BACK BURNING

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There is strategy that is used to fight wildfires out west; it’s called back burning. Back burning involves starting small fires along a manmade or natural firebreak in front of a main fire front. Back burning reduces the amount of fuel that’s available to the main fire by the time it reaches the burnt area. Back burning is utilized in controlled burning and during wildfire events. Sounds a little like what’s going on in MNPS as of late.

Over the last 2 months, a large conflagration has been burning, the budget process. To say that leadership’s performance on the budget process this year has been anything but abysmal would be an understatement. Figures were released late, multiple corrections had to be made, the information given was inaccurate, the district’s funding request was unrealistic, and last minute cuts that stunk of retaliation were enacted. All in all, it was a master’s class on how not to conduct a budgeting process for a large urban school district.

Bet you are thinking, “Whew, glad that’s over.” Problem is, it’s not over. We are still right in the middle of it. And things are not improving. Teachers are upset about the fact that they’ll be taking home less money next year due to rising health care premiums. Granted, premiums are only increasing by about $15 for a family next year, but it’s the principle of things. The perception of going backwards instead of forward.

Many of the other cuts are unpopular and the questions remain on how well the district has managed existing resources. Hence the need to start some back burning fires.

Early on in the budget process, frustrated by the inability to get clear answers on simple budget related questions, board chair Anna Shepherd and vice-chair Jill Speering called for an audit to be conducted by the Metro government on MNPS spending. In the shadow of the proposed audit, board member Amy Frogge also began asking probing questions about stipends paid to central office folks, money paid to consultants, adherence to contracting policies, adherence to the salary schedule, and spending in general. Director of Schools Dr. Shawn Joseph and his team either refused to provide answers, provided incomplete information, or provided answers that were quickly proven inaccurate. Things quickly began to heat up.

In the absence of a credible counterargument, Joseph decided it was time to light some back burning fires. The first one was lit when one of his fraternity brothers, during public commentary in a budget meeting, accused the questioning board members of engaging in a “public lynching.” That was followed up by an appearance on Channel 5 Openline where he compared Amy Frogge to President Trump and his use of social media. Last week budget committee chair Tyese Hunter and Joseph brought several African American Metro councilwomen to speak at a budget meeting in order to chastise Jill Speering for her response to Joseph’s playing of inappropriate music at a principals meeting. The gist of the rebuttal was that Speering’s attacks were rooted in racism.

This week, the Tennessee Tribune jumped into the fray and printed an op-ed that painted Joseph as an honorable man hounded by “two privileged white racist female board members.” That’s a pretty serious accusation and one that should never be made lightly. I’m not sure why I should have to remind editors of a newspaper that words have meaning. Casually calling people “racist” because you don’t like their actions, much like comparing actions in a board room to a horrific real life crime, serves to paint people in an unfair and inaccurate light and potentially marginalizes the atrocities suffered by people like Emmet Till. Atrocities that should never be marginalized.

We are all of sudden more focused on “implied bias” and “cultural competency” than we are on the budget, results, and what we are actually doing for kids. I’m not downplaying the need to closely examine both racism and its impact on students and schools, but I must admit to being confused when board member Christiane Buggs, in a Facebook post, points to graduates being allowed to walk across the graduation stage to Drake’s “God’s Plan” as an example of “cultural competency.”

Since Drake is played continually on every Top 40 radio station and is, as such, arguably, part of the primary culture, which culture is he representing? Perhaps it’s the Canadian former child star culture. They are woefully underrepresented. There is a line in the song that says, “She said, ‘Do you love me?’ I tell her, ‘Only partly. I only love my bed and my momma, I’m sorry.'” At graduation, is it appropriate to be celebrating staying in bed all day at your mom’s house? I don’t know, though I would argue that is not a question of cultural sensitivity.

