“I have always had more dread of a pen, a bottle of ink, and a sheet of paper than of a sword or pistol.”
“Almost nobody made it out of the game in one piece, and almost everybody thought they would be the exception.”
Over the last 5 years, in writing this blog, there have been times where I’ve felt the necessity to write about things that ran the risk of putting me at cross purposes with people of whom I held in high esteem. It’s never been a comfortable position, nor one that I took lightly, but despite the fact that I don’t get paid, or reap any rewards, nor am I held accountable by any but those who read my ramblings, I’ve always felt compelled to pursue these narratives with a journalistic integrity.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t sympathize with other’s agendas and concerns, I just try to cover all issues with the same focus: is it good for all kids? Sounds clichéd, but it is what it is. Have I always hit the mark? No, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that at times I give in to my emotions and at others, I place too high a value on my personal experiences. I adjust when I can, and continually strive to be better, always leading with the chin.
Yesterday, word began to leak out that a couple of MNPS schools would be getting new leadership in the near future. Warner ES principal Denise Jacano and Inglewood ES principal Tracy McPherson were leaving their respective positions. Jacano was brought in from Seaford County, Delaware, with Director of Schools Shawn Joseph. Word on the street is that she has struggled with the transition for the last couple of years.
Inglewood, and by de facto McPherson, is a rising jewel for the district. Three years ago, Inglewood found themselves on the state’s priority list and was faced with either state takeover or closure. Through incredible community involvement and the acumen of McPherson, Inglewood exited priority status this year. It is an amazing story, one that shows what is possible when the district, parents, and educators all jump in together.
The district is now attempting to recapture some of that magic by promoting McPherson to the role of MNPS Executive Director of School Support and Improvement for the School of Innovation (EDSSI). As an EDSSI, she will serve as essentially an executive principal to the priority schools. A role she is easily qualified for. But just because she is qualified doesn’t mean it is the right move.
One of the hallmarks of a successful school is stable leadership. It’s impossible to establish a winning culture without continuity. Sports offers ample examples to support that assertion. Who are the most successful NFL teams? Is it teams like the Steelers, who carefully select their head coach and then leave him in place for decades? Or teams like the Titans, who just kind of select whoever is available and then switch every three or four years?
As a major pillar of its recently-released “Priority School Plan,” MNPS cites teacher recruitment and retention as important. Hmmm… how does either happen without long-term stability in the leadership positions? This summer, MNPS moved the principal at Pearl-Cohn HS, another recent priority school list graduate, to the central office and reassigned the principal at Jere Baxter MS, currently on the priority school list, to another school. Those moves don’t help stabilize the schools those leaders are leaving.
To compound things for Inglewood, over the summer, their AP, Eric Hartfelder, was moved, over Eakin parents’ objections, to be principal of Eakin ES. Eakin parents had another candidate that they really wanted, but the district wasn’t having it.
This is where things get problematic. The district knew for several months which schools were going to end up on the priority list and which were going to exit. It should have been no surprise when the list was officially released in mid-September. If the district argues otherwise, they are either being disingenuous or it points to a serious lack of cohesion and communication with the state. The TNDOE isn’t playing gotcha with these lists.
Over the summer, MNPS should have realized that they wanted to increase the use of McPherson and pursued talks with Hartfelder to remain at Inglewood, as opposed to forcing him into the very difficult position of having to overcome parental objections in a high-profile school like Eakin. District leadership should have been prepping him for a successful continuation of the progress being made at Inglewood.
Furthermore, before making personnel moves, there should have been a close examination of the supports who are present at Inglewood, but not at other similarly sized soon-to-be priority schools. For example, Inglewood has an AP. Not every priority school of their size has that position. I believe at Inglewood the position is funded through a grant, so how do we get other small, high-needs schools access to grant money?
The district should have been looking at social supports at Inglewood as compared to other soon-to-be priority schools. Inglewood has one of the strongest Community Achieves programs in the city. Perhaps we should make sure that model is replicated in other at-risk schools.
Tusculum ES, previously in the bottom 10%, improved their student outcomes by improving teaching practices. Two years ago, Tusculum ES utilized a company called American Alliance for Innovative Systems. AAIS focuses on making teachers better, specializing in teachers in high-risk schools. Interestingly enough, both Whitsitt ES, another priority list graduate, and Inglewood ES have utilized the services of AAIS. Upon arrival, MNPS Chief of Instruction Monique Felder, before ever conducting an evaluation of their services, canceled the district’s endorsement of AAIS as a supported vendor.
