community is not one of them.
And based on the email responses I've received (a handful of parents wrote me nearly 7,000 words of email), I feel like I've dropped a printing press onto a very large Normal Park bruise.
So let me dig out something to say that should be at the top of my barrel of words and not hidden at the bottom. I write columns with opinions, sometimes strong ones. But never do I want them to be unfair.
So let's start over.
Normal Park is easily one of the best schools I've seen. Easily. One. Of. The. Best.
Walking with Levine, I met and heard about some amazing kids. One takes a cab to and from school each day so he can attend. Another student has lived in 10 foster homes. Another comes from really far out of the Normal Park zone: a Burundi refugee camp.
I was called "sir" by 12-year-olds. They looked me in the eye. Balanced between poise and that sweetly awkward teenage-ness, they told me about the work they're doing.
Vital, transforming work.
That's exactly why I wrote the prior column. I believe those Hill City kids belong at that great school -- a mile or so from their homes -- doing that great work.
My column was intended to criticize multiple Hamilton County school board decisions, not the Normal Park community. Not. The. Normal. Park. Community.
"By adding to the zone, you detract our ability to pull in magnet students," Levine told me.
So by allowing the full inclusion of Hill City, Normal Park increases its zone geography, which -- there are only so many seats in the school -- decreases the amount of magnet students that can come. Right?
"Eighty-five percent of our African-American students are magnet students," she said.
Those magnet students, Levine said, represent the heartbeat of diversity in the school.
So why not zone in Hill City, which is nearly half black? And mostly all poor?
Levine made her prediction clear: If Hill City is zoned into Normal Park, real estate prices will surge, low-income families will be gentrified out and a diverse school will become less so in the years to come.
"I get calls from investors asking me where the (zone) boundaries are," she said. "I could fill another Normal Park tomorrow."
So in order to maintain diversity -- racial and economic -- someone somewhere (I'm no longer sure who makes these decisions) should phase in all new construction within the current zone. In other words, don't just phase in Hill City. Phase in everyone.
Start with Hill City. They were in line first. Then any future construction, like the 40-home subdivision being planned on nearby Dallas Road with home prices around $500,000.
And while that's happening, give Levine a chance to start a Normal Park-like high school.
It may happen sooner rather than later. A large group of parents, Levine said, is at work searching for a site for a Normal Park high school.
On Friday, I heard from one of those parents in an email.
"NPMM (Normal Park Museum Magnet) deserves good press and not negative spin. However, the Hill City kids deserve to go to school in their own community," he said. "I think most of us have no problem with that, and that needs to be said."
I do, too.
David Cook can be reached at davidcook@ blumail.org.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...