Nashville’s education landscape is as fluctuant as the topography of the great state of Tennessee. From the 1962 historic merging of city and county to Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools’ 1998 declaration of unitary status, forever ending busing, Nashville has seen no shortage of movement. But the community’s cyclical activity of the last fifteen years serves as a cautionary tale replete with lessons and warnings.
ISO – Change Agent
It was after the 2001 retirement of the highly respected MNPS director of schools Dr. Bill Wise when the community’s thought-hierarchy decided it was time for real change in education. Under the leadership of school board chair, George Thompson along with select stakeholders and a reputable search firm, the group project produced a Cuban-American, tough-talking California firebrand. The process that produced Dr. Pedro Garcia was not without its problems, still, with open arms, Nashville lovingly welcomed the first-ever minority director of schools.
Garcia was an instant celebrity in what was becoming the “New Nashville.” The once sleepy town known only for its country music transformed overnight into a burgeoning metropolis with the introduction of big city ideas like professional sports team. Thanks to former New Yorker and shrewd businessman former mayor Phil Bredesen, Nashville’s “It” was born.
Loving life in big-city skivvies, Nashvillians hired nice guy Bill Purcell (Northerner). Then-mayor Purcell increased the It-itude and proved to be Nashville’s most pro-education mayor up to that point.
Yes, the city properly primed for change-making outsiders, set up a sweet situation for the new director of schools. Using his carte-blanche privileges, the fearless leader walked into his new digs and unapologetically dropped verbal bombs like “body bags” and “dysfunctional” (cringe). Maybe it was the new sports vibe, but with each explosion, Garcia’s celebrity seemed to skip traditional growth increments.
And while the director was busy scorching earth, the women and men in the trenches got burned and, yes, body-bagged. Garcia’s take no prisoners approach to personnel matters fueled his popularity. Until it didn’t.
Here We Go
Community support for the director of schools is vital to one’s tenure, but the director is accountable to nine women and men charged with signing his paycheck. The 2006 school board and its one employee kept the media busy with verbal jabs, accusations of questionable hires, and the battle around a controversial rezoning plan that led to a million dollar lawsuit.
Not surprisingly, Garcia’s “resignation” was unanimously approved in January 2008 and, without fanfare, the king of controversy cleaned out his office and headed for the California hills. The former director’s fan club vanished even before his tenure vanquished.
ISO – Stabilizer
The failed community experiment of 2001 forced both community leaders and school board members to readjust. The morale of teachers and administrators had plummeted to gutter status and the local teacher’s union combative retorts only fueled the problem. And if this was the only muddle to un-mud, Nashville would have been lucky.
As the school board established its search strategy, it was also busy defending its national reputation for in-fighting and “little” problem with the state. By multiple indicators, Metro Schools was failing children which forced the Tennessee Department of Education to occupy central office and the district’s least performing schools.
So, led by school board chair David Fox armed with another reputable search firm, community input, this time, was held at arms length. Healing from recent leadership battles, the board took charge of the search process, even under the thumb of new mayor, Karl Dean (another Northerner and charter supporter) who graciously (?) footed the bill.
Stained as a state-occupied school district with a new pro-charter mayor, the school board-controlled search yielded venerable educator and superintendent, Dr. Jesse Register. Non-controversial check. Experienced check. Teacher-friendly check. Handles controversy check. He was the answer to the cries for stability and righting the ship.
Register, a former Chattanooga public schools superintendent and consultant with Brown University, arrived on the scene using insightful phrases like capacity-building and transformational leadership. Making good on promises made during his interview, Register convened the city’s intelligentsia in groups of strategic think-clusters tasked with goal-setting to improve student achievement and atmosphere.
Though not cloaked with the celebrity of his predecessor, he commanded respect from his ability to identify great leaders, strategic decision making, and effective relationship maintenance with his nine bosses. Until he didn’t.
Here We Go Again
Seemingly overnight, the director’s favorability rating went from back-patting approval to teeth-kicked-in rejection. There are all kinds of rumors, but the most told tale claimed Register ticked off a board member. After a few short months of board members questioning decisions and alleged policy breaches, the dispirited director announced in 2014 he would not seek an extension to his contract. The man who never requested a pay increase, increased choice for parents, and saved staff morale from the brink of death began his goodbye tour.
This time, though, the community did not turn its back. The embattled former director was properly honored with a farewell and hail.
ISO – Change(?)
The community that produced the celebrity change-agent and supported the ship-righting dynamo wanted back in the game. After a failed attempt to produce a director in 2015 (with the same reputable search firm that produced Register), new mayor Megan Barry (Midwesterner – see pattern?) and other political-types decided the board needed assistance. Enter community task force (remember this?) and a second search firm. This marriage of great intents and purposes, led by school board chair Dr. Sharon Dixon Gentry, produced Dr. Shawn Joseph, from Prince George’s County, MD.
So far, So good
To date, Dr. Joseph has the full support of the school board and community. While he has not reached celebrity status, the new director has made quite an impression on the minds and hearts of Nashvillians. Additionally, to his credit, Dr. Joseph appears to be aware of the ever-changing landscape and adept at navigating the terrain dotted with anti-charter land mines.
Just recently, the new director addressed all principals in the system without qualification to the type of school they lead (good on you, sir!). At the same time, there are reports that recently hired MNPS chief of staff, Jana Carlisle, removed all charter references from her public profile. While this may seem like conflicting messaging to some, it just looks like survival to me.
Joseph has made it clear that he sees all schools, regardless of format, as part of one district. One district, I like that. #onedistrict (roll with me)
Stay the Course
This blogger, a former district employee, feels frightfully protective of the new director of schools. Unable to discern if it is because he’s young, or because he’s a black male, or simply because he a deserves a shot, I just want Dr. Joseph to succeed. Nearly 90,000 children are depending on him to get it right and he needs our support.
Dr. Joseph: I’ve got your back. It may not mean much now, but judging the history of our education timeline, it’s sure to come in handy.
Nashville’s education discussion ebbs and flows like the mighty Mississippi that snakes through west Tennessee. We have demanded change and craved stability. We have focused on data to the detriment of people and spotlighted personnel while sleeping on student achievement. The landscape fluctuates, but doing what’s right for children, well, that should never change.