I’m being a little facetious here. I realize there are numerous references in the Drake song that I don’t understand because of culture. Also, would it be appropriate to play a sampling of the narcocorrido El Bazucazo? After all, nearly a quarter of MNPS students are Hispanic. What about “Dilan” by Rojda, a Kurdish singer who once served a prison sentence for a year and eight months all due to her “terrorist propaganda.” Nashville is home to the largest Kurdish population in America, so…

It appears that the conversation on appropriate music needs to go a whole deeper, huh? That’s not dissimilar from our equity conversation as a whole. In this light, we do need to be cognizant that our conversations should be to heal and unite versus divide and separate. None of us are born with a complete comprehension of race, culture, and its impact on our lives. It’s only through careful examination and inquiry that we can come to place where we can begin to shape a culture that is beneficial and inclusive to all. We all have different experiences, and we all have different inherent biases. Like in everything, balance must be acquired.

Etan Hein is a Doctoral Fellow in Music Education at NYU, an adjunct professor of music technology at NYU and Montclair State University, and a founding member of the NYU Music Experience Design Lab. In a recent blog entry called “Teaching Whiteness in Music Class,” he talks about the lack of inclusion of Hip Hop in music education and how it’s hurting students. There is a line where he talks about cultural competency that resonates with me:

Music educators can support the growth of ”culturally flexible” students (Carter 2010)who possess multiple cultural and are able to relate to people different from themselves. For students of color, that means understanding both their culture of origin and the dominant culture. For white students, it means becoming fluent in at least one other culture, and also recognizing that “their culture is just that—a culture, not the universal way, or the “right” way of doing things” (Ladson-Billings 2015, 415). “Whiteness” describes not just a group of people, but a social location, a symbolic resource “providing all those who [possess] it with the benefit of assumed knowledge and ability” (Lewis 2003, 126). It is crucial that we help students of all races to develop a critical awareness of how whiteness functions.

I believe that is a crucial challenge for all of us. But we can’t succeed if we quickly resort to inflammatory language when things get uncomfortable. The Tribune argues that Joseph gets scrutinized while other superintendents got a pass. That accusation is no more accurate than the one that President Trump makes in relation to former President Obama. A simple Google search provides ample evidence of previous directors getting criticized.

Board member Will Pinkston was extremely critical of former Director of Schools Jesse Register. Often taking him to task for not following policy. Pinkston went as far as to call for the removal of Register. East Nashville parents were equally critical of his leadership.

Perhaps before labeling Jill Speering as racist, we should look at a quote of hers from 2014 in regard to Dr. Register that illuminates her thoughts on her role as a school board member:

“We all worked very, very hard to win these positions,” says Speering, who represents one of nine equal school board districts akin to legislative House districts in population. “We were willing to listen and took those concerns seriously. What voters will often say is once you’re elected, they never hear from you. That’s exactly what we didn’t want to happen — and that’s why this is of vital importance, especially to new board members.”

Hmmm… seems she has been consistent in her depiction as a board member’s role being one of questioning. You may disagree with her definition, but does that make her racist or just someone you disagree with?

Dr. Register’s Number 2 guy, Jay Steele, also received his fair share of negative press. If you ask him, Steele can tell you all kinds of anecdotes about being followed by the press. He didn’t do so by trying to label people negatively, but merely took the criticism for what it was, part of the job. The Director of Schools position is not one for the thin-skinned. Just ask another former director, Dr. Pedro Garcia.

Garcia seems to be the Director of Schools that Joseph is most intent on emulating. Garcia brought many of his own people in, repeatedly defended administrators that were clearly not qualified, fought with reporters and school board members, frustrated principals, engaged in retaliatory actions against critics, and ultimately left the district after failing to match the accomplishments with the drama. Before he left, Nashville exploded in a heated conversation on race and the education system. Echoes from the past just keep on resonating.

Much like the president, the job of MNPS Director of Schools comes with a great deal of scrutiny. I’d argue that the manner in which the Director responds to that scrutiny is indicative of the success they’ll have. Dr. Garcia serves as a clear example of the results when the Director chooses to confront every critic and retaliate instead of educate.

As a career educator, the Director of Schools should look at Nashville as one of the many classrooms he or she has lead. Educate us on “implied bias,” “cultural competency,” and other important terminology. Dr. Joseph wouldn’t call a student in his class ignorant or crazy no matter how much they challenged him, so I urge him not to imply community members are ignorant, crazy, or acting out when they challenge him.

Perhaps it is time for another reading assignment: Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. Explain the why and people may ask, where and when? Again the focus should be on uniting not dividing. 

