A Moral Issue

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img_0496As I sit down to write this piece, I feel like I need to make a couple of statements before diving into the main topic at hand. First, in a recent post I raised the question of why parents might choose charter schools, but please don’t mistake my deeper understanding of this issue as a softening of my position on charter school growth (as some may have tried to insinuate). I am as opposed to the concept of charter schools as I’ve ever been; I’m just more opposed to hypocrisy, and at present, Nashville seems to be suffering more from the latter than the general issue of charter schools.

I will also add that I don’t understand how people can support a moratorium on charter schools and not devote an equal amount of time to ensuring that our current schools have all the resources needed. How do you look a parent in the eye and tell them you have stopped charter school growth, but as a result, their child will be going to a school with 23 portables, which should get warm after the first hour or so, but they will need a coat as the bathrooms are in the main building?

Secondly, Diane Ravitch was kind enough to pick up my last piece on the situation with Metro Nashville Public Schools’ new director. She used stronger language at the time than I probably would have used, but upon reflection, it was the right language. You see, what her critics missed was that she didn’t call for Dr. Joseph’s immediate dismissal, but rather “If the elected board can’t straighten out this mess and revise Dr. Joseph’s contract to assure that he works for the board – the board does not work for him – then it’s time to cut their losses and terminate his contract.” That’s a little different than the hyperbole shared over at Education Post. I guess that Common Core close reading strategy hasn’t extended to adults yet.

Diane took a lot of heat in the comments section of that piece on her blog, and at one point gave this response: “I know and trust TC Weber, a Nashville public school parent.” Wow. She will never know how much that one comment meant. When you write pieces like this, unless you are out to purposely do harm, which I am not, you second-guess yourself a lot and you quadruple check your research and then you open yourself up for criticism. To have someone like Diane Ravitch unequivocally support you is deeply reaffirming, and I thank her for that. Now on to the meat of this post:

In response to my recent blog post, the MNPS Communications Department issued a memo. It stated, “In looking to hire the best executive team possible, Dr. Joseph sought to bring people to Nashville who have the experience and knowledge necessary to make major improvements to our educational system.” I think that’s a very reasonable statement and one that I could get behind. But unfortunately, I have access to Google and LinkedIn. So let’s take a look at a few members of the new executive team. Plenty has already been said about the Chiefs, so let’s look at the next tier, the Executive Officers and Directors. Quite a few of the positions at this executive level did not exist last year, including 2 of the 3 that I discuss below, and all come with a salary of $155k a year.

Anybody who has ever read this blog is aware of how important our students who are English Learners are to me. So we’ll start with Maritza Gonzalez. She was brought here from Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) in Maryland, where Dr. Joseph most recently worked, to be the Executive Officer of the newly created Department of Equity and Diversity. As Executive Officer of Equity and Diversity, she oversees the Office of English Learners. By the way, the EL department has been exceeding the state’s annual mandate of achievement the last couple of years, which tells me they’ve been doing quality work for a while now. Let’s look at Ms. Gonzalez’s LinkedIn profile (Or does she go by Mrs. Narcisse now? I don’t know, but we’ll get to that in a minute.)

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Hmmm…. I see that she was a research assistant at the University of Maryland from 2010 until 2013. That’s when she was hired by the CEO of PGCPS as a Diversity Officer, Head of Latino/a Affairs. Gonzalez herself described her role, which was “to provide support and a point of contact for Latino families in the county, to get information to Latino communities, and to serve as an intermediary between Latino families and businesses, government, the school system and other agencies.” That’s a very valuable role, but I don’t see anything about K-12 instructional experience in her profile. She does have a Doctorate, but Dr. Gonzalez earned her Ph.D. in Higher Education, Student Affairs, and International Education Policy, as well as a Master’s in Education Leadership and Policy Studies, a Bachelor of Science in General Business with an International Business specialization, and a Bachelor of Arts in Communication Studies, all apparently from the University of Maryland at College Park. It appears that the only thing she has ever taught was a college course as an adjunct professor.

All theses degrees are very impressive, but I’m unsure of the relevance. I don’t see experience with Kurdish, Burmese, Thai, Egyptian, Syrian, or Iraqi children – just to name a few – in her work experience either. These are just some of the diverse groups of students who make up MNPS, and I would think some experience with these groups would be essential to this new position. This lack of evidence leads me to question whether there is anything in her past experience that warrants a salary of $155k a year, as well as being in charge of our very successful EL department. Remember, this position did not even previously exist in MNPS, and while I can see the potential value of it, should it really be powered with providing instructional plans for our some of our most challenged kids? I don’t know.

One thing that I do know is that Gonzalez and Sito Narcisse recently got married and enjoyed a honeymoon in Mexico. For those of you who don’t know, Narcisse is the newly appointed Number Two person in the district as Chief of Schools and is also from PGCPS. Anybody else see a problem with this? Because I see a huge one. My stepdaughter once came to work for me, and I told her, before she started, that she would have to prove twice as qualified and work twice as hard because of our relationship or people will say she only got the job as a result of our relationship. I would think the same holds true here a hundredfold. Again, I ask the question, are we really going to take our neediest children, some of them fresh from refugee camps, and put an inexperienced, under qualified individual – who is also in a romantic relationship with the Number Two person in the district – in charge of their educational outcomes? Yeah… that’s a big problem.

Let’s take a look at another recently imported executive. This one hails from Montgomery County, which is right next door to Prince George’s County. Moreno Carrasco, as Executive Officer of Priority Schools, is also paid $155k a year. Now he does have many years’ worth of experience working in schools, but in looking at his LinkedIn profile, we see that he owns the following company:

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Here is the website for Carrasco’s company:

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And last, but certainly not least, here is a screen shot from last week’s presentation to the MNPS board on our new priority school strategy, or, as we’ll now be calling them, L5 schools:

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Noticing any similarities? Yeah, me too. It was nice of Carrasco to allow his department at MNPS to insert his company’s logo into the presentation. I have to ask though, why is the logo for an MNPS employee’s private company included on a presentation by the department he heads? That’s a head scratcher. And if his company is branded in our priority school presentation, does that mean his company will be hired to work with these priority schools, or L5 schools? If so, what does that mean for vendors who are already doing this work in the district? Some of those contracts, which the MNPS board has previously approved, have already suddenly been cancelled with little to no conversation taking place between participants. Will Carrasco be able to market the L5 schools’ success as the work of his company?  My speculation, devoid of any counter evidence yet, would be that Carrasco is building a brand off the backs of our neediest kids, and we are paying him $155k to do it. A brand that, in the future, he would be able to sell to other districts based on his exclusive work within MNPS. I would love to open a restaurant, but I doubt I’d find a current restaurant owner willing to let me develop my business plan and brand it within his establishment while he pays me a large salary. This situation just reeks of unethical behavior.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time this question has surfaced in regards to Carrasco either. When he was hired, MNPS issued a press release that mentioned he was Principal of the Year in 2007. Well, they failed to mention what happened in 2008. In 2008, Carrasco was investigated for possibly conducting seminars on school time by taking sick leave or otherwise leaving school grounds for his own business purposes. In other words, he was putting the needs of his business before the needs of his students. He quickly shut things down once people started asking questions. Particularly troubling is the following quote from the Washington Examiner article in regards to Carrasco’s role in the company: “… [Carrasco’s] role in the company is apparent only on incorporating documents registered with the state.” I wonder why he made such a big effort to conceal his role in his company. Very troubling indeed.

In all fairness to Carrasco, the district in Maryland where he worked did announce that the allegations of his involvement in private consulting were “thoroughly investigated” and “not substantiated.” At the same time, however, they also announced him as the new Director of Secondary Leadership Training. It’s worth noting that Carrasco was cleared and promoted by then-superintendent Jerry Weast. It just so happens that Weast now serves as a mentor and informal advisor to Dr. Shawn Joseph, MNPS’ new Director of Schools. And Joseph is the one who brought Carrasco to MNPS.

Let’s do one more, just for fun. Tamika Tasby was recently hired as the new Executive Director of Professional Learning. Surprise! She’s also from PGCPS, where she worked as a Graduation Program Specialist in the Office of Secondary School Reform. She earned a salary of $105k per year there. I assume as an Executive Director in MNPS, she’s making $155k per year. I’m not certain of this, but she’s definitely making a lot more money than she did in PGCPS – and she’s an executive now!

Let’s look at her LinkedIn profile:

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Notice anything missing? Yeah, I don’t see any classroom experience either, or for that matter, any professional development experience. I do see that she was a Broad Resident in Urban Education. And if you’ve never heard of the Broad Academy, be aware that they take people with no experience in education whatsoever and “train” them to become school administrators. Tasby also just earned her Ed.D. from the University of Maryland, but still, she appears to have no relevant educational experience to merit this executive position. Yeah team! One hire is an isolated incident, two is a coincidence, but three is the emergence of a pattern.

