“The fact is, parents and schools and cultures can and do shape people. The most important influence in my life, outside of my family, was my high school journalism teacher, Hattie M. Steinberg. She pounded the fundamentals of journalism into her students — not simply how to write a lead or accurately transcribe a quote but, more important, how to comport yourself in a professional way. She was nearing sixty at the time I had her as my teacher and high school newspaper adviser in the late 1960s. She was the polar opposite of “cool,” but we hung around her classroom like it was the malt shop and she was Wolfman Jack. None of us could have articulated it then, but it was because we enjoyed being harangued by her, disciplined by her, and taught by her. She was a woman of clarity and principles in an age of uncertainty. I sit up straight just thinking about her!”
“We need to make books cool again. If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them.”
I used to refer to School Board Chair Anna Shepherd as a Southern woman of a certain generation. It’s a term that could be perceived as derogatory, but I saw it as just the opposite. To me, she embodied all the best qualities of the south – kindness, dignity, grace, and fierce loyalty – with none of its negative elements. To those who didn’t know her, she could come off as deferential. Those who knew her knew better. Anna was 100% her own mind, 100% of the time. She may have been deliberate in establishing her positions, but once established she was a true champion and fearless in her defense of those ideals.
I’ve never been a fan of the tendency to elevate people to sainthood once they pass. Over the years, I’ve learned we are all a little bit of a saint, with a little bit of sinner. Anna was no exception and it made her a better person.
Mrs. Shepherd’s first go-around as MNPS’s board chair was not exemplary, but it did put her fierce loyalty on full display. To observers, it might have appeared she was burying her head in the sand when it came to newly hired Director of Schools Shawn Joseph. But in her eyes, the board had made a commitment to Dr. Joseph and she was going to do everything she could to see that commitment honored, even if it meant personal cost for her. That same courage would be exhibited 4 years later when she looked Dr. Joseph in the eye across a lunch table and told him she could no longer support him as director of schools. A message that she was not obligated to convey in person, but felt was the right thing to do.
In the aftermath of Joseph’s tenure Shepherd never publically spoke ill of him. A staunch believer that dirty linen shouldn’t be displayed in public. She just moved on and threw her full support behind newly appointed director Adrienne Battle.
Yesterday, fellow board member Jill Speering eloquently spoke to the MNPS School Board about Mrs. Shepherd’s love of being on the board, her love of being chair, and her love of MNPS. Mrs. Shepherd used that love to as inspiration to make her second round at board leadership a vast improvement.
Education is supposed to be about growing intellectually, but too often it’s leaders fail to demonstrate that process. Shepherd was different. She took her past experiences and worked hard to build on them to make herself better, and by extension the district better. She didn’t dwell in the past, instead choosing to work on making the future brighter. Board disagreements never became personal disagreements and so the board functioned at a higher level than at any time in recent memory.
I can attest to her ability to not let things get personal . Several years ago, I angered her by publicly questioning her ability to lead. In response, she fired off an email to me that would make those who thought her demure blush. Yet, the lines of communication between us never closed. She didn’t always agree with me but she rarely failed to listen.
Fellow board members Amy Frogge, Jill Speering, along with retired school board member Will Pinkston gather most of the accolades for being defenders of public education. Shepherd’s approach might have been a quieter one, but she was every bit the staunch defender of public schools and of their value. She spent a great deal of time doing her own research on education reform issues and was increasingly concerned about the future of public ed.
The week before last she called to point out some nuances with something I’d written. She had some information to share that she felt might illuminate the subject more. We talked for a while before settling on the subject of Nashville’s school board and the challenges it would face in the future. With Anna it wasn’t enough to listen to what she said, you had to hear as well. While she would never utter a disparaging remark about a fellow board member, it was clear she was concerned about the future and how board dynamics might change after the next election. She hoped for an opportunity to lead for one more year before leaving finishing her term and ultimately retiring.
Unfortunately, this week’s events rendered that discussion moot. As a result, Nashville will face one more challenge on top of a year of challenges. For the present, the very capable hands of Amy Frogge will attempt to guide Nashville’s school district through budget talks and an attempt to reopen schools in the Fall. It’s a task I’m certain she is up to, but going forth after the August election, that task will fall to someone else. Someone I pray can channel Sheperd’s grace, openness, and selflessness in serving Nashville’s students and their families.
Over the last couple of years, Mrs. Shepherd became increasingly involved in state politics. No fan of the current incarnation of the Department of Education, she was concerned over the state’s encroachment into the powers and duties of local school boards. In that light, I find a little solace in thinking of the ironic laugh she would give upon being informed of the TDOE’s failure to even publicly acknowledge the passing of the chair of the state’s second-largest school district’s school board. An omission that in my opinion is unconscionable.
