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.

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 [email protected]

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.”