Since we are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on creating a new culture in MNPS, I’ve been keeping an eye on PGCPS. And with apologies to the fine folks of Prince George’s County, what emerges is a very disturbing picture. To put it bluntly, that culture is a dumpster fire. It’s so bad, that last week, the NAACP called for the firing of current CEO Kevin Maxwell. Particularly disturbing to me is this recent quote from former PGCPS school board member Patricia Fletcher, who filed an ethics complaint with the district: “Fletcher said that this issue should be concerning to taxpayers because it is part of a bigger problem that she recognized when she served on the board. ‘Political favors,’ she said. ‘Because a lot of people who were getting huge contracts, you dig deep, do a deep dive, and you would see that either they are a family member of someone who made big campaign contributions to an elected official.’” Evidence seems to indicate that we are starting to incorporate some of the same elements. I don’t think I’m good with that.

This week there was a big celebration by the Nashville Public Education Foundation (NPEF). One of the honorees was Renata Soto for her contributions to public education. Both Soto and NPEF were heavily involved in the recruitment of a new Director of Schools for Nashville, along with the Mayor’s office. Last week, MNPS school board member Will Pinkston rightfully received accolades for introducing a memorandum condemning violence and hate speech against Muslims and Muslim students. (For you Pinkston haters – stop sharpening your knives. Pinkston has been a huge advocate for English Learners and deserves credit for that.)

My point is, these are all worthy accolades, but while adults are busy patting each other on the back, who is watching out for our neediest kids? Isn’t making sure that they are given the best educational resources possible part of keeping Muslim students safe? Have NPEF and Renata Soto done everything to ensure that all of our educational programs for English Learners will be fully funded? Did everybody just assume the game was over with the hiring of a new director of schools and that we would simply abdicate all oversight upon the hire? Was the whole concept of trust but verify deemed invalid? Was the plan just to go back to our charter school battles and leave everything else up to the new director? That’s like playing half a football game.

In Nashville, we spend way too much time engaging in the charter school debate and not enough time on improving our existing schools. At some point, we need to stop running everything through a charter school lens and how it will either increase or decrease the number of charter schools in Nashville and how reformers are going to react. The charter school fight, for the most part, is a philosophical issue. But putting our neediest children in the hands of under qualified people or people with outside motivations, at inflated salaries, is, in my eyes, a purely moral issue. I am trying not to be too hyperbolic here, or get too angry, but I have weekly contact with these kids, and I see how traumatic their lives are. And to shortchange them in this manner keeps me awake at night. I don’t understand how you justify giving them anything less than full priority. Their short lives have already been traumatized, and is it our charge to give them the same tools for a better life as we would any other child. And to put it bluntly, we are currently falling short.

MNPS Board Chair Anna Shepherd made a speech from the chair at the last board meeting that I can only take as being directed at me. In her speech, she leveled accusations at people trying to “out blog” each other and advised that if people had concerns, they should call their board member and address those concerns over the phone. I tried that for two months with no results. That’s why I started to write these posts. I have no interest in the political agendas of other people, and I actually hold in contempt anyone who would try to use these posts for political fodder. In fact, you’ll notice a lapse between my posts on this topic, and that’s because I keep hoping that somebody will take corrective action so I don’t have to continue writing about it.

In closing, I feel the need to point out a couple of things. First, no one is paying me to write these posts. I am simply a parent of children who attend school in MNPS and who is paying attention to how things are being run. I see inequities and things that aren’t getting done, and so I do some research that results in these posts. Second, no one is putting me up to this. I am writing on my own accord. As a friend remarked, I’m not Edward Snowden. This ain’t WikiLeaks. I’m just a guy with an overinflated sense of morality who’s willing to do basic due diligence and talk to people.

In getting information for my posts, there is no one source I use. I talk to educators throughout the district, past and present, on a regular basis. It’s amazing what you find out when you just talk to people about what they think is important, not just your priorities. I’ve made a very concerted effort to earn their trust, something nobody else seems to feel is important, and so they share some of what they know with me. I’m honored that they share what they do with me. It’s certainly not everything, and I always try to be cognizant of how what I write will affect their careers.

I would suggest that others in MNPS dedicate an equal amount of time to earning that trust if they hope to lead effectively. Trust can not be demanded; it can only be earned. You might find that people are a little quicker to get on the bus if they trust you, and then we wouldn’t have to worry about anyone accidentally getting run over. We truly have some incredible educators in this district, and it’s high time we recognize them and celebrate them.

We have a moral charge to our children to be diligent in pursuing policies that directly affect them. They are, after all, the future. A principal once said to me, we need to always remember that they will remember how we treat them because, as Maya Angelou writes, “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” I’m glad the MNPS school board feels they are doing meaningful work that will create a better governance body. But is that work worth sacrificing a year of a child’s life by failing to execute their primary charge of providing oversight? I don’t think that’s a hard question to answer, and I beg the board and others to start assuming that role. If they would do that, I’d be more than happy to go back to writing posts on philosophical issues and leave the moral ones in their hands.

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Georgia On My Mind

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img_0463I’ve been meaning to write something about the fight in Georgia against a pending constitutional amendment that would allow the state to take over struggling school districts for a while, but I’ve been a bit busy. Georgia, you have been on my mind though. You see, the Georgia initiative to create an Opportunity School District, essentially a state-sanctioned method for charter school conversion, is modeled after those in Tennessee and Louisiana. Having watched these colossal failures from the front row over the last several years, I can safely say if there is one thing I know a little about, it’s an Achievement School District, or as I like to say, an underachievement district. After all, I’ve been writing about them for years and years now. The concept itself has been flawed since its beginnings.

Back in 2015, former Tennessee Department of Education head Kevin Huffman and former Achievement School District (ASD) head Chris Barbic found themselves with a little time on their hands and a sinking realization that their legacy was springing leaks. Since Tennessee citizens were getting better at rebuffing Huffman’s and Barbic’s efforts, the only option was for these guys to hit the road and start selling franchises before it all fell apart at home. First, Huffman went to Pennsylvania. Then, this past July, lawmakers were convinced to add a franchise in North Carolina, though there were reservations. Of course it took the fast-becoming-normal influx of outside money to get it done. For some reason, Nevada thought this concept was a good idea despite all the evidence to the contrary. Doesn’t anybody read any more? And then most recently, Huffman joined with old friend and former Louisiana State Superintendent Paul Pastorek to sell some snake oil to Georgia.

On November 8, Georgia residents will head to the polls, and, along with their presidential vote, will decide on whether or not to give the state the power to take over so-called failing schools. As a parent of two children who attend a school that sits right outside the periphery of the priority school list, I urge you reject this idea. No matter what they try to tell you, the Achievement School District in Tennessee has been an unmitigated failure. The only thing the ASD has been successful at is creating another government entity rife with financial mismanagement and becoming an endless source of debate as they constantly change goals.

As I said earlier, I’ve got two children in a school that for all intents and purposes is a “priority school,” and I hate that term. First of all, I believe all schools should be “Priority Schools,” meaning that we should make it a priority that all schools have the resources they need. Taking schools and ranking them while ignoring their resource shortfalls gives us an inaccurate portrait of our educational system and allows us to ignore societal issues that need addressing. The focus becomes not on actual learning, but rather on standardized test results. I know the two should be the same, but unfortunately we all know they are not. Ranking schools in this manner further exacerbates an inequitable education experience for children because the emphasis becomes getting off the list versus providing the best possible well-rounded educational experience for all children.

Let’s look at Nashville, for example. Currently, we have 11 schools on the state’s priority list. At a recent school board meeting, the newest plan was unveiled to rescue these priority schools. One of the elements of the plan was that we were no longer going to call underperforming schools “priority schools.” We were now going to refer to them as “innovation schools” because “priority” conveyed a sense of failure and punishment. That’s fine, you can change the language – something the reform movement is particularly adept at – but the state will still refer to these schools as priority schools. And if they fail to improve, the state will reassign them to the state’s innovation zone, the Achievement School District, which has proven to be not so innovative after all. Their idea of innovation has more to do with growing the charter sector than with their stated goal of moving the bottom 5% of schools to the top 25%. Any local action is potentially neutered by the vulture on its perch waiting to pounce.

