To steer local schools, Nashville taps a diverse Maryland district’s second in command

When Shawn Joseph becomes director of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools on July 1, he will inherit a school district that has struggled to keep pace with its increasingly diverse student population.

Joseph should have plenty of experience to draw on. He is currently second in command in Maryland’s Prince George’s County, which has undergone many of the same shifts affecting Nashville schools. The school district there saw middle-class and white families depart in droves over the last decade, leaving behind a population of almost exclusively poor black and Hispanic students.

Joseph verbally agreed Friday to a contract with the Nashville school board, which voted unanimously to make him the leader of the nation’s 42nd largest district. The agreement ends more than a year of uncertainty during which the school board’s first-round pick declined the position — and marks the first time that Nashville has chosen someone who is not white to run its schools. Joseph is black, as are nearly half of city students.

Nashville Mayor Megan Barry, whose administration worked with the school board in its second director search, called Joseph “an inspired choice.”

“His commitment to equity and access is critical to ensuring that every child has access to a world-class public school, regardless of their zip code,” Barry said.

Joseph, 41, will need to bring unity to a school board that has been divided over growth of the city’s charter school sector, as well as in sweeping changes on Tennessee’s education landscape under the state’s Race to the Top plan.

While charters have not played a major role in his Maryland district, Joseph has called them an “important asset.”

Throughout the interview process, he emphasized the spirit of collaboration he would bring to public education in Nashville. He also talked about the importance of having diverse district leadership in order to attract more diverse teachers. Nearly 75 percent of the district’s teachers are white, compared to only a third of its students.

In choosing Joseph, Nashville’s board has picked an education leader who has never been superintendent of a large urban district but has experience at multiple levels, having been a principal in diverse Montgomery County, Md.; teacher and superintendent in a small district in Delaware; and second-in-command of Prince George County, a district of 129,000 students, most of whom are black.

He agreed to a four-year contract that will pay him $285,000 annually, about $19,000 more than Register earned.

Joseph was one of six finalists announced for the district’s top job. The only Tennessean among those finalists, Shelby County Schools innovation chief Brad Leon of Memphis, did not make the short list.

Nashville is the first of Tennessee’s three largest districts to fill superintendent openings. Districts in Knoxville and Chattanooga are looking for new leaders as well.