To turn around failing schools, Nashville turns to experienced teachers

PHOTO: Teach Plus
Teachers participate in discussion about recruiting teachers to low-performing schools at a T3 conference.

After leaving an underfunded, low-performing school for a more affluent one, Boston teacher Krissy Vilagie never thought she’d go back to that tougher kind of teaching assignment.

“You get used to having resources,” she said.

Vilagie liked her job at the more affluent school, but also wanted to advance her career. She hated the thought of leaving the classroom to become an administrator.

Enter Turnaround Teacher Teams Initiative, a partnership between the Boston Public Schools and Teach Plus,  a non-profit devoted to leveraging teachers’ careers while keeping them in the classroom. The program, typically called T3, incentivized experienced teachers to go to the system’s lowest performing schools by offering them a pay raise to lead teams of other teachers in turnaround efforts.

The purpose of the program is to address a confounding truth in education: schools with high concentrations of poverty often aren’t staffed with experienced, effective teachers, even though studies show that having even just a few effective teachers in a school raises student achievement.

Now, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools is following T3’s example as it embarks on its own effort to recruit experienced teachers to its lowest performing schools. By January, officials hope to have recruited 100 teachers to schools in the bottom 25 percent of schools statewide. The goal is to raise student achievement and build a more collaborative school culture, said Katie Cour, the director of talent strategy for Metro Nashville Public Schools.

Cour said district officials hope to find half the teachers already working in Nashville schools, and half from around the country. The district will also recruit a handful of principals.

Teachers will have 11-month, rather than 10-month contracts — an annual salary bump of about $6,000 — and take on extra leadership activities, like facilitating classroom observations and feedback from other teachers.

Vilagie has never regretted returning to the world of low-performing, high-poverty schools to be a T3 leader. She said she enjoys working closely with other teachers for both the sense of camaraderie and the improvement she sees in her students. She said her teaching has also improved as a result of being observed by her teammates and getting feedback from them.

Initiatives like T3 and Nashville’s new recruitment project are part of a growing trend that recognizes that teachers often crave leadership opportunities even more than salary increases, and that when they’re granted them, achievement goes up. Other examples include the Teacher Peer Excellence Groups being piloted across the state, and a program where veteran teachers coach newcomers and struggling teachers in Shelby County Schools.

“Five or six years ago, we tried to get people to move for money alone, but that’s not why teachers teach,” Cour said.  “You can’t just pay them more. Our package is going to be much more support based, and aiming at things teachers do care more about — planning time, networking with their colleagues.”

Stephen Henry, the president of the Metropolitan Nashville Educators Association, the local branch of the state’s largest teachers union, said teachers left the low-performing schools quickly during Metro Nashville’s previous attempt to get effective teachers to struggling schools, because they wanted more than money.

What they really wanted was a leader who was inspired and they knew was there to support them and their work,” he said.

National studies have also shown that teachers want more than money as inducements to go to high-needs schools. Steven Glazerman did a study of teacher incentives for the research group Mathematica. He found that money alone was rarely enough to sway the best teachers to transfer to low-performing schools, although the ones that did transfer for higher pay boosted student achievement.

The idea for T3 came about when a group of Teach Plus teaching fellows met in 2009 with Carol Johnson, then the superintendent of Boston Public Schools, and currently Shelby County School’s interim academic advisor. One fellow asked Johnson what kept her up at night. She replied that it was trying to figure out how to match the best teachers with the highest need kids. The teaching fellows designed a proposal for T3, and Johnson enthusiastically signed on.

Since then, schools with T3 teachers’ — which had been the lowest performing in Massachusetts — have seen their scores meet or exceed the district average. T3 has expanded to Washington, D.C., and Indianapolis.

The T3 model of turnaround — in which only six or seven new teachers are introduced into a failing school, and the school retains the rest of its staff — is much less extensive than other turnaround models. In Tennessee, for example, the lowest-performing schools can be taken over by the state and converted to charters, or closed altogether.

Like other urban districts across the country, Nashville has been embroiled in a debate over failing schools, which came to a head in a series of community meetings this fall. Those meetings were held at schools eligible for drastic turnaround models because of their low test scores. Parents attending the meetings repeatedly asked to be spared the turmoil of all-new teachers or leadership.

That isn’t to say that more disruptive tactics to boost achievement at low-performing schools haven’t worked. In Nashville, a school taken over by the state and converted into a charter has thrived. Chris Reynolds, the CEO of LEAD Public Schools, the charter organization that converted the school, notes that part of the success was due to the knowledge of teachers who had been at the school in its previous iteration. Another school LEAD now manages, Cameron College Prep, was one of the fastest improving schools in the state.

In Memphis, dramatic turnaround efforts have had more mixed results, with some schools’ scores not being turned around at all, and in fact, getting worse.

And it’s unlikely that any one method will transform a struggling school into a standout by itself, Henry said.

“You can’t just take one deep breath and blow out a forest fire,” he said. 

Based on turnover rates typical at high-poverty schools, Cour said there will be enough openings for six or seven teachers at participating Nashville schools, and teachers with passing teacher evaluation scores will not be displaced.

“We can’t do it (turn around schools) without our current teachers,” Cour said.

District officials have already started contacting teachers from across the country they think might be a good fit due to past experience in turnaround schools. Cour said the district will budget for the new initiative, which will also include a few principal recruits, and will not rely on one-time grants.

“The district will pay for what we prioritize, and this is a priority,” she said.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”