In closing, I’d just like to say thank you to Mrs. Shepherd. Thank you for your leadership. Thank you for your ability to learn and adjust. Thank you for modeling true stewardship. We have all benefited from knowing you. Without your steady hand on the wheel, the task ahead is going to be a little more difficult and the burden a little heavier, but rest in peace knowing that you’ve laid the lights for the path forward.
A gospel that I continually preach when it comes to leadership is that in the absence of a tangible verifiable narrative, people will create their own, and rarely will it align with the desired narrative. Which creates another obstacle for implementation, because the new narrative must be broken down and dismissed before the desirable narrative can be instilled. This week MNPS supplied a prime example of that tenet.
As we get closer to the start of school there are growing tensions as people start to speculate what that will look like. While giving information to parents early enough to make plans is important, for teachers. it is critical. Planners by nature, they’ve already begun to focus on next year, but a lack of tangible information makes the task nearly impossible. This inability to plan leads to increased stress and anxiety, and as a result, forces them to try and plan sans district input. Not a great idea.
In an attempt to ease the growing anxieties, Dr. Battle planned to announce the district’s framework for the re-opening of schools on Monday. Unfortunately, politics entered the picture first.
Over the last week, Mayor Cooper has taken a steady beating on his proposed budget and is currently getting grilled over questions about the reopening of Nashville. He needed to get a hold of his own narrative and create some goodwill before things really get out of hand. So, he convinced MNPS to push back their announcement and instead allow him to announce that Metro Nashville would be using COVID-19 federal funds to buy 90k laptops and 17k hot spots for the students of Nashville. A grand gesture intended to convey Cooper’s level of commitment to the education of Nashville’s youngest citizens.
Cooper should have consulted the rulebook before employing his strategy. Rule 4017 says, “Never announce the purchasing of the tool 24 hours before announcing the details of the plan.” On Monday, Cooper violated rule 4017.
In announcing the pending purchase, he failed to produce a distribution plan, let alone a utilization plan. As a result, within 30 minutes of his announcement, 75% of Nashville’s teachers had created their own plan for the re-opening of schools and started strategizing on how that plan would be implemented. It was obvious if the mayor was willing to spend $24 million on laptops, schools would not be opening in August.
Neither the mayor nor Battle offered any further information on the official plan, just instructions to return tomorrow for the official word. Do you think anybody received Monday’s news and failed to make their own inferences for the future? How many people do you think received the news and said, “I’m not going to jump to any conclusions? I’m just going to wait for tomorrow’s news to make an opinion?” By announcing the tool first Cooper had raised the bar to counter presumptions to an untenable level.
To make a long story short, Tuesdays announcement was not sufficient. The official plan is remarkedly similar to one announced by Williamson County 4 weeks ago and consists mainly of the generic ideas put forth by countless others. Ideas whose feasibility can be quickly discredited by a perfunctory conversation with a teacher, custodian, bus driver, school nurse, cafeteria worker, or principal. Which is to be expected considering the number of the aforementioned who were included in the districts Reopening Task Force.
Also devoid of a seat at the table was a single representative of Nashville’s School Board. That may seem like a small distinction to some, but Nashville’s Incorporation Charter clearly places all of the authority in governing schools in the hands of the school board with none in the hands of the mayor. This was done in part to prevent the politicization of schools. You know like a mayor declaring schools open or closed in order to curry political favor. I’m not accusing Mayor Cooper of such an intention, but rules are not based on the individual, but rather on potential.
Part of Briley’s downfall in the last election was his expressed desire to exert more influence over Nashville’s elected school board. I woul argue that this week’s events are an attempt to install by practice what couldn’t be codified and I consider it a very dangerous precedent. Let’s not forget Battle’s term was ushered in by her being introduced to the mayor before the school board.
At a minimum, board chairwoman Shepherd should have been a member of the steering committee. Shepherd herself was a staunch supporter of an independent school board and I can’t picture her being ok with the board not being informed about the pending plan until minutes before the public. The only sense of appeasement could be derived from the lack of tangibles included in the plan.
Instead of having the desired effect of giving clarity and reassurance to stakeholders, yesterday’s press conference served as little more than a vehicle for political leaders to offer self-congratulatory remarks to each other about their hard work. Personally, I’m not interested in hearing how hard leaders work but rather what that work produced. Had Battle announced that come August students would wear space suits, teleport between classes, and communicate through telekinesis, the feasibility of implementation wouldn’t have been adversely affected.
None of the proposed strategies have any chance of being implemented. If you had talked to bus drivers, they would have told you that the chances of keeping masks on students on busses, falls somewhere between nil and none. A chat with a cafeteria worker would have provided information on the pitfalls of eating at desks. A convo with a custodian would inform leaders on the sheer volume of cleaning supplies needed to meet the demand outlined in the “plan”. A conversation with a nurse would have exposed the number of times parents simply refuse to come to pick up ill students from school. Teachers could have told you most of the windows in their building don’t open.
