Shelby County Schools innovation chief is finalist for Nashville school director

Brad Leon, chief of strategy and innovation for Shelby County Schools, is the only Tennessean among six finalists announced on Tuesday for the top job at Metro Nashville Public Schools.

Leon oversees the Memphis district’s prized school turnaround program known as the Innovation Zone, along with district-authorized charter schools, online education and data research.

Nashville school officials recently have toured Memphis’ iZone, which has delivered steady academic gains in some of Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools. Behind Memphis, Nashville has the state’s second-largest concentration of low-performing schools, and several Nashville leaders have said the district should emulate the iZone initiative.

Other candidates for the Nashville director’s job are:

  • Joel Boyd, superintendent, Santa Fe Public Schools in New Mexico;
  • Jesus Jara, deputy superintendent, Orange County Public Schools in Florida;
  • Shawn Joseph, deputy superintendent, Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland;
  • H. Allen Smith, chief of schools, Oakland Unified School District in California;
  • Kenneth Zeff, interim superintendent, Fulton County Schools in Georgia

Leon, 38, began his education career through Teach For America as a middle school language arts and social studies teacher at a New Orleans charter school. He was voted the school’s Teacher of the Year in 2002. He went on to become a regional vice president at Teach For America and the first regional executive director of TFA in Memphis, serving in that role from 2006 to 2010. He was hired in 2013 to lead Shelby County Schools’ innovation department and is one of the longest-serving members of Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s cabinet.

Leon shared last month with Hopson and his cabinet that he had applied for the Nashville director’s job, but declined prior to Tuesday’s announcement to comment.

“I am 100 percent focused on the work we have ahead of us in Shelby County to reach our Destination 2025 goals and feel fortunate that I get to be part of an outstanding group of people that include the iZone, our performance management and digital learning teams,” he told Chalkbeat last week.

Hopson said Leon’s leadership and relationships with education and philanthropic leaders across the state makes him an appealing candidate.

“Brad is a very thoughtful and reflective leader who puts students at the forefront of his decision-making,” Hopson said. “He is very collaborative, data-driven and systems-oriented.”

Nashville has been without a superintendent for a year following the retirement of Jesse Register, and this is its second search for a replacement. The school board’s top pick last year, Mike Looney, turned down the job to stay at the helm of neighboring Williamson County Schools.

This time around, the board has worked with Mayor Megan Barry, who formed a panel of community leaders to assist in the search process. Barry took office in January and identified better schools as one of her top priorities. During her campaign, she said the district should “recruit a highly qualified director of schools who has experience turning around lower-performing schools in an urban school district similar to Nashville.”

The school board is expected to choose its new director within two weeks, and candidate interviews are scheduled for this week. If Leon is picked for the job, he would move from the nation’s 23rd largest school district to the 40th largest, based on 2014 data. Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools reports an enrollment of more than 86,000 students.