Centuries of history lie beneath Nashville’s bustling streets. Nashville is one of Tennessee’s oldest and most vibrant cities. Before its establishment in 1779, the area was home to indigenous people, including the Cherokee, Shawnee, and Chickasaw.
European explorers such as Hernando de Soto also traveled through during the sixteenth century. It wasn’t until the late eighteenth century that Nashville started to take shape as a settlement. One of the earliest educational institutions was the Davidson Academy, founded in 1785.
Davidson Academy was a subscription school that served girls and boys and played a crucial role in the early development of Nashville’s educational system. While it isn’t operational today, the school was the predecessor to numerous other early schools, including the University of Nashville, Montgomery Bell Academy, Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College, and the University School of Nashville, among others.
Today’s post explores the eight oldest schools in Nashville. We’ll highlight their fascinating history, changes over time, current educational offerings, and notable figures who attended the schools. Let’s dive in and uncover the fascinating history of Nashville’s oldest learning institutions.
Hume-Fogg High School
700 Broadway, Nashville, TN 37203
Hume-Fogg High School is a top-rated public magnet school under the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. The school is the oldest public school in the state, with a history tracing back to 1855.
Nashville’s first public school was the Hume High School, which opened in 1855 at the corner of Eighth Avenue (Spruce Street) and Broad. The school served first through twelfth-grade students. In 1875, a second public school was built on the same property facing Broad Street, named Fogg High School.
Around 1910, the two schools were razed down, with the buildings replaced with the current famous Gothic Revival-style building in 1912. They were merged into one as Hume-Fogg High School. The new high school became the first school in Tennessee to be accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in 1919.
Until 1940, the school followed a classical curriculum that included requirements in Latin, advanced mathematics, science, and English. In 1953, the school’s curriculum was changed to include technical and vocational subjects.
The school operated as a technical and vocational institute until 1982, when court-supervised desegregation took effect. Hume-Fogg was redeveloped as an academic magnet school for Nashville’s gifted and talented kids.
Currently, the school serves roughly 907 kids in ninth through twelfth grade and is ranked as one of the best schools in the nation. U.S. News ranked Hume-Fogg as number 70 out of 17,843 High Schools in the U.S.
Notable Hume-Fogg Alumni
A lot of notable figures call themselves Hume-Fogg alumni. These include:
- Delbert Mann, Academy Award-winning director
- Torrance Esmond, Grammy-winning producer
- Johnny Beazley, professional baseball pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals
- Matt Friction, vocalist and guitarist for The Pink Spiders
- Starlito, rapper
- Ruby Amanfu, Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter
- Phil Harris, comedian, singer, and actor
- Street Symphony, Grammy-winning producer
- Randell Jarrell, poet
St. Cecilia Academy
4210 Harding Pike, Nashville, TN 37205
St. Cecilia Academy is a private, all-girls Catholic high school under the Diocese of Nashville. The school is the oldest Catholic school in Nashville still operating, with a history tracing back over 160 years.
The school was established by Bishop James Whelan, O.P., the second Bishop of Nashville, who invited the Dominican Sisters from Somerset, Ohio, to set up a school to serve the young women in the parish. Four sisters left Ohio in August 1860, with the school beginning operations on October 4th, 1860.
The school remained open through the Civil War, completing its first permanent building in time for its first graduation ceremony in 1862. St. Cecilia Academy acquired more land, with a third extension that housed the music conservatory, dining hall, and private student bedrooms, completed in 1901.
The sisters bought 92 acres on Harding Road in 1923, grazing cattle on it as plans for constructing a new campus continued. The school moved to its current location in 1957. It has carried out numerous revamps over the years, including a new library, theater, and arts wing in 1976, a new science wing and administrative offices in 2001, and a newly refurbished track and soccer field complex in 2009.
The school has served numerous notable individuals, including Katie Wells Price, a children’s book author, and Rita Gene (Genie) Dunn Kastrup, the first woman president of SEIU (Service Employees International Union) Local 1.
The school currently serves roughly 256 girls in seventh through twelfth grade and is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and Southern Association of Independent Schools.
Harpeth Hall School
3801 Hobbs Rd, Nashville, TN 37215
Harpeth Hall School is a private, college-preparatory, all-girls school in the Green Hills Neighborhood of Nashville, TN. While the school began operating as Harpeth Hall in 1951, its beginnings trace back to 1865, six months after the end of the Civil War.
Ward Seminary, a school dedicated to educating young Nashville women, opened its doors in 1865. The school merged with the Belmont College for Young Women to form the Ward-Belmont School in 1913. Ward-Belmont School was a high school and junior college for young women.