So if an ASD-type program gets approved in your state, what follows is a plan of action that focuses on getting these schools to show growth in the only measurement that matters to the state, the standardized test. Want to take a class on a field trip to the state museum? Well, that’s great, but how’s that going to improve literacy scores? Want to teach a novel to your class? Yeah, that’s nice, but we have other strategies that’ll have a bigger impact on test scores and we’d prefer you utilize that time for them. Thank God there are still teachers willing to buck the system or it would be test prep all the time, which is basically already happening in a lot of places.

Presently the test score that really matters is the literacy score. On paper this may be a good thing until we see what it can mean in practice. Since there is a limited amount of time in the day, and there is a desire to focus on literacy, something has to give – like math. For example, my daughter is in the district’s gifted program. What got her there is her math aptitude. She scored in the 97th percentile in math. Though she is currently reading several levels above grade level, I worry that is coming at the expense of math instruction. This is no way indicative of the teachers or leadership at her school. One thing my children have been blessed with is the level of instructional quality they are receiving; in other words, they have had great teachers. But the reality is when you force mandates on people without recognizing what’s really happening on the ground, there can be serious unintended consequences. In an effort to “save” children, the presence of the ASD is actually having the opposite effect.

That reality may end up forcing me to reconsider where my daughter attends school. A school which with we are extremely satisfied. There are things that happen at their school daily that make my children better people. But if she’s unable to get the needed math instruction for her inherent gifts to flourish due to the ASD vulture sitting over the school, is the trade off acceptable? Furthermore, if I move my children, that would alter the school’s demographics, which in turn would have the potential to result in lower scores for the school, which would result in further misperceptions and potentially further punitive actions. So it’s not an easy decision. Because of this state entity, the ASD, and their ability to take over their choice of low-performing schools, not only are my children unable to get an equitable education at a school we love because they are worried about a possible takeover, but it may not even become a viable choice if they do get taken over by the ASD. And we are left feeling powerless as a result. And that’s how segregation works under the guise of choice.

MNPS’s innovation school department will have a laser-like focus on the innovation schools, watching them to see if test scores increase. The state will let you play with the language all you want as long as schools are moving off the naughty list. Since test scores are the measurement used by the state, these “innovation” schools will have additional resources thrown at them with the intent of raising test scores. Meanwhile, there is a whole other category of schools that need additional resources every bit as badly, but they are not in danger of being taken over, so they have to wait because again, there are a limited number of resources and the presence of the ASD has dictated the priority.

This all feels like Groundhog Day for me because I had this same argument back in 2014. At least at that time some people listened and created supports for those schools that sit outside of the innovation zone, but now we are going backwards again. We are creating an endless supply of low performing schools – there will always be a bottom 5% of schools, after all. This is good for those who make their living off of and build their brand on the “turning around” of schools, but is it good for kids? Kids may become better readers, but what about all the other experiences that children in higher performing schools are exposed to? I’ve long said this model of education creates two life tracks for students: those in lower income schools become the laborers and those in the higher income schools become management. After all, when was the last time an achievement district sought to takeover a school in the suburbs?

Without the Achievement School District, schools would have the ability to provide greater services and work to make the experience more equitable for all children. We always say there is no one-size-fits-all remedy; well, if an ASD takeover wasn’t looming over them, schools might have a better chance of finding solutions to their individual challenges. If you doubt my words, all you have to do is listen to the words of the ASD as they laud their punitive powers as a factor in the success that struggling schools in Tennessee are experiencing in an attempt to distract from the lagging scores in the schools under their supervision. It’s kind of like the “I’m not doing my job because I’m making sure you do your job, and I deserve credit because you’re doing so well” argument. Try it at work sometime. Let me know how it works.

Georgia really is in a unique situation as its citizens head to the polls next month. They have clear examples of what doesn’t work and what other states think will work. Louisiana is exiting the achievement district business at the same time Milwaukee also rejected this model in order to commit to creating more Community Schools. As more and more eyes are waking up to the power of community schools, Georgia voters need to ask themselves if they want to be at the back of the train or at the front. Voting to open a new franchise when the original franchise is closing due to ineffective business practices doesn’t seem like a good move to me, but that’s the beauty of democracy – voters get to decide.

I understand and appreciate people’s desire to do more for kids who live in poverty and if the Achievement School District was having positive results I would be supportive. But it’s not and in the process is creating a wedge in communities.  It’s important that we do everything we can to help them break the vicious cycle of poverty. But in doing so, we need to make sure that in executing our good intentions, we aren’t exacerbating the situation. Truth is, we know what works. We just need the will to do it. Pasi Sahlberg, one of the leading Finnish authorities on education, recently spoke at an education summit in Birmingham, Alabama. In his speech, he outlined four areas to improve student outcomes:

However, “schools must be funded fairly,” said Sahlberg, starting on a list of four main recommendations. “Alabama needs fairer funding. You need ‘positive discrimination’ – more resources to schools with more difficult circumstances.”

The second: “Teachers must work together” and have real control over their days.

 Lesson Three gleaned from decades of international research: “Children must play. It breaks my heart that so many kids today in America have no recess during the school day.”

 Fourthly and finally, “Healthy students make better learners. We need to think of the health and happiness of the child as part of education policy. We need to teach healthy living as a skill. And not just in one middle-school class.”

He pointed out that large numbers of U.S. students miss school because of toothaches. In Finland, he says, that’s unheard of because dental care is part of school. “If you don’t have [health care] in schools,” he says, “I don’t see how America can be great.”

I challenge you to tell me which one of these items is addressed by the creation of an Achievement School District, or for that matter, an Innovation Zone. These four recommendations strike me as just common sense, and any teacher in the U.S. would tell you the same thing. They are also tenets of the community schools model. Ironically, these are all ideas developed based on research done in America, but as Sahlberg states, “It seems other nations are better at implementing American ideas than America is.” Voters of Georgia, I hope you help start a reversal of that trend.

A Conversation With Dr. Mike Looney

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fullsizerender-4Last week I found myself at Rafferty’s, a restaurant on Nashville’s south side, across the table from Williamson County Superintendent Dr. Mike Looney. In 2015, Dr. Looney was awarded the State Superintendent of the Year from the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents. The year, in the words of Charles Dickens, was the best of times and the worst of times for Dr. Looney. Despite being recognized as a superlative school leader, he found himself embroiled in several public battles with Williamson County school board members. He was also named the finalist in Metro Nashville Public Schools’ search for a new Director of Schools only to turn it down at the last minute. The past few months have seen changes on the school board and while things have been just as busy, they are a  little less chaotic, or I should say less filled with public chaos.

During the Nashville superintendent race, Dr. Looney and I became friends. A friendship that grew out of interactions on Twitter and has continued on with us having lunch several times throughout the year. On the occasions we get together, I find a man who is a classroom teacher at heart, and, in my experience, willing to engage in any topic of conversation without fear. I, like many others, was initially angry with him for turning down the Nashville job. However, we had lunch the following week, and he openly shared with me his decision- making process. I came away understanding that he had just changed his mind and had found that he was far more attached to Williamson County than he had realized. Some have charged that he “played the MNPS board” or that his changing his mind is somehow a failure on the part of Nashville’s school board. I reject both premises and tip my hat to Williamson County for realizing that they got one of the good ones and being willing to do what it takes to keep him.

Dad Gone Wild: Good afternoon, Mike. I need to clarify, what’s your official title? District superintendent?

Dr. Mike Looney: I prefer superintendent. The code is a little murky on that; Superintendent and Director of Schools are interchangeable, but I prefer superintendent.

DGW: I always have to ask because some districts have changed the language. They refer to head of the district now as the CEO. Which to me is a little weird. Seems like a blurring of the business world and a service entity. You are in Williamson County, and it seems that your demographics seem to get as much attention as the quality of your schools. Tell me about them.

ML: We’ve got 38,000 kids. Eighty-eight percent of those students are white. As you know, it’s a fairly affluent county, but we’re more diverse than what people think. The Brentwood area is very homogeneous, then you have Fairview which is a lot more rural, and the downtown Franklin areas – in general, Franklin – are a little bit more diverse than what people might think. Honestly, some of our elementary schools have a very transient population. I was in some data meetings just recently with one of my elementary school principals, and 24 percent of their students turn over every year. It’s something we don’t always realize. What sometimes happens is there are minority students who may come in and they stay for six months, and then go back home because of their parents’ work. But for the most part, it is a white, affluent community.

DGW: But you are starting to see greater growth in both population and diversity.

ML: Yes, I think that we are seeing the browning of America. We’re not seeing that as quickly as some other places, but we are beginning to see it, especially as it relates to the needs and learning style of the student. One of the things that is unique about our district is that we are a beacon for families that have students with special needs and exceptionalities. So the rate of growth in students with autism, or other needs that require additional services, is surpassing our traditional growth rate because we have a reputation of doing a good job.