Defenders of the plan will admit that none of the elements are actually feasible, but will argue that nobody really has any better ideas. I disagree and challenge leadership to really think deeper. Excluded from the proposed plan was any talk of alternate school schedules. It’s been offered that none of those altered schedules would really work for parents. Here’s some insight, none of the current circumstances are working for me, as such the impetus should be on finding solutions that focus on the primary goal, which should be the most effective way to educate children.
Yesterday, the mayor was in the room. If he can shut city businesses down for 2 weeks, why can’t he influence businesses’ work schedules to help allow for the implementation of alternative school schedules. If this pandemic is everything it is advertised as then we need to stop trying to create familiarity and start focusing on how we are going to accomplish the goal of providing a world-class education for students.
In all fairness, MNPS’s hands are a bit tied by the failures of the Tennessee Department of Education. This morning Commissioner Schwinn will be addressing the US Senate on all the tools her department has supplied to aid districts in the reopening of schools in August. I’m sure she’ll fail to mention that no guidance has been offered in regard to LEA’s qualifying for their BEP money? Will the 180-day attendance requirement remain intact, and if so how will it be calculated? What will be the grading requirements for districts? What about assessment? All of that remains nebulous while self-promotion remains in abundance as we reach for the crutch of digital learning despite any clear evidence of its effectiveness.
In her blueprint, Schwinn claims to have gotten input from superintendents across the state, yet a perfunctury look at the credits shows no significant input from 3 out of 4 of the state’s largest districts. Beth Brown, president of the Tennessee Education Association, points out, “The options detailed in the guide will require significant increases in state and federal funding for school districts to increase staffing and provide the necessary resources.” She further notes the changes will “dramatically increase the workload for educators with no indication of salary increases or accommodations for educators’ family demands.” Not a recipe for success.
To be honest with you, had Dr Battle actually proposed space suits, teleportation, and telekinesis, I would have found more cause for optimism because it would have been an indication of doing deeper critical thinking with an emphasis on serving kids instead of parroting the ideas of others with little or no classroom experience in an effort to replicate previous school models.
In closing, I leave you with the words of MNEA and their official statement on yesterday’s announced plan. They say it best.
We are indebted to the hard work of our public health care professionals to keep Nashville safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, we are deeply concerned about the plan created to reopen Nashville schools, particularly as to the plan’s practical implementation. These recommendations do not reflect the reality of our schools. While we understand that this plan is merely a framework of recommended safety protocols, making the plan work requires educator expertise. Scientists, epidemiologists, and doctors are the experts in understanding disease transmission, but educators are the experts at making classrooms work. Educators and other MNPS employees who spend the majority of their time with children MUST be a part of the team adapting these plans, and our demands must be prioritized if schools are to reopen safely. Since the lives of teachers, paraprofessionals, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, office staff, administrators, students, and our respective families depend on the plan’s successful implementation, we must be heard.
REARRANGING THE DECK CHAIRS
Expect an announcement either later today or by the end of the week on the new roles assigned to MNPS leadership. Early words give some cause for pause. While most of these moves are not officially confirmed, there is sufficient evidence to support their validity.
- Russel Young former principal at West End Middle is now the principal at Percy Priest.
- Chad High is leaving Granbery Elementary to become an Elementary ED for the SE quad.
- Antioch MS Principal Celia Conely is also becoming an ED, as is Eagle View Elementary School principal Shawn Lawrence.
- Roderick Webb is anticipated to be named the new principal at Haynes.
- Brian Mells seems to have the inside track on the White’s Creek High School job.
- It looks like a former Executive director is set to become the new principal at Waverly-Belmont.
- Hawaya Wilson has been officially announced as principal at Oliver.
Let’s see how many of these rumors bear fruit. If true, several of Nashville’s high profile schools are going to find themselves in an extremely difficult situation – scrambling to find leadership while crafting an individual plan for reopening amidst an unprecedented pandemic.
This is a self-inflicted crisis. When people ask me what else could have MNPS leadership done to ease anxiety in the present crisis, my answer is they could have promoted stability. All these moves should have been completed and communicated a month ago. The course of the pandemic may be unpredictable, but the stabilization of leadership is not. To wait until less than 8 weeks out to announce leadership changes puts undue stress on teachers, students, and families during the best of times, let alone while facing current challenges. It is an unfair burden to ask stakeholders to bear and hopefully, those open positions will be quickly filled and schools can proceed with preparations for Fall.
This is especially critical because in an email to staff yesterday Battle indicated that schools will be responsible for creating custom plans for their individual schools.
That’s it for today, but I’m sure I’ll have plenty more come Friday.
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.
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