A version of this post was first published in The Contributor, a community magazine created specifically for Nashville’s homeless and citizens in poverty “by creating economic opportunity with dignity.” Vendors are allowed to purchase the magazine for a minimal cost and sell them at a higher price to ensure a hefty profit margin. The program is wildly successful as it has helped numerous women and men get back on their feet and into places of their own. Volume and Light has permission to post this piece.
It’s been a rough 2018 so far in our fair city. In nine months, Nashvillians watched their most popular mayor to date resign over misusing public money, they endured a fiery battle over a multi-billion dollar transit plan, and waded through the soul-crushing divisive politics of a premature, yet abbreviated mayoral election, and two runoff elections.
Interspersed between the political cannon balls, the nation watched in horror a video of the shooting death of twenty-five-year-old Daniel Hambrick by the hand of a Nashville police officer of the same age. And residents mourned the four lives lost in a random shooting at a local Waffle House. If it wasn’t for the heroic effort of James Shaw Jr., who wrestled a searing gun from the crazed shooter, the death toll would have been higher.
Not to minimize the weight of the scandals and the shooting deaths, but there’s a separate problem that’s slowly killing generations of Nashvillians. Through gross neglect and infighting in our public schools, thousands of our babies, year, after year, are trudging through a public school system that isn’t preparing them for any kind of success in life.
Over the past two hundred and fifty days, things have been doubly challenging for our public schools. Families and educators alike are summoning the strength to hold on beneath a tsunami of stories involving financial mismanagement, poorly handled sexual misconduct cases, and a growing number of lawsuits against the district by former employees. Coupled with the local media’s commitment to spotlighting the district’s operational shortcomings is the continuing saga of the soured relationship between the director of schools and the school board’s most outspoken members. While the adults entertain themselves, the mission of educating Nashville’s children sits in timeout, forgotten and feeble.
Case in point: Three weeks ago, Tennessee’s Department of Education released important news about how our schools are doing. Metro Nashville School District landed in the lowest category possible: In Need of Improvement. We also learned Nashville’s priority school list, schools scoring in the bottom five percent in the state, grew from 15 to 21. Sadly, several disturbing patterns emerge when looking at the data in the aggregate. Nashville’s twenty-one priority schools are located in low-income neighborhoods. More than eighty percent Black and Hispanic students, who are considered “traditionally underserved”, are enrolled in these schools. What’s worse, many of the schools have a long history of appearing on the state’s most serious lists. Finally, the list includes schools that feed into each other offering families in already distressed communities a continuum of underresourced, underperforming schools.
Since the lists were released on a late Friday afternoon, Director of Schools Dr. Shawn Joseph and School Board Chair Dr. Sharon Gentry took advantage of the weekend by publishing a joint op-ed with Mayor David Briley and Vice Mayor Jim Shulman and scheduled a Monday morning press conference to announce the plan to remedy poor performing schools. Sadly, the remediation plan did not capture the public’s attention. The effort to help roughly 10,000 traditionally underserved students and hundreds of educators in many of the city’s historically underperforming schools evaporated at the first hint of sunlight. Instead, local Twitter and Facebook shifted much-needed energy from school performance and pending additional resources to the director’s ‘defensive” interaction with a reporter.
We have reached a critical point where we no longer separate the work and outcomes of the district from the personality leading it. This is not to suggest the director shouldn’t be held accountable for behavior, but rather to urge us to reserve the highest expectations for how the district is living up to its commitment to children. When the director’s leadership falls short of the promise then we absolutely should call that performance into question.
Admittedly, I was not a fan of the campaign to minimize the seriousness of Nashville’s priority schools list. The op-ed was the least of my favorite action items in the plan to soften the blow. But, one line resonated with me and should be used as the school board’s northstar now and into the future:
“But we will only succeed if we find a way to bicker less and instead work together to equitably address historic challenges of underfunding of our public schools.”
I might also add— we must address the challenges of low-to-zero expectations for Black, Hispanic, low-income, and Special Education students.
Ultimately, we are all implicated in the under-educating of our children. We elected the school board members who hired the director of schools and we sit idle. And we empower them, and condone their in-fighting, finger-pointing, and failure through our silence. With every news story about the director’s attitude or ill-advised communications, we move further away from our assignment and children fall victim to the gap. Stephen Covey once said “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” Our main thing is protecting our future by pouring into Nashville’s children today.