DGW: Interesting, because often times people tend to look at your demographics and use them to discount some of your success, but you still have plenty of challenges.

ML: The fascinating thing to me is that the district that I came from before this was a small rural district with a large African American population, and the challenges were exactly the same. It was about helping students, helping families, hiring good employees, and figuring out how to deal with the budget issues. That’s not unique to Williamson County, and it’s not unique to any other school districts.

DGW: I was talking to Dr. Ron Woodard, who is a former principal who made the transition from an inner city school to a predominately rural county, and he made a similar observation. At the end of the day, kids are kids, and you end up seeing a lot of the same trends and challenges.

ML: I think the one thing that is different from my experience is, think about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Kids are going to make mistakes, but did they come to school with the fundamentals in place to be successful? For the most part, our kids come to school fed, they’re dressed, they have their physical needs met, and that is different in different locations.

DGW: Good point. You’re ex-military, right?

ML: Yes, I’m a retired Marine. I was actually injured in the Corps and retired. So this is, in some respect, my third career. After I retired from the Marine Corps, I went in to private industry. I worked in private industry for about six years. The interesting story behind that is I was actually on vacation in Germany when my company was sold, and so when I came back, I worked for the new owner for three days. It was a privately held company and their vision – I was in general finance for that company – and their vision of good business practice and mine immediately clashed. So we parted ways. At the time, I was working on my MBA at Jacksonville State. My wife was a teacher, and her principal conned me into subbing at her school because my MBA classes were in the evening. That’s actually how I got into the field of education, as a substitute teacher.

DGW: What district was that in?

ML: That was in Randolph County, Alabama. You may remember that county because it was infamous for racial strikes back in the early 1990’s. The principal had forbidden a biracial couple from going to the prom. The federal court system got involved, and he ended up being sued. Somebody burned down the high school. That was quite a mess at that time.

DGW: So how did you go from Randolph County, Alabama, to Williamson County, Tennessee?

ML: It was not a planned progression. I had to start off being a classroom teacher. I started my first teaching job, aside from being a substitute teacher, in Pell City, Alabama. I taught 4th grade, and then I taught 5th grade. The principal and other people around me encouraged me to get into leadership. I suppose it was because of my military background.

DGW: That makes sense.

ML: I think it was a combination of my military and business backgrounds. You see things differently when you have a different variety of experiences. You might see how to do things differently, more efficiently, and certainly you learn a lot about leadership. I became an assistant principal in Calhoun County, Alabama, and was quickly promoted to principal, and then four years later to the central office to be assistant to the superintendent. Then I was recruited away from that position to lead the curriculum department in Montgomery, Alabama. There was a change in leadership, and I applied for the superintendent job and was one of the finalists. I was led to believe that I was the heir apparent. It didn’t work out that way, but I quickly was able to secure the superintendency in a relatively nearby district in Butler County and was there for about 6½ years. I loved every day of it, did a lot of good things there, and one day a headhunter called me during the search process here in Williamson County. They had already gone through a search one time unsuccessfully, and so I liked my odds and I liked what I heard from the headhunter and came up here and the rest is history.

DGW: You talk about being a classroom teacher, and I remember something that struck me from one of our previous conversations. You talked about how, as a principal and superintendent, you still go in the classroom to observe teachers and will sometimes teach a little bit of a class yourself. To keep yourself in touch with the classroom experience.

ML: I tell teachers during our new teacher orientation that one of three things is going to happen: either I’m just going to sit there and pretend I am a student and kind of look at things through a student’s lens; or I’m going to walk around and ask questions and might even take pictures of the students’ work and interact with the students; or I might say, hey teacher, will you sit down and have a cup of coffee and let me try this? I think you have to be a teacher first, and it allows me, in some respects, to remember what teachers have to go through every day. It’s a tremendously hard job, and the further you remove yourself from the actual work of the classroom teacher, I think the harder it is for you to remember what’s important.

DGW: That’s another thing Dr. Woodard and I talked about – how quickly you forget what goes on in the front lines when you step off them a little bit. You start making decisions based on the way you think things should be and take less into account of what actually happens.

ML: There’s a big difference between what sounds good in theory and how it actually looks on the ground. I mean the military works the same way, right? You learn that it’s really important to understand what the troops are going through to the fullest extent that you can.

DGW: I read a passage probably about 10 or 15 years ago that described where Napoleon, whenever they were riding into battle, would ride up and down the line talking to the troops. He’d sit at night with individual groups of soldiers and explain to each and every one of them their role and how it fit in the overall scheme, what the hoped-for outcome would be, and why their role was essential. I try to practice that when I can. But it often seems like we don’t do enough of that; we just make demands without ever really explaining how it all fits together.

ML: And I’ll tell you, I’m guilty of this somewhat. I aspire to do better all the time, but it’s really easy to let the bureaucracy of leadership, especially in public schooling, to consume all of your time and forget that you’ve gotta get out in the field. You’ve got to, to the fullest extent possible, have the pulse of what’s happening in the classrooms and in the buildings and make sure you surround yourself with good people who have a similar vision and similar priorities. It’s a family, it’s a work family, and the way to be successful is to communicate and understand the requirements of the work; you have to have empathy.

DGW: In talking with teachers from Williamson County, I think it’s safe to say that you have more support than most administrators.

ML: (Smiling) It depends on the issue. I would say that we have some awesome teachers in Williamson County, and I feel privileged to be part of their team. I hope that they think of me as a reflective and supportive leader, but as with all things in leadership, it’s not necessarily about making people happy; it’s about trying to do the right thing and making people understand why what you’re doing is the right thing to do. It’s about hearing their voice, genuinely listening, and I’ll say the same thing is true for the students. It’s important for teachers to do that with students, and it is important for me to do that with students. One of the things that I do is I have a student committee. Visitors from every high school come visit on regular basis, and I let them tell me what’s working, what’s not working, and give me info about how to change stuff.

DGW: Good stuff. What kind of things have they brought to you?

ML: Well, the most recent thing that we are working on is that they want to participate in the teacher evaluation process. They tell me that when I or a principal walk in the room for an evaluation, things change – conditions, learning conditions change – and they want to be able to give accurate feedback about what they see on a regular basis when there’s not a formal evaluation taking place. It makes sense to me. I don’t know that it has to be part of the evaluation itself, but I do think if we really value voice, then we should give our students a voice about what’s working and what’s not working for them.

DGW: Playing devil’s advocate here – some of the most impactful teachers that I’ve had, if you would have asked me, at 16 years old, how impactful they were, I would’ve told you a different answer than I have now with some separation. In some cases, I think it should be like that. These days we are all about immediacy, but some lessons are like fine wine – they and we need to age a bit. It’s like a really good book. Often while reading it, nothing seems relatable, but then several years later you recall a passage that has become particularly relevant. As I get older and life changes, the light bulb goes off, and I think, “Ha, that’s why they wanted me to do that or that’s why we diagrammed those sentences.”

ML: I think that’s a fear that educators have, but the truth of it is I think you have to ask the right questions. Does the teacher care about you? Do they have empathy? Do they go the extra mile for you? Can you go to them for help? Those are very different questions about whether you like the teacher versus did they assign too much homework or are their tests hard. I think it’s really a conversation about does the teacher have these attributes? And does the student feel safe when they have to go to the teacher for help? One of the things I talk about is building relationships. I encourage my teachers to be able to make a relationship with the students and their families to the fullest they can professionally. If you don’t know the student’s birthday, if you don’t know they had a soccer game last night and the team lost, if you don’t know their dog died, or mom and dad are getting divorced, then it is going to be really hard for you to relate to that student. There’s truth in that students really don’t care about what you want to teach them until they know you care about them.

DGW: It’s funny how much the world has really changed since you and I grew up. I think we’re about the same age; I am 51.

ML: I am 53.

DGW: I think back about what my parents’ reaction would have been if I came home and told them that my teacher didn’t love me or didn’t care about me. My mother would have probably told me to shut up, get in there, take notes, and learn. The world is a different place. I do think that the building of relationships is very important, and I think it is valuable to learn early how important relationships are. I think too much we get caught up in the learning of, I want to say, facts, the learning of stuff that can be measured, and we don’t teach kids the value in making relationships.

ML: Interestingly enough, when I talk to employers, when I talk to the business community, one of the things that they often talk about is that we do well academically. You ask them what needs do they have that we’re not meeting as it relates to the workforce, and they always, they always say critical thinking and the ability to work with others. Which is about relationships. So I think relationships are central to success.

DGW: Looking forward, where do you anticipate the district heading and what kind of challenges do you anticipate facing? One of the things I’ve always admired about you is that you start addressing needs ahead of time. You tend to be more of a driver than a reactor.

