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

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.