A WHIFF OF OPTIMISM

“Hope
Smiles from the threshold of the year to come,
Whispering ‘it will be happier’…”
Alfred Lord Tennyson

“I am not a politician… I only suffer the consequences.”
Peter Tosh

Yesterday, the first half of the year came to a close for Metro Nashville students and teachers. While things are far from perfect, I can’t help but feel a bit of optimism in the air. Several things passed through my inbox yesterday that provided a little more evidence that we are at least taking baby steps toward a brighter reality with Metro Nashville Public Schools.

Neither of these items is earth-shattering on their own, but combined, they indicate a shift in mindset. In my eyes, a very important shift. As such, I believe they deserve illumination and celebration.

Progress is often like a turtle poking its head out of its shell, trying to decide if it wants to fully emerge or whether it needs to duck back into the safety of its hard outer shell. Make too much noise, and the turtle will withdraw and hold fast to a defensive position. But if the turtle feels secure, it will more fully extend itself and start to move forward. Yesterday MNPS stuck its head out of its shell.

The first item to catch my attention came in the form of an MNPS press release. Apparently, an MNPS security officer had been arrested for an alleged assault on a student. A troubling occurrence for sure. But the difference here was that for the first time in forever, MNPS was offering information before the story was broken by the press.

In the past, MNPS has tended to not publically acknowledge incidents like this and hope that the press follow suit. Only after pressed, would the district respond and then it would be in a defensive manner. Not in this case.

The press release stated what occurred, the district’s action steps, and then reiterated the Superintendent’s guiding philosophy,

“Our security officers are trained in de-escalation tactics and how to diffuse situations using non-physical means,” said Dr. Adrienne Battle, interim director of Metro Schools. “Placing your hands on a child in an aggressive manner should never be done unless they pose an immediate physical threat to another person. We will be reviewing and investigating this incident to ensure appropriate protocols and trainings were followed by the officer.”

Later that day I read the story in the Tennessean. I compared the story to the one MNPS provided and felt a sense of confidence that MNPS was taking control of the situation. They were facing things head-on and not hiding. For the first time in a long time, MNPS was telling their story instead of reacting to someone else telling their story, which stands in stark contrast to the days of a superintendent being chased through the library by the press looking for a response to a negative story.

While I’m often critical of MNPS’s central office, I think it’s equally important to give credit where it’s due.   New communications director Sean Braisted has only been on the job a short period of time, but early indications are that he will lead a department more closely aligned with interim-director Dr. Battle’s voiced commitment to transparency. That’s fuel for optimism.

Yesterday also saw the posting of an op-ed by Battle. For this end of year op-ed, Dr. Battle chose to focus on those that do the heavy lifting in MNPS, Nashville’s teachers,

After visiting dozens of schools and speaking to hundreds of teachers during my first full semester as interim director of Metro Nashville Public Schools, I came away recommitted to my fundamental understanding that no one will play a more important role in Nashville’s future success than our teachers.

She goes on to promise to listen to MNPS’s teachers, but more than that to act on what they say. This homage to teachers is not unique. The public pledging of fealty to teachers while refusing to follow up those words with action is a favored activity among the political class,  but in this case, with Battle, it feels a little more real. Maybe it’s just a desire to believe and hearts will be broken all over again, but I feel optimism.

I’ve often said, nobody personifies the definition of eternal optimist like a professional educator. But for some reason Battle’s words seem to ring a little truer than those uttered by predecessors. Maybe it’s because she was a classroom teacher from here. Maybe it’s because she’s local. Maybe the evidence can be found in her closing statement,

But we won’t just listen; we’ll act. We’ll honor teachers’ planning time. We’ll work to ensure they can teach in a safe environment and that students have the supports they need.

These improved conditions won’t happen overnight, but we are acting with urgency. I value each and every teacher, because I used to be one. If you are contemplating leaving MNPS, I would like to personally talk with you to encourage you to stay.

We need you to remain a part of our team. We are better together, and we will accomplish great things for our students.

Teachers so often lead the way. My own classroom experiences inform every decision I make as I seek to lead my hometown school district towards even greater outcomes for every student we serve.

In those words, she acknowledges that in the past soliciting teacher opinion has not led to concrete action. She further acknowledges and legitimizes very real teacher concerns in regard to planning time and discipline issues, and goes even further by recognizing that teachers have other options than MNPS and that they are actively exploring them. The latter in itself is a huge break with the past.