ML: So our biggest challenge, quite frankly, is the growth that we’re experiencing. In the next five years, we’re going to grow by about ten thousand students. Managing all of the different areas of operations to prepare for success for those arriving students, students of diversity, students with special needs and talents, having enough classroom space, recruiting the right team members to make sure that we’ve got all the teachers in front of those students, being able to offer bus service in a timely fashion – preparing for the ensuing growth is where the greatest pressure point is. Then, quite frankly, the landscape of public education continues to shift. We’re operating in many ways on quicksand or shifting soil, so being able to adapt to the ever-changing environment and managing change I think is certainly a priority. I honestly am not worried about our achievement because we do well at that. It’s about making sure that we’re offering a well-rounded experience for everybody, a place where employees want to come to work. One that inspires loyalty and where the students can maximize the opportunities that we put before them to grow as much as possible, whether it’s in academics, arts, or athletics. I’d also say navigating the political labyrinth that exists in this state right now, as it relates to philosophical positions about how to best go about this challenging business of educating the youth.

DGW: Speaking of that, one of the things that sucks the air out of all conversations is talking about charter schools. I’m at the point now where I really embrace the concept that we can oppose them all we want, but if we’re not producing schools where people want to send their children, this will be an endless battle. How are you going to look at a parent and say, “Hey, we are not going to have charter schools, but you have to send your child to this under-resourced school.” Instead of focusing on keeping charter schools out of Williamson County, you seem to focus on keeping schools that everybody deserves, ones that are equitable.

ML: Well, quite honestly, we’re trying to steal some of the principles that charter schools have created. I really think it’s about the quality of the school, not the type. Charter schools are, I think, a result of our inflexibility to be responsive to the needs of students. The best way to keep away competition is to do a really good job at educating children, and so our focus is on making sure we are doing exceptional work. Therefore, we are giving a top-tier education to our students, and then there’s not a need for a charter school. There are challenges, obviously, that charter schools create. I think they create more bureaucracy and overhead and separate management systems. You take limited resources and you spread them thinner. I drive a Chevrolet. I’m satisfied with my Chevrolet. If they ever stop performing at a high level, then I’ll go to another manufacturer, but right now I’m satisfied with Chevrolet.

DGW: A blogger from Pennsylvania who is one of my favorites, Curmudgucation, always says parents don’t want more choice, they want more quality.

ML: That’s right. I believe that.

DGW: The only time you want more choices is when you’re not getting quality. I think that we need to focus on our existing schools, and that sometimes we get away from this in these other arguments. I think the charter discussion is an important one, but the focus needs to be on playing offense and not defense. Now, let’s talk about your skydiving business.

ML: I am the owner of Music City Skydiving. It’s my passion. I think it’s how I keep my sanity on the weekends. Actually, I’ll tell you the truth – if I don’t get to skydive on the weekend, the next week I’m a little bit grouchier than normal. It’s like I missed the adrenaline rush. I just love being outside and interacting with people from all walks of life.

DGW: And how long have you had that company?

ML: I’ve been in skydiving for a long time, but I actually purchased the business a year ago, the entire business. I owned a segment of the business for I guess, two years, but had an opportunity and jumped on that.

DGW: That sounds exciting. So, anything that we missed? I know our conversations are always a little wide-ranging.

ML: No. I will tell you I appreciate reading your blog, and hopefully this’ll be interesting one for other readers. Also, the more the community comes together and has conversations about doing what’s right for kids, the stronger we will become.

DGW: That’s one of the reasons why I started doing these interviews. I think it’s important that we remember when discussing these issues, that we are arguing, sometimes quite passionately, with real people, and we never lose sight of that.

ML: I am disappointed when we don’t debate public policies because I think you end up with better public policy after debate. I’m a flawed individual, I have flawed ideas, and my ideas can be perfected or be replaced with better ideas during debate.

DGW: What I tell my kids is don’t get upset if somebody challenges your beliefs. Because if your belief system can’t withstand challenge, then you need to modify your belief system or you need to study your belief system more deeply.

ML: Absolutely.

DGW: And I’m not one of those people who thinks that we should all come together and hold hands and that there’s no room for passionate disagreement. Education is too important a subject, and so I don’t mind the passion. But at the end of the day, we do have to remember that there are parents and family members and people who love every one of us. We need to make sure that we don’t completely lose sight of that, and that’s why I started doing these interviews.

ML: And I’m sorry, but I’ve never met a parent who says I’m going to send you my worst child and keep my good ones at home. So they’re sending their best to us every single day, and they’re doing the best job they know how to do. They all have different levels of ability and skill, empathy, passion, and compassion, but they’re sending us the best. They’re doing their best, and it’s about us having empathy for one another and lifting the boys and girls to a higher level.

We pay our bill and head out to the parking lot exchanging pleasantries about the family. He apologized again about being late. He’d been in the office working, since it was a holiday, he was able to concentrate uninterrupted. Again I waved him off and said it was understood. As I pulled out of the parking lot, it struck me that once again after leaving a conversation with Mike Looney I felt like I knew more then I did before the conversation. The man truly adheres to Dewey’s principle that education isn’t preparation for life  but rather  life  itself.

Anger Grows in Nashville

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img_0309I think Diane Ravitch said it best last week: “Nashville, you have a problem.” In case you are new to the game, back in July, Nashville got a new Director of Schools, and while there was a sigh of relief that he wasn’t of the reformer ilk, he’s raised plenty of other red flags since he started work here. This past week, even more started to pop up.

Either due to my last blog post or independently, Phil Williams, an investigative local journalist with Channel 5 News, has begun asking many of the same questions that I have been asking. In an attempt to preempt the potential damage, Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) released a series of communications. The first was under the guise of a “fact checking” sheet. Everybody loves a fact checker these days, but the problem is, this one didn’t counter any facts. Instead, it confirmed that the Chiefs were driving luxury vehicles and commanding much larger salaries than last year. Salaries that were not designated in the budget that was approved just a few months ago. Here’s another hint: justifications that involve how special you are as opposed to everybody else will usually fall on deaf ears.

What this “fact check” does is try to move the conversation away from whether administrators are receiving these benefits and instead make an argument that it is justified. My argument is, where did the money come from? In the recently approved budget, neither English Learner programs nor literacy programs were fully funded. Yet somehow we’ve magically found money to raise administrator’s salaries by $20,000 or more in one fell swoop. More than that, we’ve dramatically grown central office despite the school board demanding for the last several years that we shrink central office.

Here’s what the previous organizational chart looked like from September 2015:

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Here’s what a new one looks like from August 2016:

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In looking at the two charts, I don’t see a lot of shrinkage happening. In fact the opposite of what the board has been calling for seems to be happening. I’m not arguing for justification, and shrinking central office may have been the wrong directive, but where is the money coming from? And why is it necessary to pull people from outside of the district to fill these new positions? Did we have nobody competent enough who was working previously in Nashville? Because that’s the impression being given. It seems like no one in Nashville is good enough, and that is ridiculous considering that there was some exceptional work taking place before Joseph was hired. Pre-K, the Academies, English Language instruction, budget presentation, all were winning national accolades that are now going unrecognized by the current administration.

Again, I get the potential need to increase salaries and hire more staff, but it’s just like my son and his collection of wrestling figures. He’s crazy about the WWE and all their wrestling figures right now and wants every single one of them this instant. Unfortunately, my budget does not allow for me to go out and purchase every single wrestling figure this month. Despite the fact that they would make him happy, and there is no doubt he would utilize each one of those figures daily, I have a budget I have to adhere to. I can choose to buy a couple this week, maybe one next week, skip a week, and so on. There maybe a little wiggle room here and there where I could pick up an extra one, but otherwise I have to secure these for him over time. And that’s assuming that I determine this is something he needs. Our staffing and salary growth should be no different. We should assess, establish priorities, and then acquire. It’s how families all over America do it everyday.

The second part of that fact checking sheet outlines comparisons in salaries, and it is next to useless. Many of us have sold a house, so we know how the “comps” game works. You want to sell your house for 20% more than it’s really worth, so you go out and hunt for properties like yours that sold for the value or greater that you want to sell your home. The buyer will counter with ones that are lower, and somewhere in between is the true value. We could endlessly go back and forth finding districts and salaries that make each of our arguments, but in the end, even if it’s proven that these salaries should be raised, where is the money coming from?