Tusculum did not have the money in their school budget to continuing utilizing AAIS’s services but incorporated many of their prescribed practices. Whitsitt and Inglewood had grant money available and continued to utilize their services. Both schools exited the priority list this year… causation or correlation? I don’t know, but if I was MNPS, I’d sure want to find out. Remember that pillar about teacher recruitment and retention… yeah… it’s gotta be more than just words.
Those are just three quick looks at strategies that should have been explored first before making a leadership change. If it was decided that more central office support was indeed needed, why not shift current EDSSI David Kovach to priority schools? After all, he’s done this work before, and based on evidence, seems to be pretty good at it.
What about moving Community Superintendent Adrienne Battle to the head of Priority Schools? Sure, she’s been effective as a community superintendent, but overseeing priority schools takes a very unique skill set. A skill set that she’s proven to possess. Don’t Nashville’s most neediest kids deserve to benefit from those skills?
Instead of moving AP’s and principals from high need schools, why not look at our reward schools for talent? Maybe there is an AP or two who knows what a successful culture looks like, and you could get them to import that vision to a struggling school. The culture at a reward school is much more ingrained, and the leadership bench much deeper, and could probably more easily sustain the hit.
I get that you can’t dictate to people where they work, but you can negotiate and you can create a culture of being part of a team. Being a part of a team means being willing to play flex when you’d really prefer to be a QB. We all have to work together.
Moving AP’s from successful schools could also help with the equity issue. Replace those quality administrators that you move from successful schools with strong candidates of Hispanic, Asian, Middle-Eastern, and African-American backgrounds – yes, equity includes those of Hispanic, Asian, and Middle Eastern backgrounds as well. Let those minority candidates learn from successful programs instead of throwing them to the wolves at a high-needs school right out of the box. The way we train our potential principals now is like teaching kids to swim by just throwing them into the pool after some basic instruction.
(I should interject a quick shout out to Sonia Stewart here. I’ve been hearing very good things about her work with APs.)
If it was me, and many are glad that it is not, I would pay attention to principal trees like the NFL pays attention to coaching trees. Look around the district and count the number of successful administrators that served under Kessler, Woodard, Pelham, Battle, and Shrader. That’s sellable and replicable. But I doubt that there is anyone on the executive leadership team that is fluent in that history, much to the detriment of the district.
In the long run, I think Inglewood is going to be fine; that community has shown that they are too committed to letting that school be anything but successful. They’ve set a bar, and if expectations are as important as many ascribe them to be, the next leader better be bringing their “A” game. I happen to know one that would be a great fit, would increase the number of Hispanic principals, and has a track record of leading a school to reward status, but I’ll be quiet.
McPherson may or may not be successful in her new role of impacting all priority schools. By all accounts, she is wicked smart and dedicated. But there is a huge difference between managing a school with 260 students and managing multiple high-needs schools, some with much larger populations. Nick Saban trying to make the jump from the NCAA to the NFL or Rick Pitino trying to go from the NCAA to NBA come to mind. You can’t treat the players the same way when you make the jump. I do wish her luck though. She’s earned the opportunity.
Dr. Joseph recently bristled when newly-elected board member Fran Bush challenged him to become more proactive instead of reactive. This switch of school leadership during the year is a prime example of being reactive and illustrates what she is talking about. We can debate all day whether these moves are the right moves or not, but what is undebatable is the timing and lack of foresight.
These changes should have been made over the summer, when they would have been less disruptive. There is no information that is available today that wasn’t available 4 months ago. That’s what Bush means by being proactive, Dr. J. Make the move in a timely manner; don’t let the time be dictated to you. Dr. Gentry, you and the board need to pay attention as well.
At the last board meeting, Dr. Gentry used the closing minutes of the chair report – at about the 54:51 minute mark – to reference a work by conflict resolution trainer Judy Ringer about considering your purpose when engaging in communication. I’m not going into detail here, but the basic premise is that before engaging in conversation, think about what you are going to say and what it is adding to the conversation.
Good advice, but my response to Gentry is, “Physician, heal thyself.”