With a pending scheduled closure of the Ward-Belmont School in 1950, a group of concerned citizens came together to purchase the 28-acre P.M. Estes estate in Green Hills and renamed the school Harpeth Hall. The name’s inspiration came from the nearby Harpeth River Valley.
The school opened its campus on September 17th, 1951, with two buildings that housed 161 students in 9-12 grades, most of whom had transferred from the Ward-Belmont School. Nearly all faculty members and administrators previously served at Ward-Belmont.
The school received accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools the following year. The school has seen numerous upgrades to its campus over the years, with 11 additional buildings, including the upper school complex, library, gymnasium, theater, track and soccer complex, and the Daugh W. Smith Middle School.
Harpeth Hall currently serves 720 students in ninth through twelfth grade. It also has a special partnership with the Montgomery Bell Academy, with collaborations in joint drama and music programs, community service projects, and sharing of athletic field space.
Notable Harpeth Hall Alumni
The school has nurtured numerous notable figures over the decades, including:
- Tracy Caulkins, three-time Olympic gold medal swimmer
- Amy Grant, accomplished singer, musician, and Christian writer
- Minnie Pearl, comedian
- Alexandra Walsh, Olympic swimmer
- Reese Witherspoon, Academy Award-winning actress and producer
- Willa Fitzgerald, actress
St. Benard Academy
2304 Benard Ave, Nashville, TN 37212
St. Benard Academy is an independent private Catholic co-ed elementary school serving kids in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. The school was established in 1866 by six sisters from the order of Sisters of Mercy in Dublin, Ireland.
The six Sisters of Mercy came to Nashville in 1866 and founded the St. Benard Academy, serving roughly 400 female students. Its campus was in downtown Nashville, adjacent to the State Capitol.
After roughly forty years, the school and the convent relocated to a campus building on 21st Avenue South. A new wing was added to the building in 1924, including a large chapel, cafeteria, and additional sleeping quarters for the sisters.
Further expansion works in 1960 added another wing on the corner of Benard Avenue and 24th Avenue to cater to high school students. In 1988, parents at the school formed a non-profit that bought the elementary school from the Sisters of Mercy, becoming the first school in the nation to be purchased by parents through a non-profit.
The school has undergone further expansions and extensive renovation works, including the dining hall, chapel, new art room, kindergarten building, and offices. St. Benard Academy currently serves approximately 385 students, with an excellent teacher-student ratio of 11:1.
Montgomery Bell Academy
4001 Harding Pike, Nashville, TN 37205
Montgomery Bell Academy is a private, college-preparatory, all-boys school serving grades seven through twelve. The school’s history can be traced back to Montgomery Bell, a Pennsylvanian native that made his fortune as an “Ironmaster,” purchasing the Cumberland Iron Furnace from James Robertson. James Robertson is considered one of the founding fathers of Nashville.
Upon his death, Montgomery Bell bequeathed $20,000 to the University of Nashville for “the education of children, not less than ten and not older than fourteen who are not able to support themselves and their parents are not able to do so.”
By 1867, the sum had grown to $46,000, which the university used to establish the Montgomery Bell Academy, named after the philanthropist. The school absorbed the Western Military Institute–a military school established in 1847 and run by the University of Nashville.
A financial crisis and a donation from the Peabody Fund in 1875 led to an organizational shift, with the preparatory school separating from the university. From around 1880 to 1915, Montgomery Bell Academy operated across University Street from the now defunct University of Nashville.
The school bought a West End Avenue estate from the Tinsley Family, and the campus shifted there. Montgomery Bell Academy has undergone several upgrades, including administrative buildings, a gymnasium, and a 200,000-foot athletic and fitness center.
Notable Montgomery Bell Alumni
Montgomery Bell has a long list of notable alumni, owing to its extensive history. Names on this list include:
- Jacob M. Dickinson, U.S. Secretary of War,
- Bill Frist, former U.S. Senate Majority Leader,
- Admiral Joseph W. Prueher, a former Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Pacific Command and Ambassador to China
- Ty Chandler, running back for the Minnesota Vikings
- Jere Baxter, founder of the Tennessee Central Railroad
- Tom Neff, founder and CEO of The Documentary Channel
- Penn Murfee, pitcher for the Seattle Mariners
- Thomas Schulman, author
- David Briley, former mayor of Nashville
2201 West End Ave, Nashville, TN 37235
Vanderbilt University is a private research university that offers over 70 undergraduate majors and numerous graduate and professional certification programs. The school’s history dates back to 1875.
In the years following the Civil War, the Methodist Episcopal Church South looked to start a regional university to train its ministers. With the lobbying of Nashville bishop Holland Nimmons McTyeire, the church leaders voted to create “The Central University of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South” in 1872.