One of the answers I’ve heard and that’s being floated around is that there was a lot of waste in the previous Director of Schools Dr. Register’s budget and that Chief Financial Officer Chris Henson has been able to find it and repurpose it. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Except that Dr. Register has been gone since the spring of 2015, and Chris Henson was the acting director for 2015-2016. So why was this waste not found prior to this current budget? Why did we take a budget to the City Council last year that was so filled with fat that the current administration can find enough surplus to fund extra positions in central office, new consultants, trips to Chattanooga and Salt Lake City, and substantial raises for executive team members? If it’s the Director’s job to execute the desire of the School Board, and the current approved budget is a representation of that desire, why is it being arbitrarily changed a few months later? If there were initiatives (i.e., literacy and English Language Learners) that were not fully funded last year, shouldn’t the newly identified money be directed towards those initiatives since the Board has already them as priorities? Lastly, are there things that could have a more direct impact on children’s learning that could use the funding instead of  training that teaches adults how to act towards each other?

Well, funny you should ask that last one. Teachers have been complaining since the beginning of the school year about their inability to make enough copies of learning materials for their students. Apparently Dr. Joseph never heard these complaints, or chose to ignore them, because he stopped sending his newsletter via email only and switched to a full-color, four-page printout. Meanwhile, our children don’t have the resources they need to learn because there’s no money for teachers to have copy paper and toner. His argument was that nobody was reading it electronically, so he had to distribute it the old-fashioned way. I wonder if that’s increased readership any. zpfyjmzt-jpg-largeI’ve got my suspicions considering that I can’t find one teacher who can tell me if this newsletter comes out weekly, biweekly, or monthly. My suggestion would be to either put “Dad Gone Wild” on top of the newsletters or become sensitive to teacher’s schedules and release the newsletter at a time that works for them. Or better yet, condense it all into a Monday morning email for the upcoming week and leave it at that. But please stop wasting precious resources that our teachers and students really need.

 The first “fact check” sheet was soon followed up by a memo suspending travel for all district employees unless approved by a Chief. The timing of this was particularly disconcerting as it came on the heels of the school board’s recent board retreat to Chattanooga and an Arbinger Institute training in Salt Lake City, Utah. According to the director and the Chair of the School Board the “culture” of the district is our primary issue and not schools that look like this. img_0962 img_1006

At any rate, Arbinger training does not come cheap. Figure about $3k per person plus hotel, flight, and meals. That doesn’t even take into account the cost of how it appears to other employees of the district. It’s been my experience that workers don’t enjoy having limitations placed on them while leaders enjoy the perks. It doesn’t really make things conducive for a healthy culture.

Since we are addressing culture, and Dr. Joseph has used the Arbinger Institute previously in other districts, let’s take a look at the culture where he’s come from most recently, Prince George’s County Public Schools (PCGPS) in Maryland. It turns out that might not be such a great idea. You see, currently PGCPS is embroiled in a little bit of a controversy. Seems like they’ve lost their $6.5 million Head Start federal grant over their handling of a child mistreatment claim. It doesn’t appear that it’s an isolated incident either. Reports say they currently have 124 teachers on disciplinary leave due to child treatment issues. A long term Chief of Staff recently resigned amid calls for the Superintendent’s resignation as some people allege a cover up. The culture in PGCPS has even drawn the eye of the Governor. Wonder what day all this is covered in the Arbinger training? Some may claim that MNPS has had culture issues but I don’t believe that one of the symptoms ever involved how children were treated.

Things are currently blowing up in PGCPS, but the events in question occurred last year when Dr. Shawn Joseph, Dr. Monique Felder, and Dr. Sito Narcisse all held positions of leadership in PGCPS. Let’s be clear here – nobody is accusing them of nefarious behavior. Joseph was cleared of any wrong doing, though it is a little disconcerting that he oversaw the department in charge of the Head Start program, and one of the emails that led to the dismissal of the PGCPS Chief of Staff is addressed to him. We need to further keep an eye on these events for two reasons. First, because as the investigation unfolds, it has been moving away from a single incident into being an indictment of the culture within PGCPS. If we are going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars creating a new culture within MNPS, I would argue that it is financially prudent to make a close examination of the culture that we are importing to ensure that we are, in fact, morphing into a healthier culture.

Secondly, this is an ongoing investigation involving several different local, state, and federal agencies, and we have recently employed a whole lot of personnel from Prince George’s County Public Schools. I’m not saying any of them have done anything wrong and I’m sure all have been thoroughly vetted, but that employment train should probably be halted until after the investigations are completed. PGCPS is not the only home to quality employees, and perhaps we should use this opportunity to take a closer look at talented staff already in our system. An inventory that should have been done from the start.

In order to have a healthy organization – Dr. Joseph has previously referenced MNPS as a “sick” organization – it is important to engage in healthy dialogue, but it doesn’t appear that Dr. Joseph is looking to foster a whole lot of dialogue. On Friday of last week, district employees got a three-page memo on how conversations with School Board members need to work. untitled-2What this means is if you are a little concerned about the spending and the hiring and you want to talk to the people in your district that you know and trust the most – teachers, principals, and school board members – then you better follow this protocol to a tee. If you think you can just invite a school board member to visit your classroom, think again.untitled-3

I understand the need to control the message, but this is Nashville. We are used to unfettered access to everyone. We shop and chat with Garth Brooks at the local Target. We attend kid’s soccer games with supermodels. The last time I was at Parnassus Books, I ran into Mayor Megan Barry, and she said hello to me before I noticed her. That’s just how we roll here in Nashville. It’s part of what makes us special. As newcomers, it’s always good to study how the natives communicate before dictating to them how they need to do it.

Here’s where I’m going to take you back to May of this year, when the search for a Director was racing towards the finish line. The push to get a new Director of Schools in place was at a fever pitch. Nashville Public Education Foundation, the Mayor’s office, and other outside organizations were putting an immense amount of pressure on the School Board to have a sense of unity in order to get the job done. This was the second search, as the first one didn’t go so well, and The Tennessean was instructing board members not to screw it up. The mere mention of adding a candidate outside of those brought forth by the search team was met with such derision that others could be forgiven for not raising any concerns. The impetus was on getting the job done, not done right, and I suspect we are now paying for that.

Almost immediately in the contract negotiations once he was hired, Dr. Joseph asked for the following clause to be added:

 The board, individually and collectively, shall promptly refer to the Director, orally or in writing, for his study and recommendation any and all criticisms, complaints, suggestions, communications, or other comments regarding the Directors performance of his duties of the operation of the MNPS. Individual Board members agree that they will not give direction to the Director or any employee of MNPS regarding the management of the District or the solution of specific problems and that they shall refer all personnel complaints or other communications concerning the administration of MNPS to the Director for investigation and report to the Board. The Director shall share with the Board, where and whenever possible and as appropriate, criticisms, complaints, and suggestions concerning the MNPS that may come to his attention.

Now I am not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV, but to my eyes, that clause effectively neuters the School Board. Question about the budget? Write me a note, and I’ll get back when I can. Questions about who we’ve hired from Prince George’s County? You know the drill, and don’t push me too hard or you’ll get even less information. I firmly believe that due to outside pressures and the leverage of an upcoming election, the School Board was maneuvered into a position where they now have limited ability to provide oversight on the Director’s actions. As Diane Ravitch said, “Nashville, you have a problem.”

In Section 16 of Dr. Joseph’s contract, under Objectives and Evaluation, it does say the following:

 In consultation and cooperation with Dr. Joseph, the Board shall determine the goals and objectives of the MNPS. At the end of the school year, the Board and Dr. Joseph shall evaluate the MNPS activities and accomplishments in light of those goals and objectives.

I bet more than one teacher is wishing they had that built into their contract. In essence, the Director and his team are being evaluated on the goals and objectives they “help” create. What if the Board and the Director don’t agree on those objectives and goals? Who gets the final say? What if they are extremely dissatisfied with the performance of a member of his team and want a change? As I see it, their hands are tied. To make things even better we are bringing in another outside consulting firm, Panasonic Foundation, to help design the evaluation process. And who recommended Panasonic Foundation? Wait for it…Dr. Joseph.

As a tax payer, this scares me, especially when you look at Dr. Joseph’s last two stops, the Seaford School District in Delaware and Prince George’s County, and now, where he says things like, “We don’t want to ask the public for new dollars until we know the old dollars are being used effectively.” If I was a weatherman, I would say a tax front is moving in. I will offer this bit of advice: here in Tennessee, we ain’t so fond of tax increases. People will not be receptive of increased taxes to fund high executive salaries, fancy cars, and cross country junkets.

I can’t wait to see the next “fact check” sheet from MNPS. It’ll probably explain why those tax increases are necessary, and once again exonerate Dr. Joseph and his cadre of any implication in the ongoing PGCPS scandal. I have to admit the irony is not lost on me. I have spent the last several years fighting off the privatization movement and now I’m left to watch my beloved school system be devoured from the inside. What’s the difference between a private board that is not accountable to the public and a director of schools who is only marginally accountable to an elected board? What is the difference between a non-disclosed budget and one that is arbitrarily altered through out the year? What’s the difference between a private entity that rewards executives over teachers and a public entity that does the same? I don’t know the answers, but unfortunately I think I am about to find out.

