“Make your interactions with people transformational, not just transactional.”
One might have thought that three days of posts on education practices and policies in Tennessee would suffice, they would be wrong.
Today I turn away from the Circus of Illusions being crafted by the Tennessee Department of Education and it’s erstwhile leader, Penny Schwinn. The leaving out of the honorary title in front of her name was not an accidental omission. Like most things with our dear leader, there is much confusion and questioning around her educational achievements. She’s either an incredibly dedicated student who is instilled with an incredible ability for work/life balance or … but I digress.
I said today won’t be about the commissioner and it won’t be. Instead, I turn my jaundiced eye back towards Metro Nashville Public Schools in an effort to clarify a number of things that were covered at the last board meeting.
Here is the link to the board meeting, I urge you to not take my word on things but rather to watch and ponder for yourself.
There are many, many areas of contention for me within this 2:40 minute meeting, but in the interest of brevity, I’m only going to hit a few.
First and foremost, why is the board still meeting remotely? If the district is in the process of bringing back students because they feel they can do so in a safe manner, why is the MNPS School Board not reinforcing that belief by meeting in person? Hopefully, this will be the last of the remote meetings going forth.
The meeting starts with a presentation that gives an overview of the key factors in the school year to date. In his presentation, Chief Finance Officer Chris Henson confirms what most of us already knew – the district is losing enrollments. He attempts to downplay the numbers by showing that the loss is only slightly less than it was last year.
A breakdown by grade level shows that the decline is mostly derived from the lower grade levels and Special Education Populations. Not included in this presentation is a breakdown by socio-economic status. I’d be interested in what those numbers illuminate.
Henson also provides a breakdown by clusters. This chart seems to indicate the largest loss of enrollment being in clusters that serve large populations of Hispanic and impoverished students. This is particularly concerning in light of recently released graduation rates. Look at the schools with the highest loss of enrollment and then compare it to their graduation rates, and then tell me there is no reason for concern.
Next up was a discussion around attendance rates. District leadership took pride in announcing that attendance rates for the district were currently at 91.08%. For a reference point, last year was at 95.20% and the first week of school was 87.4.
The numbers are positive, but the manner in which they were reported gave the impression that these were the percentage of kids that were in class and engaged for the entire class period. That is not verifiable, as all a student has to do in order to be counted as positive is log in to Schoology by midnight every day. With a bar that low, I would expect the numbers to be much higher. In talking to teachers, few are reporting classroom levels as being made up of a similar percentage. I think its safe to say that in order to get a more accurate view of what’s happening, we need more data.
The conversation proceeds to the actual opening of schools and the physical aspects of those schools. Much of this conversation is led by newly hired Chief of Schools Mason Bellamy. Bellamy comes from the Clarksville School District where he served for the entire duration of his educational career. Early reports from across the district have indicated that he is prone to jumping into conversation sans invitation, or relevant experience, and will act as if he’s spent decades in the district only to punt or ramble when confronted with issues he’s unfamiliar with. Tuesday’s board meeting bore out those observations.
While prior to the survey the district painted a picture of in-person schooling looking not that different than it had in the past, Bellamy’s description painted a different picture. Masks would be the expectation, though there would be exceptions, desks would all be facing front, more emphasis would be placed on controlling your body, and the cafeteria would be considerably less utilized. Gone are small group instruction, students placed in a design that facilitates interaction, and frequent bathroom breaks. His description of how temperature checks would transpire was especially baffling.
Bellamy stated that principals have not been greenlit to universally test students, citing fear of “false-positives” as a contributing factor. I’m not sure under what scenario a false-positive test would be arrived at or contribute to follow up actions. None the less, instructions were given that parents be instructed to administer tests at home. As students arrived, building administrators would be out front engaging them in an attempt to discern who needed testing and who didn’t. He appears to envision conversations transpiring as follows.
“Hey, TC, how you feeling today?”
“Not so good Mr. Bellamy.”
“Did your mom check your temperature before you left?”
“No, she didn’t get a chance before she left for work.”
“Well then head over there then and let’s check it.”
Color me skeptical, but I was willing to extend the benefit of the doubt until I heard descriptions around instruction. Bellamy maintains that all students will be on a similar pace, whether participating virtually or in-person, all across the district. This is a very questionable assertion considering that district has failed to get any kind of fidelity across the district on the adoption of the Florida Virtual School curriculum. My suspicion is that once schools are back in session, even more teachers will abandon it, based on unfamiliarity with the materials and questions around its quality. Especially in the lower grades.
One writing assignment that has raised eyebrows at the second-grade level asks for students to write an opinion piece on whether their favorite animal should live in the jungle or not. My favorite animal is the penguin, whether or not they should live in the jungle or not is certainly not an opinion, but rather a fact. If penguins moved to the jungle, they would die.
The foundational skills material supplied by, and touted by Commissioner Schwinn, is equally questionable in quality. One slide focuses on a man in a kilt. I’m curious as to how many kilts the average MNPS student sees in a week.
School board member Fran Bush attempted to flesh out questions around literacy instruction and how FVS, the state-supplied foundational skills supplements, and recent texts purchased by the district worked together under the district’s commitment to Balanced Literacy. The short answer is, they don’t. But that’s not the answer she received.
