Search reboot

Nashville’s mayor, school board reset the dial to find a new director

PHOTO: Dipti Vaidya
Megan Barry delivers her inaugural address on Sept. 25 as Nashville's new mayor. Improved public education was one of her top campaign promises.

After coming up empty-handed this summer in the search for Nashville’s next school chief, city leaders are revealing specifics of their new strategy for finding the best fit for the fast-changing district.

Newly elected Mayor Megan Barry, who pledged to make public education one of her top priorities when she took office in September, joined Metro Nashville’s Board of Education on Monday to announce a task force of 17 community leaders to jumpstart the city’s second search. This time around, the stakes are higher than ever in finding a school director who can propel Tennessee’s second-largest district forward in the face of low test scores, budget challenges, and often contentious debates over the best path forward.

The reset comes on the heels of a disappointing national search led earlier this year by a Chicago-based firm that pocketed the $42,000 consulting fee but was short on delivering many viable candidates. Ultimately, the Nashville board extended an offer to a neighboring director, Williamson County Schools Superintendent Mike Looney, who decided to stay put in his more affluent suburban enclave.

A replacement for recently retired director Jesse Register was supposed to begin work this summer, but would start next summer under the new timeline announced Monday. Chris Henson, the district’s longtime chief financial officer, is serving as interim director.

After the first search came up dry, the school board opted to wait until Nashville’s new mayor was elected before rebooting the quest in consultation with the city’s new leader.

The task force will be co-chaired by the mayor’s office and the Nashville Public Education Foundation and is to make recommendations to the board in January. From there, the board will choose a “formal search apparatus” and launch a national recruitment push to complete the process.

“I applaud the board’s decision to engage the full community in this search. I am optimistic that this diverse group of community leaders can work closely together to identify, recruit and hire a game-changing leader who will catapult the city’s public schools forward,” Barry said in a joint press release with the board.

Sharon Gentry, school board chairwoman, said the new approach should lead to new choices who are top-shelf leaders. “While the board must ultimately make the hiring decision, for us to successfully hire the kind of leader we all want, we must put our collective best foot forward as a city and a community,” she said.

The new director will face a bevy of challenges in running the nation’s 42nd largest district, with 86,000 students, more than 72 percent of whom are eligible for free and reduced-price meals.

When Register took the helm in 2010, the district was on the brink of state takeover for low performance. Since then, the school system has made strides, but still struggles to get most of its students up to grade level and meet the needs of its changing student population — which includes more English language learners than ever. State takeover still looms over some of the district’s schools, although now in the form of the Achievement School District, Tennessee school turnaround agent. And the polarizing debate over the expansion of charter schools, their financial impact on traditional public schools, and their role in raising the overall level of achievement in the city, often frames local conversation on education.

This time around, the board is banking that high-level community input can yield an experienced education leader who can be a consensus-building agent for school improvement.

When the panel begins its work this month, its research will be guided by three questions:

  1. What does Nashville need? What are Nashville’s biggest challenges? How does it stack up against other cities/districts? What does this point to in terms of the profile of an effective director of schools?
  2. Who might fit that profile? Are there “bright spots” across the country in terms of districts or systems achieving significant gains or innovations in these areas?
  3. Are we competitive enough to attract high-caliber candidates? How does Nashville’s compensation package compare with like-minded or -sized districts? Are there other things Nashville can do to make the position more attractive?

Members of the search advisory committee are:

  • David Briley, vice mayor
  • Sheila Calloway, juvenile court judge
  • Bill Carpenter, chairman and CEO, LifePoint Health
  • The Rev. V. H. Sonnye Dixon, Interdenominational Ministers Fellowship
  • Marc Hill, chief policy officer, Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce
  • Shannon Hunt, president and CEO, Nashville Public Education Foundation
  • Erick Huth, President, Metropolitan Nashville Education Association
  • Kristin McGraner, founder and executive director, STEM Prep
  • Janet Miller, CEO, Colliers International
  • Rich Riebeling, chief operating officer, mayor’s office
  • Mark Rowan, president, Griffin Technology
  • Renata Soto, executive director, Conexión Américas
  • Stephanie Spears, president, MNPS Parent Advisory Council
  • The Rev. Ed Thompson, Nashville Organized for Action and Hope
  • Robbin Wall, principal, McGavock High School
  • Ludye N. Wallace, president, NAACP Nashville
  • David Williams, vice chancellor, Vanderbilt University

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