The problem with “back burning” is that it causes a lot of collateral damage to the existing ecosystem. Fires lit to control another fire cause damage themselves. Some of that damage is irreparable. We need to think of alternative solutions to putting out fires instead of using “back burning” strategies.

THE COST OF NOT PAYING FOR ADVANCED ACADEMIC TESTS

Last August, I tried to do a deep dive into Advanced Academics, IB, and Cambridge programs. This interest came about because I’d learned that there were fees associated with these programs. These fees applied to the cost of the End of Course (EOC) tests and, in some cases, registration for the classes themselves. I must have talked to about 20 different people and yet was unable to come up with a clear picture of the financial responsibility of these courses.

Basically, the financial responsibility looked different at whichever school your child attended. Some schools had scholarship programs available and some didn’t. Depending on access to various funding streams, schools offered different fee schedules. I found this lack of consistency very concerning. The programs are all quite strong academically and extremely beneficial to kids, but in my eyes, the financial responsibilities associated effectively served as barriers to inclusion. Costs could run anywhere from $200 – $900 a year, depending on the number of courses the student was enrolled in.

I’m not sure how things work in your household, but in the Weber home, we don’t have an extra $500, nor do we have a desire to get involved with something that potentially could have even more costs associated with it. It’s not that we don’t value our children’s education; it’s just that we don’t have the resources. I also recognize that if we don’t have the money, there are probably a lot of other families that don’t either. One educator confessed to me, “This is something we struggle with in expanding access.”

At the end of the day, I couldn’t get a clear enough picture to write a piece that wasn’t inflammatory. So I shelved it. But I came away with the understanding that the district’s decision to pay for tests this year, along with those associated with industry certifications, was a step in the right direction in regards to increased equity and access.

Fast forward a year, and that assessment has been borne out. Last year saw a dramatic increase in the number of kids participating in advanced academic classes. We also saw a substantial increase in the number of kids leaving school armed with workplace certifications that made them eligible for immediate employment. Dr. Joseph rightly touted this as one of the successes of the year. This action was probably the biggest step the district had taken towards equity and access in years.

Throughout this budget season, it has been repeatedly stated that the budget is a public declaration of your values. If that’s true, then apparently we don’t value equity and access because the latest budget cuts nearly three-quarters of a million dollars in funding that was targeted toward paying for these tests. The cost of the tests has been shifted back to parents, and, as a result, I anticipate the access window narrowing again.

One argument that I heard repeatedly during my investigation into advanced academics was that just taking the class, even if the student didn’t take the test, was beneficial. That no longer holds true, because the state has enacted a policy that states if a student doesn’t take the test, then they lose the extra points toward their GPA. In other words, if you take the class and don’t take the test, you risk jeopardizing your GPA due to the advanced difficulty level. Jeopardize your GPA and you risk limiting the number of post secondary options available. I’m not sure that’s a bet most would want to take.

This is an unintended, I assume, consequence of the recently passed ESSA legislation. Under ESSA, states are awarded points for the number of kids who take advanced academic exams. It’s all part of the career and college ready pillar that is meant to hold schools accountable.

I would strongly urge that we revisit this budget cut and perhaps find a better line item to cut. Paying for the tests is too essential to our goal of increased equity and access to sacrifice.

QUICK HITS

Some comedy gold, courtesy of Sito Narcisse, emerged from this past weekend’s Newark Superintendent candidate public interviews. Narcisse told those assembled, “If I become the superintendent of Newark, my goal is to make sure we are tapping into people from Newark. I tell folks all the time I will not be coming to Newark and bringing 14,000 people with me.” Many in Nashville would find that statement interesting. To make things even more interesting, Narcisse stated that it was also important for the community to understand where the district was spending its money. “Community matters, you cannot do anything without the community,” he said.  Hmmmm… Newark is supposed to announce a finalist by the end of the month.

Lakeview Design Center staff found out this week that Dr. Shantrell Pirtle has been selected to be their 2018-2019 principal. This appointment comes with a few questions. Pirtle was previously employed with MNPS as principal at Bellshire ES. Things didn’t go well at Bellshire, and she was removed during the 2016 school year. In her defense, Pirtle has been in the principal residency program for the last year, and word is that she’s better for it. We wish her luck and hopefully the community embraces her.