My challenge to her is to watch the whole board meeting and listen to the snide comments and innuendos she makes throughout, and then ask herself, “For what purpose are you making those comments? Are you truly adding to the conversation by making them?” I’m pretty sure that based on Ringer’s template, she’ll find that she has some work to do. But then again, Gentry has always been a “do as I say and not as I do” kinda gal.
MNPS finally put out their interpretation on recent WIDA scores. In their eyes, the results are pretty good:
The percent of English Learner students meeting or exceeding growth standard results increased with 47 percent of MNPS students meeting or exceeding their expected growth. This was an improvement from 42.5 percent in 2017. The district also surpassed the 2018 Annual Measurable Objective, or target, of 46.1 percent that was established by the state for MNPS. This improvement of 4.5 percentage points is equivalent to the statewide progress for English proficiency. Further, MNPS saw 14.7 percent of EL students exit service, which is a slight change over 2017 when 14.5 percent exited.
I concur for the most part, with some caveats. It should be noted that this is the third year we’ve surpassed the Annual Measurable Objective. The exit number is a little low and growth in that area needs improvement. We should be around 16-18%. Our elementary schools are doing exceptional work, but more work is needed in the higher grades. That said, all in all, it’s pretty good news.
Last week, I mentioned the improvement of surrounding counties’ performance on WIDA. It was pointed out to me that much of that could be attributed to the number of former MNPS EL teachers who have relocated to those surrounding communities. Teachers who have benefited from our world-class PD. Like district HR Executive Sharon Pertiller said at this week’s board meeting, MNPS is proving to be a great recruiter for outside districts. That’s got to stop.
Speaking of surrounding counties benefiting from former MNPS employees, the one thing that is missing from MNPS’s statement on WIDA scores is an acknowledgement of the contributions of former Executive Director of EL, Kevin Stacy. I don’t really expect them to acknowledge his stellar leadership, but I certainly want to offer one last thank you. Stacy now plies his trade in Clarksville.
According to an article in the Tennessean, Williamson County Schools is considering a new lead testing policy for their water. Per the policy:
With the testing performed every two years, school officials will look for lead levels below 15 parts per billion.
If the levels sit between 15 parts per billion and 20 parts per billion, the district will conduct testing on an annual basis until the issue is fixed, according to the policy.
As written, district policy further stated that if lead levels were found above 20 parts per billion, the school would have to remove the water source from service.
I hope every parent in WCS read that statement and immediately started dialing school board members. 20 ppb is way too high and is 5 ppb over the EPA’s recommended action level. That’s an action level, not a safety level.
As much as I hate the Red Sox, I hope y’all are enjoying the Mookie Betts Story. Just remember he’s a product of Overton High School via Oliver MS who retains close ties with the community. Great things have come from our schools.
Over at Volume and Light, Vesia Hawkins has an exceptional read. One that reiterates many of my points from above.
Here’s a question for you, why do so many want to give me advice, yet few are willing to heed mine?
Word on the street is that Dr. Joseph’s driver has amassed roughly the equivalent of a starting teacher’s salary in overtime over the last two years. The problem with substantiating that comes from a purported lack of documentation on said overtime. I’ll keep you posted.
Word out of MNPS schools, after yesterday’s professional development day, is that quarter 2 is going to be heavily scripted. Oh boy!
Yesterday, School board member Jill Speering had heart surgery. The surgery was scheduled for 8:30 AM. At 6:30 AM, a message came across my computer screen, “You up?”
Speering wanted to talk MNPS for a minute before her surgery. That how dedicated this woman is. She never stops putting the teachers and kids of MNPS ahead of herself. Some like to paint her recent battles with Dr. Joseph as being purely a battle over her support of Reading Recovery and his lack of support.
That’s not an argument rooted in fact. Dr. Joseph canceled Reading Recovery on the eve of the board presenting the 2018/2019 budget to the mayor. An action that came shortly after Jill Speering, along with board member Amy Frogge, called for an audit of MNPS finances.
Speering has worked too hard for MNPS teachers and families to allow her opponents to paint her as beholden to one program. The reality is Dr. Joseph made a miscalculation in thinking that he could control Speering by denying something important to her. That was a serious miscalculation.
Get well soon, Jill, but we got this till you are back.
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