AN INTERVIEW WITH DR. RON WOODARD

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ronIt was about 8:30 at night when I met up with Maury County’s Director of Pupil Services, Dr. Ron Woodard. While we were waiting in line for a coffee, he nodded over at a young manager and proudly informed me that she was one of his former students. Before taking the job in Maury County, Woodard was leading schools in Nashville, most recently at Maplewood High School. Maplewood is a school with a long history in Nashville, and unfortunately, much of it is not good. It’s a school that has a large African American population with many children coming from impoverished homes. It was a place where Woodard was able to make a real difference. The same kind of difference that he is now trying to make in Maury County, where the demographics are decidedly different.

Over the last year, the conversation over discipline practices in our schools has begun to take center stage. As an African American male with no shortage of discipline issues to deal with in a high needs school, I was interested to hear Woodard’s thoughts on the subject and how he felt the needs of rural kids compared with those of their urban peers.

 

Dad Gone Wild: Ron, appreciate you meeting up with me. As Maury County’s Director of Pupil Services, you’ve now got a whole new set of challenges. Yesterday I was reading about your bass fishing team. I know you didn’t have one of those at Maplewood.

Ron Woodard: We have got one high school that has a bass fishing team. It is certainly catching on. I rather enjoy the sport. I’ll probably get out there myself.

DGW: I enjoy a little fishing myself, but you know that bass fishing is a little too serious for me. I like to get out there and just drown a few worms. Let’s talk a little bit about your background, you are from right here in Nashville, right?

RW: That’s correct, from right here in Nashville. I went to school at Hillsboro High School and then moved on to the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, earned my degree in biology. After that, I moved on back to Nashville, got my master’s degree in management and educational leadership, and then earned a doctorate from Lipscomb.

DGW: A doctorate from Lipscomb makes you another one of Candice’s kids. (Candice McQueen is the current Tennessee Commissioner of Education, but was formerly the Senior Vice President and Dean of the College of Education at Lipscomb University.)

RW: I was in the first graduating class of Dr. McQueen’s. So I think highly of her and greatly respect her work and what she’s doing in education.

DGW: So what made you actually decide to get into teaching? That’s quite a jump from biology to teaching.

RW: Believe it or not, I was a tutor at Sevier Park when I was 17. I was walking through the park one day and there is this house up there, kind of a plantation looking home. I stopped in and they were tutoring kids inside that little mansion and then this lady said to me, “We need someone to help with 4th grade math.” I said okay, and I was just loving the opportunity to help young people. I had been involved with youth services since I was about 14 years old as a camp counselor with my church. Every summer we would go out and do summer camp, and I was the camp counselor and loved it. Being a tutor at Sevier Park kind of peaked my interest. Initially though, I was going to go to college to make a lot of money. I thought I was going pre-med, but one of my teachers had what he called a “teacher curse,” and so he put the “teacher curse” on me and since it has always worked, I became a teacher.

DGW: Interesting. That Sevier Park area – I bought a house over there on 12th Avenue and Douglas Avenue in 1993 for $73,000.

RW: Man, that’s worth like $300k now.

DGW: At that time, the neighborhood looked a little different. Let’s just say it didn’t look like me.

RW: Oh yeah, I am familiar. I loved that neighborhood. I grew up on 10th Avenue South, which Douglas Avenue runs into. What was weird was that we were zoned for Overton High School, but right across the street from my house was a bus stop for Hillsboro High School. I went to Hillsboro because the bus stop was closer. I just walked out my gate, went across the street, caught the Hillsboro bus on the first day of school. Back then being out of zone wasn’t such a big deal. If you were out of zone you just had to get a special transfer. No big deal. I got a special transfer and spent four years at Hillsboro.

DGW: And there you have it. One issue we are all taking a closer look at these days is discipline and how it’s applied.  As a principal who has worked in a lot of our more challenged schools, I’m interested in your thoughts.

RW: I think we have to recognize that the kids are different. You are dealing with Millennials and the Millennial mindset. I think that relationship building is the key and really trying to connect with kids. You’ve got to get to the root of what their issues are if you are going to help kids be successful. Now to some degree, kids are still kids – they will pull pranks, they will get into mischief, you’ll have schoolyard fights. That’s all nothing new; it’s been going on since the beginning of time. Boy meets girl never gets old. Kids will be kids, but the difference is that I do believe we are dealing with a more fragile kid today. You know, whereas 20 years ago, if a person didn’t like you or you heard a nasty rumor about you, it wasn’t as big a deal. These kids will internalize everything about what others think of them. So I think really helping kids nail down becoming self-confident is key with this generation because they care so much about what others think. They are so driven by outside perceptions – you know, how many likes do I have, how many people will see my page, and how many friends do I have – and that just makes things different.

DGW: It is an interesting issue you raised. You know, I grew up, I moved around a whole lot, and I was 65 pounds until I was in 11th grade, and then I weighed 75 pounds. But I always had a smart mouth, so I was bullied all the way through school. That gives me a different perspective, like you said. Some of it you just brushed off, and some of it taught you survival skills.  But you’re right, it has gotten a whole lot more serious, and in some cases, deadly for kids, and we need to not slough it off. I think one of the things that I’ve found in working with kids and being around kids is that they are much more attuned to your credibility because they’re constantly searching for credible sources of information.

RW: I believe that. I think kids gravitate towards the real message. They’re looking for people who are authentic.

DGW: Yeah, that’s the word, authentic. I used to tell my camp counselors don’t just pay attention to how you act when you think kids are looking. It’s even more important how you act when you think they are not looking.

RW: Yeah, particularly when you’re in an urban setting; kids will pick up on that in a New York minute. They will watch your body language, they will read you, they will try to figure you out, but when they decide that you’re authentic, you are genuine, you are real, they will gravitate towards you. It will help you really build relationships.

DGW: And consistency is important. Outside of an urban setting now, what kinds of challenges are you seeing?

RW: You know, the challenges are actually quite similar. As I said, kids will be kids. Some of the issues that we faced in an urban environment, we see them also in a more rural environment. I think poverty brings about similar issues. We certainly see them played out a little bit differently in the rural environment as opposed to the urban environment, but overall very similar issues. In some ways not as extreme as what I saw here in the inner city, but again similar.

DGW: What kinds of things you hope to do in Maury County over the next couple of years?

RW: I hope to build trust, build relationships. I hope to be viewed as a source of inspiration, a source of knowledge. I’m hoping to create a sense of belonging for kids in a particular area.   I want to be a person who’s thought of as a knowledgeable, inspirational person who was a go-to guy, a go-getter – you know, a person who can make things happen for kids.

DGW: I don’t think you need to worry too much. You’ve also got a unique situation at home. You’re not the only high quality educator in your household?

RW: Correct.

DGW: What’s that like, and what’s your wife’s exact title?

RW: She’s a teacher, 8th grade maths.

DGW: But she’s a SCORE fellow too, isn’t she?

RW: Well, she wasn’t a SCORE Fellow. She was actually the person who ran the SCORE fellowship program.

DGW: My bad, apologies. Now that she’s back in the classroom, is she enjoying it?

RW: Loves it. She missed the classroom terribly.

DGW: It’s interesting to me, one of the things that we hear people talk about all the time is creating these leadership paths for teachers to allow them to assume more leadership roles, but for some people, I think the classroom is the ultimate. My wife was a coach for three years and is now back in the classroom, and it’s like…

RW: like magic.

DGW: Exactly. She’s much happier now than she was. Having that daily impactful contact with kids was important for her. She certainly enjoyed being a coach and it increased her knowledge base tremendously but the politics were always a bit much for her. I think sometimes teachers don’t like to see what’s behind the door. I think that often they find that the more of a leadership role you take, the more you are making decisions that are further removed from the children. Is that consistent with your experiences?

RW: It can be. My wife really missed the kids, the classroom, she missed the smiling faces, she missed seeing the lights come on. That moment when kids walk into the room and they don’t know content, and then she’s able to teach in a way that helps some quickly grasp it. Seeing those “aha” moments are thrilling for her.

DGW: How about for you, though? I mean, with your position, you have less interaction with children than you previously did. As a principal, you were very hands-on. Any trouble adjusting to the lessening of interaction?

RW: I do miss kids quite a bit. At the same time, I’m enjoying working with adults to help them better serve kids. So it’s been, after 12 years, somewhat of a welcome change to my life.