Word on the street is that former Buena Vista ES principal Michelle McVicker will be leaving the district at the end of the year. Still a lot of mystery around that one. But the general feeling is that McVicker is an exceptional principal who the district did not do right by.

If you haven’t watched last week’s MNPS budget meeting yet, I urge you to do so. Stay tuned until the finale when four Metro council members out of the South Nashville area take the mic and berate School Board Member Jill Speering. It really qualifies as theater of the absurd. I only wish council members were as adamant in their defense of Antioch HS as they were of Director of Schools Shawn Joseph.

I keep hearing about a lot of distrust in the MNPS principal selection process. This past week I attended the initial community meeting for the opening at Oliver Middle. While there were tensions, people seemed committed to making the process work. I’ve stated that the worst thing you can do is give people the illusion of power and then demonstrate that they are powerless. Dr. Joseph needs to either listen to panel recommendations or do away with the panels. One suggestion I offered was if Dr. Joseph could meet with the panel and explain his decision after making the selection and before announcing the new hire.

Several teachers who expected to be on the displaced list got termination letters from the district this past week. Most found the letters were in error, but they still evoked plenty of concern. These letters raised further concern because a glance at the MNPS job portal seems to indicate a shortage of about 500 teachers. We might want to be extra careful in distributing termination letters.

Speaking of being displaced, anyone interested in how many of those displaced Reading Recovery teachers have secured employment with the district for next year? My sources tell me 25 out of 80. This is in spite of Dr. Joseph promising them that they would have jobs going forth.

Slim & Husky’s Pizza Beeria recently awarded five Metro Schools students with the first PREAM Scholarships. The students earned the scholarships by excelling in academics, athletics and participating in community service while working as Slim & Husky’s employees.

Congratulations to these students:
-Aaliyah Cummings, East Nashville Magnet School
-Alexis Hill, Stratford Comp High School
-Shuna Webb, Maplewood Comprehensive High School, MNPS
-Doneisha Wells, Maplewood High School
-Dywaneisha Woodland, East Nashville Magnet

The owners at Slim and Husky’s are MNPS graduates as well.

Congratulations to Ramey Hulse, a senior at Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet High School, for receiving a corporate-sponsored National Merit Scholarship.

Congratulation to the 38 Tennessee teachers who were chosen this week to be SCORE fellows. Look at the list and I suspect you’ll find some Dad Gone Wild readers. Shhh… we won’t tell.

Speaking of DGW readers, thank you to JC Bowman for the kind words in his recent blog post. Words can not express my appreciation. Those of you who are troubled by my friendship with Bowman need to remember that Ravitch and Smarick are themselves friends.

Speaking of friends, Mary Holden weighs in with her take on the recently completed Tennessee testing season.

That’s another blog post in the bag. Hope y’all have an awesome week. If you need to contact me, you can do so at Norinrad10@yahoo.com. I’m always looking for more opinions and will try to promote as many of the events that you send to me as possible, but I do apologize in advance if I fall short and don’t get them all out there.

I have started using Patreon as a funding source. If you think what I do has monetary value, you can go there and make a donation/pledge. Just because Andy Spears is also on Patreon doesn’t mean you can’t support us both. Trust me, I know I ain’t going to get rich, but at the end of the day I’m just a Dad trying to get by. Check out the Dad Gone Wild Facebook page as well. And if you are so inclined, check out the Thomas “TC” Weber for MNPS District 2 School Board page.

 

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One comment on “BACK BURNING

  1. Jason says:

    I teach AP & IB in the district. An AP Exam costs around $95 per class. IB costs a $172 registration fee for the student plus $122 per IB class they take. If the students’ household meet the federal poverty standard (as poor as our district is, fewer meet this very low level than you’d expect) & receive services the AP cost is lowered to $22 and the IB registration fee is still $172 with $22 per IB class.

    MNPS paying for exams was transformative this year. MY AP class jumped from a 22-23 student average to a 31 students this year, and my exam participation rate jumped from the usual 60% (with me writing a few checks) to 98%. Engagement was way better class-wide as well as everyone now had the same goal.

    We’re already talking to a few families who are ready to drop their students out of the IB program due to cost; you can be low income and not get federal grant reductions for the test fees.

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