Instead of saying that, Bellamy talked about a communication that had been sent out by the CI department detailing how they worked together. They may have done so, but I’ve yet to see evidence of such communication. David Williams went even further in assuring the board that all three elements blended together. I eagerly await supporting documentation on that assertion.
An important element of Balanced Literacy is small group instruction. Obviously, this is not something that can be done in-person but could be provided virtually if teachers were given the proper amount of time for planning, training, and implementation. All three ingredients are missing from the current district directives.
Literacy instruction should be a concern for all stakeholders and not just for the obvious reasons. As detailed this week, the TNDOE now has $40 million in which to implement their vision of literacy instruction. One that certainly does not align with that of the vision professed by Dr. Battle. Now more than ever it is important that the district clearly communicates its intentions when it comes to literacy instruction. Lest the state does it for them.
People often attempt to paint Fran Bush as being out of control and ill-informed. The term “loose cannon” is often thrown in her direction. I wouldn’t be so quick to write her off. She is not a politician, honestly is not concerned with others’ perceptions of her, and is not afraid to ask hard questions. She’s far from perfect, but she cares and does her homework. And I for one appreciate her efforts.
I’m equally thankful for the conversation that new board member Abigail Taylor initiated around school filtration systems. I am encouraged that Operations Director Ken Starks is taking a look at the MERV values of the filters that the district is utilizing. However, I am concerned about the lack of conversation around the utilization of portables. I would assume none would be used, but many teachers have classrooms set up in portables, will they be required to move those classrooms? That’s a potentially herculean task.
Speaking around the physical utilization of our schools, luckily several principals raised the question of how students were supposed to charge their laptops during the school day, To do so will require the running of several extension cords, potentially putting schools out of compliance with the city fire marshall. Alternatives are currently being explored, but this just another example of why it is so important to listen to the people actually in schools.
About midway through Tuesday’s board meeting, there is an exchange between new board member Emily Masters and Director of Schools Dr. Adrienne Battle that everyone should heed. Masters raised the issue that information around what schools would look like was continually evolving right up to the deadline for the parental survey, particularly around mask protocols. Many parents made the assumption that everyone would be wearing masks. An assumption that is not necessarily true. While the district’s expectation is that everyone will wear masks, there will be allowable exemptions.
In the event, parents arrived at school and discovered that it was not as they anticipated and they did not feel safe under the protocols MNPS was adhering to, would they be able to return to virtual instruction? The answer, though bandied back at forth several times, was a hard no. Students would not be allowed to change until January. I’d advise Dr. Battle and her cabinet to rethink this one. I understand the difficulty in permitting families to change options, but I see no upside to denying a family the ability to change out of fear for their student’s health and see lots of downsides.
Throughout the entire conversation around the reopening of schools, an image emerges of individual principals designing the processes and protocols for their individual schools. In fact, administrators often evoke the phrase, “That’ll be at the discretion of principals” In some ways, this makes things easier, but it also serves to heighten the level of inequity throughout the district. I had hoped that district leadership had learned their lesson from the opening of schools in a virtual environment and as a result planned to over more structure during the next phase. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case.
How this will all play out in the coming month is very much unsettled. A glance at the state’s school COVID tracker shows a slight uptick in cases this week. That may be a momentary hic-up or a sign of things to come.
If the numbers do continue to grow, there will be an increased need for substitutes for a teacher who becomes ill. Little has been done to recruit more and address their compensation levels. That shouldn’t be alright.
I suspect that sometime next week Battle or another member of her team will send out a heartfelt communication thanking district educators for their hard work and advising them to use the coming Fall Break to reconnect, renew, and recharge before the pending return to live school. Rest assured that few MNPS teachers will heed that advice. For many Fall Break will mean only working 40 hours a week, instead of the required 50-60 hours required over the last several weeks. We can’t continue to facilitate that reality through a lack of foresight.
We gotta do better. Sometimes that means stopping and listening instead of jumping in where we may not know the answer.
Congratulations go out to Julia Green Elementary School for being recognized as a national Blue Ribbon school. Nice job by all. It is one of 367 schools in the nation to receive the designation this year and one of 17 MNPS schools awarded in years prior.
Tech support for MNPS devices & personal devices, plus help with digital learning tools are available from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday at several schools and starting Monday, Sep. 28 at the Martin Professional Development Center, 2400 Fairfax Ave. mnps.org/tech-support
Many of you might not know this, but there is a school board race going on. The battle is for the seat of recently departed Anne Shepherd. Back in August, Metro Council appointed Berthena Nabaa-McKinney to fill the seat until an election could be held in Novemebr. Vying for the board position is Pam Swooner, John Liitle, Steve Chauncey, and Nabba-McKinney. Little is a long-time community activist and Chauncey is a retired MNPS principal. Swooner has secured the MNEA endorsement, as well as the Dad Gone Wild seal of approval.
That’s it for today. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t continue to say thank you, teachers and administrators, for everything you do. Y’all really are making lemonade out of lemons every day.
Oh…I almost forgot to mention. If you are around Bransford later today they are having a pizza party. I’m sure you’d be welcome.
If you’ve got time and are looking for a smile, 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 and without you, I would have been forced to quit long ago. It is truly appreciated and keeps the bill collectors happy.
If you so desire to join the rank of donors, 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, especially this time of year when my contracted work is a little slow. Not begging, just saying.
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How dare they have a pizza party??? And advertise it to boot????
Yay Abby for asking about filtration systems!!
Sent from my iPhone