A little confession here, I’m one of those people always reading multiple books at a time. Usually it’s one fiction book – I have a weakness for the crime novel – and one non-fiction book, most often a biography. Currently, I’m into the new John Sanford and the biography of Art Pepper. Last week I added a third book, Making The Unequal Metropolis.
Admittedly I’m only a few chapters into that book, but I must say it’s providing a lot of fodder for thought. The book is a study on how race and economic status played into the creation of the Metropolitan Nashville Public School system. A system that has been fraught with inequities for years.
Like many cities in America, Nashville has wrestled with the subject of race. Memphis, Atlanta, and Birmingham are all cited more often in historical accounts of the Civil Rights movement, but Nashville played a central role as well. Making the Unequal Metropolis examines that history and tries to show how national politics and local politics combined to put blacks at an educational, and therefore an economical, disadvantage for decades.
Often times, the impact of local politics isn’t readily apparent. For example, the building of the Municipal Auditorium could be seen as a great economic driver for the downtown area. What I didn’t know was that in securing the property for the building of the auditorium, many of the buildings that housed black businesses were demolished. An area where black economic power was centralized was broken up. That’s the kind of negative impact a seemingly positive endeavor can have.
Many white Americans speak fondly of our neighborhood schools and how they brought the community together. Which is a nice sentiment, but not exactly beneficial for all. Schools were built around homogenous communities. The promotion of neighborhoods had the unintended consequence, though some would argue it was an intended consequence, of fueling segregation.
The schools that anchored these neighborhoods were not exactly equal. Schools in white communities were, for the most part, modern, clean, and well-kept. That didn’t hold true for schools in black neighborhoods. Despite rooms sitting empty in white schools, black schools were often overcrowded, dimly lit, and in disrepair.
Black teachers were paid salaries of about 40% lower than their white counterparts, despite being on average better educated. This wasn’t by design, but rather due to discriminatory practices in other fields. Those practices left many college-educated black young people with little employment opportunity other than teaching.
Since desegregation in the late 1950s, things have improved, somewhat, but old habits die hard. Whether intentional or not, practices imbedded at the root can only be changed through intentional actions. Schools that house primarily minority or poor kids are still under resourced. Salaries are no longer unequal between white and black educators, but there is still a dearth of black educators in leadership roles. Due to socio-economic conditions, many of our minority and poor kids continue to fall behind in school.
It’s undebatable that inequity is baked into our educational system. It’s undebatable that our underserved communities have a right to be angry. What is debatable is how we address and rectify those inequities.
In 1971, despite protesting parents, Nashville schools desegregated through busing. It was a controversial move and was fought all through the 80’s and 90’s, but it led to Nashville becoming statistically one of the most desegregated school districts in the country. In 1998, the federal government released MNPS from its desegregation plan.
I’m a child of the Northeast and, as such, am well versed in the racial interactions of communities in that region. Black, White, Asian, and Latino communities have very distinct boundaries and interactions are limited. There is a great deal of animosity and distrust between these communities.
I remember when I moved to Nashville and found, despite the caricature of the Southern redneck, that there was much more interaction between racial entities than at home. I remember remarking to friends that, despite instances of overt racism, things seemed decidedly less racially-driven than in Philadelphia. Nashville wasn’t perfect, but it was a damn sight better than home.
Admittedly, these observations come through the lens of a white male. Different perspectives might speak to different degrees. I can only speak to what I have experienced and to those that black friends have shared with me. (I know, everyone has a black friend. I get it.)
That doesn’t mean that I think we’ve reached nirvana. Nor do I believe that solutions can be found in a 3000-word blog post. But I do think we are trying, but at the same time must try harder. I firmly believe that Nashville needs a deeper conversation on race. But what will that conversation look like?
This budget season has opened the doors to the potential ugliness of such a conversation. As programs and practices are being placed under a microscope, people become passionate and defensive. In the process, a racial undercurrent that has been simmering takes root and becomes the biggest elephant in the room.
Some of you are probably thinking right now, “Whoa, TC, watch where you are going here. You are a school board candidate, and you are heading into some dangerous water.”