DGW: One of the things that I found challenging is that I have always moved up the ranks into management, and one of the challenges is how quickly you can lose contact with what’s happening in the trenches. For example, I went from being a waiter into a being a restaurant manager. I quickly forgot exactly why waiters were making the decisions that they were making, and I found myself getting frustrated because they wouldn’t do it the way I thought was best despite the fact that they were really doing things in a more efficient manner.  You lose sight of exactly why decisions get made, and you start to devise these brilliant plans that don’t take into account exactly what’s happening on the ground. Do you have any tricks that you use to keep yourself connected with day-to-day actions?

RW: I just try to stay grounded. I pride myself on being kind of a savvy communicator. I think as a leader you have to tap into what’s going on; the people under you are critical to your success. I think you have to know what they’re thinking and you have to know what they are doing. It’s important, though, to give people the autonomy and room to do great work as well. So, you set your expectations, lay the ground rules, and then back away. Let them do the right work, and then kind of offer yourself as a help when needed.

DGW: When you mentioned leadership, how would you describe your leadership philosophy?

RW: I would definitely say that I am an influencer, highly motivational, highly influential, the kind of guy who can generate buy in, the kind of guy who can generate great morale while rallying people for common goals. Like at Maplewood High School, we had tough challenges that we had to face, but I got the troops together and said, “Guys, we gotta get this task accomplished, and here’s how we’re gonna do it. We will create some synergy.” I believe great leaders create great synergy, and once the organization has synergy, ideas start coming from all over the place. People start to own it, and then these amazing things start happening.

DGW: So you are a big believer in culture?

RW: Huge believer in culture. I’m also a huge believer in branding. I believe you have to create a viable brand. When I was at Maplewood High School, we created the Panther Nation. We made the Panther Nation ultimately one of the top brands in the city. Hands down, people knew about what was happening at Maplewood High School. My philosophy was that we were going to hit you with something new, something fresh, a new idea, a new hot topic, a new gimmick every 30 days. That was our aim: to bring something big out of Maplewood High School every month.

DGW: It worked. I would brag to people about the things you were doing even though I was over here on the south side of town and had never visited Maplewood. But you created an excitement that sucked me in and made me want to follow you on social media and know what was happening there. I would get caught up in your excitement. Then if I ran into somebody and they told me they were going to enroll their kid in Maplewood, I’d become a walking testimony for you. Selling them on the school before they ever walked through the door. That’s what your branding did; it created a vibe before people even entered the building.

RW: I think you have to stay relevant. It’s easy to be irrelevant in this time when people have choices and options. People have perceptions and people vote with their feet; they go where they feel comfortable. I was there for five years. We took this school that had this awful reputation and made it viable and made it relevant and people would want to come there. While I was at Maplewood, it had an increase in enrollment almost every year. It was once perceived as one of the most unsafe schools, probably in the entire state of Tennessee. It’s a high school where a student was murdered at graduation and commencement in 2010, and it’s also had some other tragedies that have occurred on campus, and I mean serious tragedies. So it’s no walk in the park. But we made it attractive and effective.

DGW: The school is certainly on an upswing, Let’s talk about the Firestone garage that is at Maplewood.

RW: It’s pretty cool. We have an amazing automotive instructor, Miss TJ Williams. Miss Williams, Dr. Kelly Jones Mason, who is the principal now, and I had several opportunities to meet with the folks at Bridgestone. We started a conversation around actually converting this dream into a reality for Miss Williams; it was a seven-year prayer. She prayed for this to happen for years, and it actually came to fruition. It took about a year, maybe 18 months, to actually build it out and make it look like a Firestone training center, but it physically has just about everything you would find in a standard Firestone. It’s amazing. It’s the first and only one like it in the country, and I’m very proud of it. When I think about my legacy as a leader, I think about the Entrepreneurship Center at Maplewood, I think about the Firestone Garage, I think about the fitness center. We probably had one of the worst weight rooms in the city. We converted the old wrestling room, since we didn’t have a wrestling team, and made it into a 2000 square feet fitness center. Not only the athletes can work out there, but the teachers also have a place to work out after school. Students can work out there if they want to as well. We raised the graduation rate by 20 percent. We saw an increase in ACT scores. I think last year we had somewhere around five million dollars in scholarships. Things are definitely on the move, great things happening, and now Dr. Mason will put her own stamp on things.

DGW: A lot to be proud of. To wrap things up, any final thoughts? What do you think should be the focus in education?

RW: I really think that we need to place more emphasis on the kids who fall through the cracks. There are a number of kids who want to be successful, but have environmental challenges or other challenges at home that prohibit them from being all they could be. You know kids who fall through the cracks rarely get second chance opportunities. I think one of the things that we did extremely well was that we identified kids who just needed something different. Kids who may have struggled with self-esteem or kids who have struggled with personal issues, academic conference issues – we went after those kids. We even went after those kids who would dare to drop out. We would go after those kids. We would show up at their job, we would knock on their door, we would do community rounds. I think you probably saw that video.

DGW: One of my favorite videos, actually.

RW: Yeah, everything in that is real. That is who we really are. That’s our real identity, not us putting on. We care that deeply for kids that we will take the extra steps, go an extra mile. When you walk inside Maplewood High School, there is a description that says Lives will be changed in this school every day. That was the mantra that I established for that school and it was the mantra for our staff, that we are really in this to change lives. If that means leaving work, going down to the community center to hang out with basketball players, we do that. We drive down to the community center, and we shoot basketball with kids down there. We put ourselves in their environment.

DGW: And that’s one of the things that was clearly important to you, and you were successful at it.

RW: I would bring the accountability to the community, and that’s the piece that the community saw that was different. I’m not just holding you accountable at school and letting you be a terror in the community in the afternoon. I’m going to bring the accountability into the community. You are going to find me at the community center, you will see me shopping at the local grocery store, you will see me in the barber shop. Kids would actually see their school’s leader in their environment.

DGW: I think that’s essential. It’s key.

RW: Very key.

DGW: Let me play devil’s advocate, though, and this is something that I’ve been wrestling with a lot lately. As we move more into restorative justice programs, I worry that there’s a bit of a danger in putting all of this on schools to prevent kids from falling through the cracks. There are problems that need to be solved outside of school because the reality is, kids are dealing with such severe tragedy or trauma that schools are not fully equipped to handle these issues. Yet we keep trying to come up with school-based solutions, which in my opinion, to a certain extent, delay children from actually getting the help they need. Also what about the impact on the other kids? We are not letting them fall through the cracks, but they are also affecting the lives of 22 to 25 or more other kids in that classroom. How do we balance out all those needs?

RW: So let me clarify, when I say falling through the cracks, I am really talking about student self-efficacy. Kids who just believe that they have no purpose, no value. You look at the Bill Gates study. He said there are a number of reasons why kids drop out of school. One, that they’re bored. Two, they think they don’t belong, that this environment is not for them. Or three, a lack of connectedness; they just feel like they couldn’t connect at school. I am not the star athlete, I’m not in the drama club or the chorus, and so what’s my connection to this school other than being forced to come here today by the forced attendance law? And so somewhere in that whole year span, someone’s got to connect with that kid, to reach and make them feel a part of this process. Otherwise, they begin to slowly drift off, and it’s too late when we notice. We don’t tend to notice until it messes with the numbers because this is a numbers game. And then it’s too late.

DGW: Unfortunately it has become a huge numbers game.

RW: Yeah, so we don’t tend to notice that a kid is drifting away until it affects the numbers; then we notice. Oh look, he’s not proficient in Algebra. But we’ve got to see those warning signs coming long before that, and I think to answer your question more specifically, I believe in restorative justice practices. I think restorative practices help them to understand the hurt that they cause when they violate rules. Kids are used to punitive discipline: I do something, I receive the consequences. But I’m not ever asked to think about the hurt that I caused when I hurt someone else. And in this particular scenario, you have to go back to the people you hurt and hear them express how your actions hurt them, and in many cases, kids do begin noticing that. They do begin to understand the power and implications of their actions. On the other hand, I am a fan of teeth also. If you violate rules, there will be some consequences, and stern ones at that. We’ll love you and we’re going to work with you, but if you violate, you will get the hammer, but it will be the velvet hammer. So there’s a balance of love in how you approach it.

As we wrapped up our interview and were sitting amicably talking, the manager’s shift was ending and the former student was gathering up her family to leave. She stopped at the table and exchanged warm pleasantries with her former principal. One of the children looked at him and said, “I remember you” with a big smile. It was clear that Woodard had made a big impact on this young family. I don’t doubt that many young people across middle Tennessee would say the same thing to Dr. Woodard, “I remember you.”