By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
The Episcopal School of Nashville (ESN) is growing from scratch, adding grades and modular buildings year by year on a rented parking lot, with a vision to raise up well-formed children from a variety of backgrounds. Keeping costs low is a priority. At $9,945, tuition per child is below average for Nashville private schools. Fifty percent of ESN’s 70 students receive scholarships.n a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of East Nashville, a three-year-old private elementary school is offering families a new alternative for educating their young kids. But it’s not just for people of means — and that’s the point.
“I knew that I needed to make opportunity for those that didn’t have it,” said Ketch Secor, one of ESN’s co-founders and the current chair of its board of trustees. “That was the Christian ethos of the message. It was to redistribute opportunity in my neighborhood and in my city, and to do it with the help of the Episcopal Church.”
Founding ESN marks Secor’s delayed entry into what he calls “the family business.” Secor, 41, is a Grammy-winning musician, the front man and fiddler for the alt-country band Old Crow Medicine Show. But his father, James Jay Secor, was the founding headmaster of Episcopal School of Knoxville and Hunter McGuire School, which merged to become part of Stuart Hall School in Staunton, Va. Growing up, Ketch Secor attended schools founded and led by his father. Looking back now, he sees how people involved in the early years, including students, get to build an institution and shape its mission.
His sense of calling to be a founder came later. Whenever he wasn’t touring with his band, Secor would make volunteer visits to Nashville’s day care and aftercare programs, as well as schools where he’d play music, tell stories and get to know the kids. When his own children were born, they were zoned to attend a public school that was failing by state standards. Even though his children had alternatives among the city’s private and charter schools, he felt called to forge a new type of opportunity in East Nashville. He envisioned an Episcopal school not only for his kids to attend, but also for children like those of the Eritrean taxi driver who lived next door to his family and could not afford the city’s high-priced private options.
As one of the newest of more than 1,180 Episcopal schools, ESN is this year notching milestones that founders hope are signs of long-term sustainability and enduring support for the vision. The school, which previously offered pre-K through fourth grade, has just added a fifth grade, and a new school bus is making its debut as well.
Also this year, ESN’s operating budget crossed the $1 million mark for the first time. Now a $1.2 million budget — projected to come from $700,000 in fundraising and $500,000 in tuition payments — goes to pay for a staff of 20, including full- and part-timers. It also supports a four-building mini-campus that consists of trailers and a new modular unit, all linked together off the ground by raised decking.
“We don’t call them trailers, because that’s not how you sell a quality education,” said Head of School Harrison Stuart. “We call them TLCs — our temporary learning centers.”
Since opening in 2016, ESN has been steadily expanding on the Woodland Street parking lot of St. Ann’s Episcopal Church, which leases space to the school but is not involved in running it. ESN started with 16 students, about half of whom had parents on the board or working in the administration.
ESN’s launch came after a multi-year discernment process, including an encouraging meeting that Secor had with Tennessee Bishop John Bauerschmidt. A needs analysis foresaw promising demand. Nashville was America’s largest metropolitan area without an Episcopal school before ESN put down roots. The school now draws kids whose parents grew up attending Episcopal schools in other areas or who see advantages for their own children in a small-classroom environment.
The Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee has supported the effort, in part by designating ESN a mission station. About 600 donors, including foundations and individuals, have contributed some $3 million so far. The largest gift of $300,000 came from St. George’s Church in Nashville, according to Stuart. Philanthropic giving has helped set the stage for keeping tuition low over the long term.
“We have an opportunity as a new school to fundamentally and strategically build a school around a low tuition,” Stuart said. “Our faculty make a competitive wage. They’re well-compensated. Our administrators aren’t. We’re low-end on the administrative end, and we’re also low on our facility costs. But if we can remain disciplined and continue to close that [revenue vs. overhead] gap to get more tuition revenue in the door… then not only are we a successful Episcopal school start-up, but we are a model independent school for the future.”
Holding down tuition is the potentially the greatest challenge facing independent schools as a group, Stuart said. But local signs are promising. As ESN continues to grow, demand is growing as well. In younger grades, prospective students now go on a waiting list with hopes of receiving a slot at ESN. Parents have been willing to tally the benefits and not be deterred by either the school’s short track record or its temporary facilities.
“I would much rather my daughter sit in a modular and have a world-class teacher than to sit in a world-class building and have maybe a less-experienced, less-pedigreed teacher,” said Katherine Murrie, a parent and trustee whose six-year-old daughter attends first grade at ESN.
Looking ahead, ESN faces some big decisions. Secor and Murrie hope ESN will be able to keep opening new classrooms through eighth grade. That would allow graduates a direct stepping stone to high school.
Another question: where ultimately to locate? The school is negotiating with St. Ann’s and the City of Nashville with hopes of building a permanent facility on its current location. Whether a deal will be inked is not yet certain. But Secor hopes to build on a series of daring partnerships that have allowed ESN to get as far as it has on that site.
“The fruit of that letting down of the guard and opening up your heart to others is now 70 kids — 50 percent of them on scholarship, 37 percent of them children of color — in an abandoned parking lot that used to be a wig shop next to a Shoney’s, a four-lane interstate highway and a barbed-wire fence,” Secor said. “It’s just beautiful. Right where an Episcopal school needs to be.”