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.

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.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.