The nickname "Athens of the South" comes not only from the Nashville's replica of the Greek Parthenon but also from its reputation for educational excellence. It was home to the first public education system in the South, established in 1855. One-hundred years later, three prominent African-American residents of Nashville mounted one of the nation's first school desegregation lawsuits. Nashville was also a pioneer in early-childhood education for disadvantaged children—the prototype for Head Start programs was developed by a teacher there.
The Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, the nation's forty-ninth largest urban school district, are attended by 83 percent of the city's school-aged children. The system encompasses 127 schools, including magnet programs, special education schools, alternative schools, and an adult education center. Total enrollment in 1998–99 was 69,400. The racial and ethnic breakdown was 47.7 percent white, 45.4 percent black, 3.3 percent Hispanic, 3.2 percent Asian, and 0.2 percent Native American. The schools are administered by a nine-member elected school board and an appointed director of schools.
Nashville is home to more than a dozen institutions of higher education, including Vanderbilt University, Tennessee State University, Scarritt College, George Peabody College, Belmont University, and Fisk University. Vanderbilt University, founded in 1873 and funded by rail and shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, is a private teaching and research university. Its ten schools, including schools of engineering, nursing, law, and medicine, enroll approximately 10,000 students in undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs. Fisk University, established in 1866, was one of the nation's first black colleges.
Tennessee State University, a coeducational land-grant university located on a 182-hectare (450-acre) campus west of downtown Nashville, enrolls some 8,200 students. It is one of 46 public colleges and universities administered by the Tennessee Board of Regents.