While Battle’s words are certainly welcome ones, they alone can not hide the reality that still remains with MNPS. A reality voiced by an educator who sent the following to me earlier this week,

“Just to be candid…I like Dr. Battle. However, she is loyal to the very people who need to exit MNPS. That is why I am on the fence with her being the director. We need someone who will change the culture of this district. This district is so toxic it is sad. So much cut-throat and deception.”

Those words are an accurate reflection of where MNPS currently stands as an employer. Assuming the mantle of leadership affects our relationships and our judgments of our former peers. While we might have enjoyed them as teammates, they may not be the right fit for our team. While they may have enjoyed being on a team with us, are they ready to be on our team? Navigating those waters is no small challenge and perhaps Dr. Battle’s biggest roadblock to success.

The search for a new superintendent will begin in earnest next month and the evaluation of whether Battle’s words match her actions will be at the core of that search. I look forward to seeing it play out. But no matter how that search ends up, it’s undeniable that Battle is serving as more than just an interim director and she has definitely begun to set the table for MNPS to surge forward. For that, we owe her a debt of gratitude.

A QUESTION OF POACHING

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve received several emails from  MNPS teachers telling me about the recruitment overtures they have been getting as of late. I assumed they were talking about inquiries from Williamson, Rutherford, or Sumner counties. But that wasn’t the case.

It seems that Nashville’s charter schools are facing the same hiring pressures as Nashville’s public schools and as a result have stepped up their efforts to steal away some of MNPS’s talent.

Many teachers have told me about getting emails, and social media messages from local charters. Several have accepted offers from these schools and will be leaving MNPS over winter break.

We shouldn’t be surprised that this is happening, and I’m sure some will defend the efforts by arguing that America is a free country and as such everybody is free to find the best employment situation for themselves. True, but imagine what would happen if Dr. Kessler started sending emails to Dr. Shaeffer’s teachers extolling the virtues of working at Hunter’s Lane instead of at Hillwood. I don’t think that would sit well with anyone.

In my eyes, this action is indicative of a primary area of concern. We as a city can not continually resource two separate school districts. It is just not sustainable. We need an honest conversation of what a Nashville Public School System needs to look like.

QUICK HITS

The storm clouds are gathering, and the battle is coming close. The state legislative session opens next month and at the forefront of legislation related to education, will be efforts to repeal last year’s voucher bill.  Per ChalkbeatTN, “Reps. Bo Mitchell of Nashville and Joe Towns of Memphis have drafted separate proposals that would rescind Tennessee’s education savings account law, arguably the most significant legislation to pass in 2019 because it cracks open the door to a shift in how the state funds K-12 education.” In order for these efforts to be successful, we’ll all need to get involved.

Today’s post took a little longer than usual to write as I kept getting sidetracked posting teacher of the year pictures over at the Dad Gone Wild Facebook page. Check them out.

It seems a little odd to me that if you were a university getting ready to name your first Dean of the newly created College of Education you may think twice about making that hire an individual recently forced to resign as a state superintendent due to a record of undermining public schools and attacking teachers. But then again, Belmont University isn’t me and they have a different vision. Andy Spears has all the details over at the TNEd Report.

It’s pretty well known that MNPS is home to principals who are multi-talented. Take for example Pearl-Cohn principal Dr. Miriam Harrington. I hope you enjoy her yule time tune, we did.

The Tennessean’s opinion editor David Plaza has a new editorial today. One that is up to his normal eye-roll-inducing standards. In it he describes his experience reading to children in school, one that for him seems to be akin to visiting a foreign country and engaging in feats of daring,

The first time I looked into the boy’s eyes, I wondered which one of us was more nervous.

I asked myself: “Will I be able to fulfill this weekly commitment of spending time reading with him?”

As someone without kids who spends most of his time with adults, I thought the height difference was jarring. He looked so tiny. I had to remind myself, “He’s just 5. He’ll grow.”

Amazingly he managed to carve out a whole 60 minutes a week to traverse to the other part of downtown in order to read to a child that was likely enthralled to seem him every week. One that even at age five was capable of noticing Plaza’s facial growth. I’m curious if he undertook this heroic feat alone or if he brought along a fellow tourist to share the burden.

Once again, the highlighted school is Buena Vista. A perusal of The Tennessee might lead one to believe it’s the only school in the district. The school may be the city’s most challenged school, but that does not mean that the other schools in the district don’t require equal attention.