Unfortunately, I never could stay out of the current. I’ve thought about this a lot over the last several months, but Dr. Joseph’s fraternity brother accusing board members Amy Frogge and Jill Speering of conducting a public lynching has pushed things to the forefront and made it impossible for me to continue to tip toe around the subject.
When those comments were made, I fully expected Dr. Joseph to immediately rebuke them. As a literacy specialist, he is well aware that words have power. He is also well aware that nothing that transpires in a board room will ever equivocate to such a horrific act as a lynching. To try to equate what Dr. Joseph experienced to what actual lynching victims experienced should be offensive to all. Yet he sat silent and even after the meeting when presented with the opportunity to defuse those words, he demurred and just said they weren’t his words.
When Dr. Joseph arrived, there was a decided lack of black administrators in MNPS. There was a perception, right or wrong, that Dr. Register and Dr. Steele favored white administrators over black administrators. I have a great deal respect for both Steele and Register and know both would chafe at the accusation of intentional bias, but the numbers don’t lie. Other than Tony Majors, MNPS was of devoid black leadership at the highest level. Real or not, based on perceived evidence, the narrative took root.
Part of the appeal of hiring Dr. Joseph was that he presented an opportunity to bring more equity to the equation. An opportunity was presented to balance things out to the benefit of all. Unfortunately, what has transpired is a complete flip of the script. The perception now is that Dr. Joseph and his team show bias toward black educators over white educators. As I did with Register and Steele, I will extend the courtesy of not assigning intent. But there is no arguing that the perception has taken root.
Do I think that when you attempt to rectify an unequal situation those who have benefited by the equation will try to push back? Yes. Do I think those that some of those who are no longer benefiting from their status will try to defend their previous privilege through any means possible? Yes. Do I think that rectifying an unequal situation will cause a great deal of discomfort? Yes. But I also think that when making such a wide scale change, you need to be cognizant of the aforementioned challenges and be sure that your actions are not fueling an unintended narrative or reaction. It’s not an easy action to take. If it was, the job wouldn’t pay $300K a year.
When the makeup of central office flips from one race to another in less than a year, it fuels the unintended narrative. When a white principal’s disciplinary action is handled differently than a black principal’s, for a similar infraction, it fuels the unintended narrative. Especially when the one overseeing both situations is a black female executive.
Putting an all-white Human Resources team out in trailers separated from the rest of the department fuels the unintended narrative. Leaving black principals in place in schools where they are obviously failing, and in some cases promoting them, fuels the unintended narrative. Referring to yourself repeatedly at executive meetings as being the Black Panther fuels the unintended narrative. Just as failing to defend board members against charges of racism also fuels the unintended narrative.
I’m sure some of you are reading this right now and thinking, “What the hell are you talking about?” or “Why are you being so critical of Dr. J? Why was nobody saying anything in the past?” I understand those criticisms and acknowledge their veracity.
More people should have spoken up in the past. Just because they didn’t doesn’t mean we should be quiet now. Policy should be evaluated purely on whether it’s good or bad, not based on the level of inquiry it’s produced in the past. Just because things got a pass in the past does not mean that on the flip side, they should be extended the same privilege in the present. I acknowledge that I have had many shortcomings in the past, but am I alone in that sin? We cannot let yesterday rob us of tomorrow.
I will be the first to say that Nashville needs a deeper conversation on race. There are those who will say we’ve already talked enough about race. I wish that was true, but evidence abounds that race is still an integral part of practices and policies and that we are not facing things in an equitable manner.
Personally, I believe it’s a conversation that needs to make us all feel a little uncomfortable. Change does not come without some discomfort. When I say all, I mean all. We must all search our souls and evaluate our role. None of us are experts on race relations. Many of us, though, have very deep scars due to racism and while those scars don’t create experts, they can lead to a road map of understanding. Many of us need those road maps to reach greater understanding.
I guess what I’m calling for is that all of us be a little more mindful of our words and deeds, intentional and unintentional, and how they contribute to the overall conversation. We need a conversation that tears down walls, not build new ones. We need a conversation that unites us, not divide us. We must never forget that children are watching us and taking their cues from our actions. In order to have a better conversation, we must all be willing to suffer some discomfort, make some concessions, forge some compromises, and free our mind – so the rest will follow.
