Bully pulpit

Next Nashville mayor will help shape city’s schools

A view of downtown Nashville from above Tennessee's second-largest city, which is also the state capital

For a period in 2008, Nashville Mayor Karl Dean appeared poised to take almost complete control of the city’s schools, allowing him to handpick school board members and the superintendent. Due to timing and student achievement gains, that didn’t come to pass — but Dean has had a huge impact on the city’s schools anyway.

In August, Nashville will elect a new mayor. Officially, he or she will be responsible for how much money the city allots to Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. Unofficially, the city’s new leader will have a platform from which to direct the schools and community, possibly in an entirely different direction than the course taken by Dean, who focused primarily on expanding Nashville’s charter school sector.

“The mayor has a bully pulpit from which to talk about education,” said Pearl Sims, who worked in the mayor’s office in the 1990s, when Phil Bredesen was mayor, and is now a professor at Lipscomb University’s civic leadership institute. “He or she can have really the power to build strong relations with the community and community providers.”

Through words alone, the mayor can reframe the educational conversation in the state’s second largest school system. During the 1950s, Mayor Ben West advocated for the end of de jure desegregation in Nashville’s schools. Most recently, Dean has been a strong proponent of charter schools and of Teach for America, which places elite college graduates in teaching positions in low-income neighborhoods.

One means of starting conversations is by creating task forces. Wendy Tucker, Dean’s education advisor and a member of the State Board of Education, believes the outgoing mayor’s crowning educational achievement is not his work with charter schools, but a set of recommendations around special education that came out of a task force he convened. The recommendations were implemented later by the school system.

"The mayor has a bully pulpit from which to talk about education."Pearl Sims, Lipscomb University civic leadership institute

Metro Nashville Schools used to have almost exclusively self-contained special education classes, meaning that, despite research suggesting that the practice isn’t ideal, most special education students were cloistered in separate classes from their peers. Based on recommendations from the task force, the district moved to integrate special education students into mainstream classrooms.

“Because of the work of the task force and his leadership, the district basically got rid of the vast majority of those classes,” said Tucker, who is also the parent of a special education student. “That made a huge difference in the lives of students.”

Historically, Nashville mayors also have had an indirect impact on how much money the district gets from the state. Bill Purcell, Dean’s predecessor, often testified to the Tennessee legislature about the need for more school funding. During his tenure, the legislature passed BEP 2.0, a revised state funding formula that put significantly more money in district coffers.

Since then, the state again has fallen behind on funding. Nashville’s school board has ruled out a lawsuit against the state, but board members wouldn’t mind the next mayor going directly to lawmakers to plead the case for more funds.

“The mayor could beat that drum loudly,” says Will Pinkston, a board member who also advised Bredesen on educational issues during his subsequent governorship.

Mayor Karl Dean
PHOTO: Nashville.gov
Mayor Karl Dean

Mayors’ words can be especially potent when paired with money. As mayor, Bredesen had his hand in every Nashville classroom when he raised money for the “core curriculum,” which has no relation to the Common Core standards and focuses on specific academic skills designed to avoid gaps in basic knowledge. That curriculum was gutted after Bredesen left office, however.

Dean’s major education initiatives — starting a charter school incubator that has brought seven charters to Nashville and establishing a relationship with Teach for America, which has about 200 corps members in 70 Nashville schools and 480 alumni in the area — will far outlast his tenure.

The new mayor also will be paired with a new school superintendent, which the district expects to name later this month. How the mayor navigates that relationship will impact school system policy.

Jesse Register, who was Nashville’s superintendent until his retirement from the job in June, sat down with Dean at least once a month to talk about the state of the city’s schools. Register said the two often had different views on education policy — they notoriously clashed on charter school expansion — but that the conversations were fruitful.

“He and I haven’t agreed on everything, but that’s OK,” Register said, crediting their conversations with leading to the expansion of pre-kindergarten programs in Nashville. “The support we’ve had from Metro Council is amazing. We went through tough economic times and (Dean) kept education as a top  priority.

Though it’s unlikely the next mayor will handpick school board members, Dean’s successor might be more involved in working with the district’s board of education.

Pinkston said he hopes to see more collaboration among the next mayor, the school board and the city council.

“The more we three can plan together, the more we can make the school system a better place,” Pinkston said.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

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