All across the district, at every socio-economic level are schools that would welcome adults reading to kids. I’ve been doing it for years at Tusculum Elementary School. It ain’t hard. You pick out some books. You show up. You read. If you go regularly you will be rewarded by watching those kids grow. It’s an indescribable feeling. I urge you all to make it a New Years’ resolution. It’ll rank among the best you’ve ever made.

One of my big issues with the whole EdReform movement – Charter Schools, TFA, Science of Reading – is the continual refusal to acknowledge that some people are actually doing good work. Instead they continual paint a picture of everybody doing everything wrong and the need for a complete and wholesale change of the system. Not only is the narrative disrespectful to the many educators who serve our children every day, but it is also a disingenuous narrative.

We should always strive to get better, but our schools and classrooms are not flaming pyres of failure. Despite being under-resourced and negatively impacted by the effects of poverty, there is a great deal of greatness that happens everyday in schools all across the city. That rebuttal needs to be offered to critics at every opportunity.

As we close out another year, I just want to make sure that every one of Nashville’s professional educators are acknowledged for their contribution to the well being of our city’s children. We also need to recognize that not only do they use their current skills to better kids’ lives, but most are in a constant state of improvement as well. Y’all rock and deserve credit for everything you do right!

If you haven’t watched Phil William’s special on juvenile crime, you need to. It’s among his best work ever and that’s like saying the new Bob Dylan work is among his best ever. His bar is already high and he continually exceeds it.

That’s a wrap. Check out the Dad Gone Wild Facebook page, where we work to accentuate the positive.

If you’ve got something you’d like me to highlight and share, send it on to Norinrad10@yahoo.com. Any wisdom or criticism you’d like to share is always welcome.

A huge shout out to all of you who’ve lent your financial support. I am eternally grateful for your generosity. It allows me to keep doing what I do.

If you so desire to join their ranks, you can still head over to Patreon and help a brother out. Or you can hit up my Venmo account which is Thomas-Weber-10. I don’t need much – even $5 would help – but if you think what I do has value, a little help is always greatly appreciated.

Don’t forget, if you have student-written blog posts you’d like to see reach a wider audience…send them on. I’d love the opportunity to share them.

This week we continue with the opportunity to offer mid-year grades to the MNPS leadership team. This week, we focus on superintendents, executive principals, and finance. Next week, we’ll hit the individual departments.

 

 

 

 

 

3 thoughts

  1. “We as a city can not continually resource two separate school districts. It is just not sustainable. We need an honest conversation of what a Nashville Public School System needs to look like.”

    This is _Exactly_ the argument our Chamber of Commerce used to push for roll-up of Davidson’s then independent sub-districts into a single whole, when Nashvillians voted for the unified Davidson County/Nashville government in 1962, after the first referendum failed in 1958.

    I have better offline histories – but being lazy….

    https://abell.org/sites/default/files/files/Nashville%20021119.pdf

    So, what goes around… and indeed, the only way to cope with the massive flight, and privatization stress, may be indeed to move to a New Orleans type solution, where poor children have a menu of charter schools managed by the state of TN, and affluent students in outer suburban rings experience a total-commitment zero-choice district like Williamson County’s, albeit inside the Davidson County line.

    San Antonio has 19 districts. I would guess the count for Nashville that will finally end the privatization war is 3 or 4. We’ll see.

  2. Battle thinks that pretending to value teachers will get her the job she’s already lost. Everyone sees through this. Her only concern is self preservation. Bring in someone who will actually improve the district. Battle hasn’t done anything except allow Tony Majors to destroy 2 departments rather than 1.

  3. We are indeed seeing a “good intentions” campaign. The jury is out concerning whether it is just a campaign or whether there will be some substantive changes that help us do our jobs. She says: “But we won’t just listen; we’ll act. We’ll honor teachers’ planning time. We’ll work to ensure they can teach in a safe environment and that students have the supports they need. These improved conditions won’t happen overnight, but we are acting with urgency.” This does sound like the kind of unvarnished advice one would get from the ToY panel she assembled. But it’s also the kind of thing that is impossible if building leaders don’t elevate those goals above all the other crap. She has a narrow window for success if this is to be her Big Goal.

    Another issue: the permanent director and the Aug 2020 board will have consolidation on their plates, whether they like it or not. That discussion by itself is going to be very challenging. Whoever has the helm had better be damn ready for a wild ride. If vouchers are online or imminent during that discussion time, it will be an even harder discussion. Consolidation discussions will bring the biggest decisions about changes to the system since the 90s.

    Finally: you are right to shine a light on the Hispanic student growth and the discipline numbers. I sure hope leadership is thinking about that.

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