Jesse Register on his legacy as director of Metro Nashville Public Schools, and advice for the future

Jesse Register’s six-year run as director of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools came to an end last week. During his tenure, the state’s second-largest school district was transformed by forces often out of his control — including explosive growth of the city’s charter school sector and state reforms that changed academic standards and the way teachers are evaluated. Yet, amid all the changes, the school system of about 82,000 students progressed from being on the brink of state takeover to showing steady academic improvement.

On his last official day on the job, Register, 68, spoke with Chalkbeat about what he’s learned. A former schools chief in Hamilton County, Tenn., and Iredell County, N.C., he also offered his advice for Nashville’s next director of schools, who is expected to be named later this month. Here are the highlights of our interview:

When you came to Nashville, Metro Schools were on the verge of state takeover or mayoral control. What were the biggest steps in advancing to this point of stability?

When I came in 2009, there was a lot of concern about public schools. The community wanted to see improvement, and Mayor (Karl) Dean was concerned about the state of the schools. At that time, state government was making administrative appointments and a lot of the decisions for the school system. Since that time, we’ve gotten to where we are an achieving school district. I’ve actually seen some of the preliminary test scores this year, and of course those are embargoed, but we’re going to be in good shape this year. We’ve made very steady, very substantial progress in the school system

In 2009, the organizational culture in the school system was not healthy. There really was a defensive culture, not a collaborative culture. Some people describe it as a culture of fear. People weren’t willing to take risks. There were no people stepping out to take leadership roles in the school improvement process. Since that time, I’m very proud of the fact that the district’s organizational culture has changed significantly. We’re building leadership capacity, and have been doing that all along, and I think we’re beginning to see the results.

It takes a long time to change culture, attitude and beliefs. You just can’t do that overnight. We started early on trying to build instructional leadership capacity at the school level. One thing I did was to decentralize instructional leadership. We took the curriculum coordinators out of the central office and built a system of school-based instructional coaches. We wanted to beef up instructional leadership at the school level, and at the same time we were quite concerned that the principal, who is so important in leadership, had not had a lot of training in how to be highly effective instructional leaders. We started a program six years ago and used a consultant out of Charlotte, N.C., and started giving principals professional development on how to be expert observers of good instruction and excellent coaches for teachers. That program was called the Skillful Observation Lab. That program reached every administrator in our district. We built that program to the point where we now have a cadre of leadership trainers, and it’s institutionalized. I dare say our principals are light years away from where they were in being expert observers of good instruction and helping teachers focus on best practice and improve.

The thing that goes along with that is a student-based budget. We are giving more funds directly to schools, and giving principals and the school leadership teams greater autonomy and flexibility in how to use those funds. The big one is staffing. Principals have much more flexibility in how to hire teachers and counselors and stuff like that, and that’s going to scale this year.

One program I’m really proud of is the Teacher Leadership Institute. That’s 60 teachers a year. One group is the highest performing third-year teachers — the rising stars if you will — we give them a year’s leadership experience, but they stay in the classroom. They have monthly meetings and summer institutes to really build those leaderships skills. And then we have a second cohort of veteran teachers who are leaders in their schools. We want them to be a much bigger voice in the district. We’ve been doing this now for four years, and these people are really expanding our leadership capacity. I feel like it’s really pushing us forward.

How did changes in state policy, especially those related to Race to the Top such as teacher evaluations and new standards, impact what you do?

I think the change in teacher evaluation is very good — to a point. The state put some brakes on it last year, and I think I agree I with that. Teachers aren’t ready to be evaluated yet on student achievement. They don’t trust the system well enough. I think it’s wise to slow down on that, which the state is doing. I hope that what we’ve done with leadership training has our teachers well-prepared for where the state’s going. 

"Teachers aren’t ready to be evaluated yet on student achievement. They don’t trust the system well enough."

I think the change for higher standards is a very positive move, when I think about what we want our children to know and be able to do. The hard part is getting past the transition, that we don’t lose a lot of teachers in that process.

Frankly, I’m very excited that Candice McQueen is our state education commissioner. I think she’s absolutely the right person for job. She’s an expert in teacher training. I had the opportunity to work for her some when she was at Lipscomb (University) in Nashville, and I think she’s terrific.

What advice do you have for the next mayor and superintendent?