However, financial difficulties delayed the establishment of the university. In 1875, Bishop McTyeire was hosted by Cornelius Vanderbilt in his New York City residence and convinced Vanderbilt to donate $500,000 to Central University.
The endowment was increased to $1,000,000, with McTyeire and his fellow university trustees voting to rename the college to Vanderbilt University. Construction began in 1874, with the first 200 students enrolling in the fall of 1875.
The university’s management was under the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church South for the first forty years. However, conflicts over the membership of the university’s Board and the non-Methodists that would serve as faculty arose. These conflicts escalated to the Tennessee Supreme Court, with the General Conference later voting to sever ties with Vanderbilt University in 1914.
The school currently serves over 13,796 students in its 330-acre campus in the heart of Nashville. Vanderbilt University has a stellar alumni list with four heads of state, two White House Chiefs of Staff, fifty-three members of Congress, 18 ambassadors, and 13 governors, amongst other influential figures in business, politics, literature, sports, and health sciences.
3901 Granny White Pike, Nashville, TN 37204
Lipscomb Academy is a private Christian school that provides college preparatory education to pre-kindergarten through twelfth-grade kids. It is the only school in Mid-Tennessee operated by a university.
The school’s history traces back to 1889, when two friends, David Lipscomb and James A. Harding, spent long nights at the Lipscomb farmhouse with a vision to start a school that offered a rigorous and challenging academic program under a Christian context. The two founders didn’t envision it to become a seminary or “preacher school.”
They succeeded in establishing the school in 1891 and named it Nashville Bible School. By 1896, the school had three divisions: collegiate, intermediate, and primary. The Nashville Bible College later became David Lipscomb College and then David Lipscomb University.
The primary through high school sections were also renamed the David Lipscomb Campus School. The school lacked a strict curriculum in the early years, with high school students self-pacing their education. They would pick their own classes and proceed to college-level courses when they felt ready. Additionally, the high school students lived in the same dormitories as their college counterparts until 1950.
In 2012, the David Lipscomb Campus School changed its name to Lipscomb Academy. The school currently serves over 1,321 students. The students can participate in numerous academic programs, including AP courses, music, art, performance art, and world languages.
Pearl-Cohn Entertainment Magnet High School-1983 (Tracing Back To 1883)
904 26th Ave N, Nashville, TN 37208
Pearl-Cohn Entertainment Magnet High School is a top-rated public magnet school in the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools District. The school was created by merging two pre-existing high schools, one of which traces back to 1883. Pearl High School was established in 1883, while Cohn High School was founded in 1928.
Pearl High School opened its doors in 1883 as an elementary school on South Summer Street (now Fifth Avenue South). It was the first predominantly-black public school in Nashville. The school was named after Joshua F. Pearl, the city’s first superintendent of public schools.
In 1884, Nashville’s city council passed a resolution for the Board of Education to provide high school education to African-Americans. The Board acted in 1886, after numerous mass meetings and protests, and established that the all-black Meigs Public School was to provide ninth and tenth-grade classes.
The Meigs High School department was transferred to the newly constructed Pearl High School building in 1897. In 1917, Pearl High School moved to a new three-story building at Sixteenth North and Grant Street. Overcrowding led to the construction of a newer campus at Seventeenth Avenue North and Jo Johnston in 1936.
Cohn High School was a predominantly-white high school built in 1928. The school opened as a Junior High School. By 1936, the school ran the length of Park Avenue from 48th to 49th Avenues. The school was named Corinne L. Cohn High School in memory of a philanthropic Nashville resident who made regular donations to the school.
The school received regular upgrades and renovations over the years, including a new gymnasium, a dining room, science labs, an orchestra room, and band rooms. In 1983, Nashville’s federally-mandated desegregation plan combined the predominantly-Black Pearl High and the predominantly-white Cohn High to form the Pearl-Cohn Comprehensive High School.
The new school’s campus was built on the former sites of Washington Junior High School and Ford Green Elementary School. The old Pearl High School campus was converted to the Martin Luther King Jr. Magnet School. Pearl-Cohn Magnet School currently serves roughly 588 academically gifted kids in Nashville.
Start Your Child's Education at a Top-Rated School in Nashville
Nashville is a city with a vibrant culture, with a rich history tracing back to its founding in 1779. The city’s focus on education led to it receiving the nickname “The Athens of The South.” Schools such as the Davidson Academy laid the foundation for the establishment of a robust education system within the city.
The schools highlighted on this list maintain century-long traditions of academic excellence and remain educational powerhouses in the city. Hume-Fogg and Pearl Cohn are top-rated magnet schools that would be an excellent fit for families searching for a rigorous academic environment in a public school.
These schools would be a perfect fit for you as you search for the best learning environment for your child. Keep in mind that the ideal school should meet your child’s unique learning needs and abilities.
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