I’m urging everyone to either email or call your legislator this weekend. Not to advocate or complain, but rather to say thank you. As advocates we must also know when to show appreciation. This week, legislators earned it. They remained in session long enough to make sure they got legislation passed on TNReady right and extended protection from consequences arising from a dumpster fire of a test for everyone. In the words of Hee-Haw…. SALUTE!
In other news, there is no truth to the rumor that wild gorillas ran through several schools and stole the test early this morning. Here’s a post from a kid running for student government president. I’m thinking of making him my campaign manager.
TMZ time. Rumors continue to swirl that a certain popular South Nashville middle school principal is in the mix for the job at Hillwood HS. While we understand his desire to work at the high school level, we kinda need him over here.
Also hearing rumors that a certain gubernatorial candidate, who is trailing the pack, is expressing interest in becoming the next Commissioner of Education for the state of Tennessee. I think they’d do a comparable job to what they did as Speaker of the House.
Is this the worst headline ever: “Nashville schools spending policy review not likely happen until later in the year.” Did they fire all of the proofreaders at the Tennessean? I know, people in glass houses… you got me.
Here’s another bit of free advice. Principal hiring panels are only effective if they are actually authentic. Keep in mind, everybody in Nashville has two friends and if the panel is treated as nothing but an optic, they will convey that to two friends, who will convey it to two friends, who will… you get the picture. In essence, you are setting up the selection for failure. It’s not hard. Be transparent. Be authentic.
If you’ll remember back a few weeks ago, I reported on the wife of the Chief of Schools, and Duval County Superintendent candidate, Dr. Narcisse getting a stipend for doing additional work. The stipend made her salary $155K a year. Here’s some information to put in context: with that stipend she nows makes equal to or more than the following individuals in MNPS:
- COMMUNITY SUPERINTENDENT
- HUMAN RESOURCES EXEC DIR
- OPERATIONS HR
- EXEC DIR ‐ TECHN & INFO SVCS
- EXEC DIR ‐ EMPLOYEE RELATIONS
- EXEC DIR ‐ SAFETY & SECURITY EXEC
- DIR ‐ RESEARCH AND EVAL
- EXEC DIR ‐ INSTRUCTION
- EXEC DIR ‐ TALENT STRATEGY
- DIR ‐ CENTRAL SVCS & INVENTORY
- EXEC DIR ‐ SSI
Truth is, with that stipend, she is the 7th highest-paid employee in MNPS. Hmmm… since we were able to evaluate the efficacy of Reading Recovery, do you think it would be possible for Dr. Changas to study the efficacy of the Executive Director of Equity and Diversity?
Meet Jamia Lockmiller, a physical education teacher at Tusculum Elementary, and one of our 2018 Teacher of the Year finalists for Metro Schools. So pleased that she is getting the recognition she deserves. I can never downplay the role she played in setting my son out on the right path with his formal education.
Twenty-five string students from MNPS will join classically trained violist and violinist Wil B. and Kev Marcus of Black Violin at their performance on Thursday, April 26, at War Memorial Auditorium.
The Tennessee Performing Arts Center is offering buy one, get one free tickets to Metro Schools teachers, parents and guardians: http://cart.tpac.org/single/SYOS.aspx?p=8329&promo=BVEDU. If a student would like to attend, use the code BVSTUDENT at checkout.
Sometimes, something just gives you the smiles all over… When a generous, thoughtful soul shows compassion in every single thing she does, a community is lifted. Beyond librarian: soul whisperer – at J. T. Moore Middle School.
I need to give a shout out to Doc Smith, a teacher over at Overton High School. Due to his kindness and perseverance, my son and I did not miss out on an exceptional experience. Doc got us passes to Quad A (The Army Aviation Association of America) out at the Opryland Hotel. I admit I didn’t know what to expect, but upon leaving Peter remarked to me, “Which do you think was better, this or Comic Con? High praise, indeed.
The Overton Cluster PAC meets on Monday night at Haywood ES at 6:30 PM. Come hear Overton Academy Head Doug Trotter give the inside skinny on Overton’s Cambridge program. Look forward to seeing everyone.