Mayor Dean really has been a great advocate for public education, and it’s been a great pleasure to work with him. He and I haven’t agreed on everything, but that’s OK. The support we’ve had in Nashville from Metro Council and the mayor has been outstanding. We went through pretty tough economic times in the country, and they kept education funding as a top priority. We don’t have everything that we need, but I’ll tell you, this support is unlike anything else I’ve experienced in the two different states I’ve worked in. (Dean) cares about education, and we’re very proud of some of the programs we’ve worked on together.

I hope that when we look at the new director and new mayor, whoever that will be, that they develop a collaborative working relationship. That’s what has to happen. As you know, there’s been some divisiveness and differences of opinion on some big issues in Nashville, and the community needs to come together, and the leadership in the community needs to come together.

What do you foresee happening with the BEP formula, which the state uses to determine how much money that school systems should receive. Many local district leaders say the state is not fully funding districts based on the formula. Why is that money important?

I hope that the governor and the legislature will take advantage of the fact that we’re having pretty good economic times in Tennessee. One way it’s been quantified and defined is that we’re probably about $500 million a year short of fully funding the BEP. I hope it can be a plan moving forward where the state really looks at this and makes sure it’s adequately funding schools in the state.

The big concern for me is teacher salaries. The salary component of the BEP is significantly less than the real world, what we need to pay teachers. We can’t solve these problems in a year, but we need to constructively look at how to do that in the next three and four years.

I don’t think you can constructively solve that problem in court. It will take seven, eight, ten years. I don’t think courts are the answer. If people who care about education will come together and look at solutions and then make a commitment to that in Tennessee, I think we’d all be better off.

What has been your relationship with the state-run Achievement School District (ASD), which will be in charge of two former Metro Nashville schools beginning this fall?

I disagreed with the decision for the Achievement School District to take Neely’s Bend (Middle Prep). It was our highest-performing priority school, and I felt like we had a fix in place. I communicated with (ASD Superintendent) Chris Barbic and our charter providers, but I didn’t feel like that was a good decision.

The other side is Brick Church (Middle School) is the first Achievement School District school in Nashville, and it’s proven to be pretty successful. There just has to be good communication there. We have several other schools that could be taken by the Achievement School District, and I think it’s really important that the state and local districts talk it through and see if it’s really the best decision to do the ASD takeover, or have some other process for having good schools. We need improvement plans that will work, that are aggressive. Whether it’s the ASD or district-approved charter schools or zoned schools or magnet schools, the point is to have good schools.

What types of school turnaround programs would you like to see expanded?

I was really pleased with the work that was done in our priority schools this year. We increased resources, and we took actions to help us find and bring on board early turnaround leadership for these schools. We gave them authority to hire high-quality teachers, and that’s the bottom line: teachers and leaders.

We’re looking at the community schools effort, wraparound services for students and families. Tony Majors is our chief officer for student services, and he’s working really hard to make sure we’re doing things to support the education of children in a holistic way.

"Quite frankly ... this present charter school debate is very polarizing — and I think destructive."

In Nashville, we have 30 percent of all English Language Learners in the state. We have high percentages at some schools of students who are just learning to speak English, and we have recent immigrants, refugees in some cases, and we have to look at making sure we have resources going into those programs, and that people in those schools are well-trained to help those children learn.

We have a pre-K at Caza Azafran that’s very international. We’re seeing kids who are not speaking English just advance so quickly. It’s language development, it’s communication skills development, and I think we have some important lessons to learn from that.

What are the biggest challenges facing your successor?

I think it’s a big school system, it’s a big organization. To keep the work going, we have a new strategic plan, and it’s very good. My advice would be for the new superintendent to learn about the community as much as he or she can. I think we can do better in that area of community engagement and improving our communication systems. Our communications department is working on a new plan, and there’s a lot to gain from implementing that.

Quite frankly, and I don’t want to get into a lot of detail here, but this present charter school debate is very polarizing — and I think destructive. That needs to come together. I’m hopeful that Project RESET and other efforts will help us develop a common vision. I think that’s going to be a challenge for the new director: developing a good working relationship and pulling the board together.


Editor’s note: Each month, Chalkbeat conducts a Q&A interview with a different leader, innovator, influential thinker or hero across Tennessee’s education community. We invite our readers to email Chalkbeat your suggestions for future subjects to