Nashville schools director hails high expectations, diversity in final address

PHOTO: G. Tatter
Nashville Schools Director Jesse Register, who delivered his final State of the Schools address Wednesday, speaks to educators and community members last August.

In his final State of the Schools address, outgoing Nashville Director Jesse Register on Wednesday urged community and education leaders “to believe that every child can learn,” including students who live in poverty, struggle with disabilities or are learning to speak English as a second language.

“We want to provide an excellent education for every student – regardless of their backgrounds, their race, their family or the school they attend. Our students deserve no less,” Register told students, educators and civic leaders gathered at Overton High School.

Register, 68, who is retiring from his job in June, used the platform as a farewell speech and challenged the community to avoid divisive debate and work together in behalf all students.

He chronicled his work in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools since 2009, when he took the helm of a district in disarray, plagued by low student achievement, financial mismanagement, and the flight of affluent students to private and suburban schools.

The district had failed to keep pace with its changing student population, he said. So many schools had failed to meet adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act that the federal government designated the school system as being in need of “restructuring.”

“There was systemic acceptance that ‘some kids’ just won’t do as well as others,” Register recalled. “. . . It’s a mentality that we still combat today in many places. It’s not borne out of maliciousness – quite the opposite. It often comes from a place of compassion and empathy, from principals and teachers who think: ‘How can this student who is dealing with so much in life be expected to learn like other kids?'”

Register cited support from Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and then-Gov. Phil Bredesen’s public education reforms that brought a federal Race to the Top grant to Tennessee — about $40 million of which went to Nashville public schools – as crucial to overcoming this mentality.

His arrival in Nashville also coincided with the onset of far-reaching state education reforms that included implementing the Common Core State Standards; creation of the state’s school turnaround program known as the Achievement School District; and significant expansion of Tennessee’s charter school sector, resulting in Nashville having the second most charter schools in the state. Growth of charters continues to incite contention among members of the Nashville Board of Education, in which Register often has found himself in the middle.

As schools director, he oversaw a number of local reforms, including the restructuring of high schools into career-oriented academies — a reform lauded by President Barack Obama during a visit to Nashville in January of 2014 — and the expansion of pre-kindergarten programs.

He highlighted changes in special education programming, emphasis on differentiated instruction, and an embracing of racial and socioeconomic diversity in Nashville schools.

Jesse Register
Jesse Register

“Many of you may not realize this. Our school system has no majority group in its student population. Our racial and ethnic groups are all less than 50 percent of our total district enrollment. As a district, we are the picture of diversity,” said Register, adding that its demographics make Nashville unique.

“We’re one of the relatively few school systems in the nation pursuing integrated education voluntarily. We are not legally required to do so. We choose to do so. . . . There are those who believe that diversity and quality are not compatible, but we are proving this to be wrong!”

Register said Nashville’s integrated schools are achieved by staying flexible instead of pursuing rigid percentages or quotas. “Our definition of diversity not only considers racial and ethnic diversity, but also income, language and disability,” he said.

Although the growth of Nashville’s charter sector is one of the most high-profile developments during his tenure, Register uttered the word “charter” only once in his speech, when discussing the takeover of an elementary school in East Nashville by KIPP, a national charter management organization. He did, however, allude to debates about accountability and public school finances that charters that have helped to spur, adding that while debate is healthy, it also can be divisive and put the school system in a “dangerous place.”

You can read his full remarks here.

Contact Grace Tatter at [email protected]

Follow us on Twitter: @GraceTatter, @chalkbeattn.

Like us on Facebook.

Sign up for our newsletter for regular updates on Tennessee education news.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.