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

Election Forum

Tennesseans are about to get their first good look at candidates for governor on education

PHOTO: TN.gov
Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tennesseans will elect their next governor in November.

For almost 16 years, two Tennessee governors from two different political parties have worked off mostly the same playbook when it comes to K-12 education.

This year, voters will choose a new governor who will determine if that playbook stays intact — or takes a different direction from the administrations of Bill Haslam, a Republican leaving office next January, and Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who preceded him.

Voters will get to hear from all but one of the major candidates Tuesday evening during the first gubernatorial forum televised statewide. Organizers say the spotlight on education is fitting since, based on one poll, it’s considered one of the top three issues facing Tennessee’s next governor. Both K-12 and higher education are on the table.

Candidates participating are:

  • Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet and former Tennessee state senator;
  • Randy Boyd, a Republican from Knoxville and former commissioner of Economic and Community Development and a Republican from Knoxville;
  • Karl Dean, a Democrat and former mayor of Nashville;
  • Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley and minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville and speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County

The seventh major candidate, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is in the midst of a congressional session in Washington, D.C.

The next governor will help decide whether Tennessee will stay the course under its massive overhaul of K-12 education initiated under Bredesen’s watch. The work was jump-started by the state’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, for which Tennessee agreed to adopt the Common Core academic standards for math and English; incorporate students’ scores from standardized tests in annual teacher evaluations; and establish a state-run turnaround district to intervene in low-performing schools at an unprecedented level.

Tennessee has since enjoyed steady student growth and watched its national rankings rise, but the transition hasn’t been pain-free. Pushback on its heavy-handed turnaround district led to changes in school improvement strategies. Leaders also ordered new academic standards due to political backlash over the Common Core (though the revised standards are still basically grounded in Common Core).

A major issue now is whether the next governor and legislature will retain Tennessee’s across-the-board system of accountability for students, teachers, schools and districts. Snafus and outright failures with TNReady, the new standardized test that serves as the lynchpin, have prompted some calls to make the assessment just a diagnostic tool or scrap it altogether. Haslam and his leadership team have stood firm.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat recently. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group that works closely with Tennessee’s Department of Education, is a co-host of Tuesday’s forum. Known as SCORE, the group has sought to shape the election-year conversation with priorities that include teacher quality, improving literacy, and developing school leaders — all outgrowths of learnings during Tennessee’s Race to the Top era.

SCORE President David Mansouri said the goal is to maintain the momentum of historic gains in student achievement from the last decade. “The next administration’s education policy decisions will be crucial in determining whether Tennessee students continue to progress faster than students in other states and whether they graduate ready for postsecondary success,” he said Monday.

The one-hour forum will delve into a range of issues. College and career readiness, education equity, and school funding will be among the topics broached before each candidate is allowed a one-minute closing statement, according to David Plazas, a Tennessean editor who will help moderate the discussion.

“It will be really exciting,” Plazas promised. “We’re hoping the candidates are prepared to talk substantively on the issues and to avoid slogans.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. CT at Nashville’s Belmont University. Along with SCORE, it’s being co-hosted by USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. You can livestream the event here and learn more about attending or watching here.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

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