Normal Park Museum Magnet School's skyrocketing in-zone attendance creates questions

Normal Park Museum Magnet School's skyrocketing in-zone attendance creates questions

February 13th, 2012 by Kevin Hardy in News

The 18-unit Fairmount Apartments, a public housing development of the Chattanooga Housing Authority set to open in March, overlooks Normal Park Museum Magnet Upper School.

Photo by Angela Lewis /Times Free Press.


• 2007-08: 318

• 2008-09: 347

• 2009-10: 520*

• 2010-11: 656

• 2011-12: 757

•Added grades 6-8

Source: Tennessee Report Card

A new high-end subdivision planned for a North Chattanooga hilltop is yet another nod to the desirability of the area and the popularity of nearby Normal Park Museum Magnet School.

In the last decade, teachers and parents at Normal Park have built from scratch a reputation of a high-performing school where many parents now want to send their kids. That's a stark difference from before, when school officials went door to door asking families to enroll.

Today the school is in such demand that a house in the attendance zone can sell for $50,000 more than a comparable home in other areas, and parent groups have petitioned the school board in attempts to get their children admitted.

The result has been an influx of students. In the past five years, the school has more than doubled attendance and added a second campus and three grade levels.

But that in-zone growth now could threaten the school's magnet component, which draws students from across the county through a high-volume lottery process. School leaders tout Normal Park's magnet component for promoting racial and socioeconomic diversity there.

The new 40-home subdivision, an 18-unit public housing project set to open in March and a planned phase-in of the Hill City neighborhood into the zone are expected to bring dozens more children to Normal Park in the coming years. With the school already near capacity, that raises questions over whether it can continue to draw from both its physical zone and the magnet lottery.

"If the zoning trends continue as they are, Normal Park may no longer be a magnet school," Karla Riddle, the school system's director of magnet schools, said at a community meeting last week.

School board member David Testerman recently said Normal Park should move to a magnet-only admissions process, similar to what's used at the also-popular Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences and Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts.

But other officials think the school should try to continue admitting both zoned and magnet students.

Some note the potential repercussions of removing or shrinking the attendance zone - a move that would undoubtedly outrage property owners who have invested within the Normal Park boundaries. Others have said the growth signals the need to add to the school's two buildings or commence new construction.


The wooden sign advertising the new Perry North subdivision in North Chattanooga points out that the homes are zoned for Normal Park. Vincent Morse, owner of Perry Development, said he plans to build up to 40 homes on 9.15 undeveloped acres near the 1000 block of Dallas Road.

He said that part of town is the most profitable area in which to build. That has a lot to do with Normal Park, but also is because of the attractive urban lifestyle, he said.

"You get it all. You get the city, you get the restaurants. And you get the good schools without having to pay private school tuition," Morse said.

Vicki Trapp, broker with Crye-Leike, said the Normal Park area is one of the hottest real estate markets in the Chattanooga area. Homes there go for significantly more than they would in other parts of town. Trapp pointed to a listing of a four-bedroom home in the Brainerd area priced at about $110,000. She said in the Normal Park zone, that home could fetch more than $175,000.

"Because of the desirability of that school district, people are willing to pay more for a home to be in there," she said.

Aside from the school zone, Trapp said proximity to work and entertainment also play a part in the area's popularity.

Because of strong demand, Morse said he'll continue to look for development opportunities in North Chattanooga.

"I plan to build as much as I can down there until they stop letting kids into Normal Park," he said.

Perry North's high-end homes will cost between $239,000 and $500,000.

Because open land is so rare in the area, Morse said the homes will be more vertical than the average house. The developer hopes to break ground in the next two months, with the first homes being completed as early as November. He expects 80 to 90 percent of the new homes to be filled by families with young children.

The subdivision is expected to be granted a special exceptions permit at today's(monday) meeting of the Regional Planning Agency.

Already under way is the 18-unit Fairmount Apartments, a public housing development of the Chattanooga Housing Authority on Fairmount Avenue set to open in March. That complex will have nine two-bedroom condominiums and nine with three bedrooms. A CHA spokeswoman said the development would house mostly families, though residents haven't been selected.

Those two projects, plus a phase-in plan for students living in the Hill City area, will put more zoned students into Normal Park in the next few years. The school board approved a plan to bring in five Hill City kindergarten students each year after residents there petitioned school officials for inclusion in the zone last fall. A similar effort by residents of One North Shore condominiums was tabled by the board and hasn't been brought back for discussion.


Principal Jill Levine said the enriched curriculum at Normal Park differentiates the school from others in the county. Day-to-day lessons are infused with hands-on activities. And because the school is a museum magnet school, students spend time learning in the community through trips and projects.

"Our learning here isn't bound to the four walls of the building and the front and back cover of the textbook," Levine said. "People want to come to the school because of the quality of the instruction."

Levine pointed to a recent trip to Niedlov's Breadworks, which helped students make real-world connections to chemistry through baking lessons. And on Thursday, a team of chemists and marketing employees from Chattem were on hand showing Normal Park eighth-graders how to make mouthwash. Students also completed a marketing survey and filmed a documentary on the process.

Throughout the year, students create exhibits to display at quarterly museum nights, when students act as docents for parents.

Testing results show that Normal Park was the only school in Hamilton County to receive straight A's for student achievement and value-added in all tested areas on 2011 state tests.


Because of Normal Park's popularity and academic success, some have suggested the school could make room for more kids with an addition or a new building.

But Riddle said lack of money and physical space make that unlikely for the near future.

Shrinking or dissolving the school's attendance would outrage homeowners, Riddle said. But magnet parents, who have also invested time and energy improving the school, wouldn't favor transforming Normal Park into a neighborhood school.

Normal Park's situation is a far cry from its opening, when officials were "begging" students to enroll, Riddle said.

Figures recently provided by Riddle show Normal Park has 416 magnet students and 366 zoned this year. In 2002, the school enrolled 13 zoned kindergarten students. Riddle said Normal Park has already enrolled 59 in-zone kindergarten students for next fall's 100 kindergarten spots, with more students expected to trickle in.

And because some of the upper grades have smaller classes, Levine said the school will likely continue growing. There are only about 65 students in eighth grade this year, though lower grades are closer to 100 students each.

Levine said she wants to keep the zone intact, while also keeping magnet enrollment.

"To me, it's about striking that balance," she said.

Ideally, the school could find a way to add space for more classrooms, she said.

School board member Chip Baker, who presently represents the Normal Park area, said he's encouraged by the school's popularity, but noted that it does cause problems. He also wants to keep both the zone and magnet components.

But before any plans are made on Normal Park, Baker said the school board and the County Commission need to draft a comprehensive facilities plan, instead of approaching each project piecemeal.

"It's a great problem to have - a problem we should have in every Hamilton County school," Baker said.

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