“Every story has at least a little truth in it. Every story comes from somewhere.”
J.J. Abrams


This morning I drove to Wal-mart around 7:45 to get coffee. There is a rapid COVID-19 testing site in a building at the front of the Wal-mart parking lot. At its door was a line that stretched around the building. I’m guessing it was roughly 60 people.

60 people that had shown up before 8 AM to be tested for a virus that many are acting as if it is in remission.

60 people during a week that has already delivered too much devastating news.

On Monday, MNPS school board member Dr. Nabaa-McKinney lost her sister-in-law to COVID. On Tuesday, JT Moore’s principal Gary Hughes lost his mother and Nashville lost one of its most colorful long-time citizens in Jimmy Lweis to COVID-19. Those are numbers that I’m not comfortable with.

I’ve known Jimmy Lewis for about 30 years, and he was representative of a Nashville that is quickly disappearing. Some may think Nashville is better for the passing of these old white men that played by their own rules and bent the world to their will, and maybe they are right, but that won’t stop me from mourning their departure.

Jimmy may not have always been on the right side of the law, but he unfailingly kind to me and many others. He and those of his generation lived by a code that included taking care of your fellow man, and they adhered to it religiously. In the days when my drinking was at its most chronic, that code probably kept me alive.

It was not uncommon for me to run into Lewis or one of his crowd at a local watering hole. I’d be at the bar with a whiskey in front of me, bought with my last $5. They’d look over at me, “Did you eat today?”

“Ah, I’ll get something a little later”, I’d answer, knowing full well I wouldn’t.

“Take a ride with me. I got to go see a couple of guys.”

With that, they’d take me over to Jimmy Kelly’s, or Ruth Christ’s, and make sure I got a solid meal in me. No judging, no sermonizing, just care delivered with a simple line of caution, “If you’re going to drink, you got to eat.”

Today Dr. Hughes mourns his mother. Dr. Nabaa-McKinney mourns her sister-in-law. And I mourn a lost friend and Nashville icon. I can’t help but wonder, is this just the beginning of the mourning period? And how many more will we have to lose? My prayers are with the families of all who are experiencing the loss of life due to the current pandemic.

Some will dismiss the recent casualties as being those with a heightened health risk, or ones having failed to take proper precautions. I’d be a little hesitant there. This week I spoke with an educator and a mother who recently spent days navigating the effects of the virus. She was someone who always wore a mask, and seldom went anywhere but the grocery store. Unfortunately, she did take one trip to church, where she wasn’t quite as diligent. One slip and she was infected.

Things turned out all right for her, and none of her family became infected either. But it could have ended very differently. That’s something we must always remain cognizant of. We are comfortable quoting statistics that show positive outcomes, as long as we forget that one of the statistics could be a family member of ours. In that case, even one percent doesn’t look so comforting.

Tuesday also marked the first in-person MNPS school board meeting in months. The meeting was scheduled for 5 PM, but the parking lot outside began to fill much earlier. Let Nashville Parents Choose were in attendance to advocate for getting all kids back in school as rapidly as possible. Standing in direct opposition to them was MNEA and a large number of MNPS teachers who were concerned that we were rushing to open schools despite conditions not being safe. All told, between the two camps, there were several hundred people represented.

Inside, 30 plus of these individuals used the time provided for public comment to raise their concerns.

It shouldn’t have taken more than a casual observer to realize that stakeholders were not confident in the district’s plans, and they wanted to talk about them. They wanted more explanation. They wanted more questions answered. They wanted more reassurance. They wanted anything but more silence and speculation.

How did the MNPS school board and district leadership respond? What was covered at the board meeting held on the day many of Nashville’s youngest students transitioned back into school buildings? Was there a presentation on the mental-emotional state of teachers? Was information conveyed about how the first day transpired, complete with unanticipated plusses and minuses? Was there more information on steps being taken to safeguard students during this transition and reassurance that kids would receive quality instruction? Maybe a review of things we’ve learned since the inception of the plan. A review of staffing levels for school nurses and substitute teachers would have been appropriate.

Nah, we did what we do all the time. We focused on the brunt of the conversation on what we always want to focus on – charter schools. In this case, it was about KIPP and who would oversee them in the wake of the State Board of Education overriding MNPS’s decision to deny them a new high school. This was going to be the main topic of discussion despite board members raising concerns about re-opening plans at a recent board retreat,

“I am not in favor of returning kids to school. I am not in favor of returning kids to schools (and) 2 to 3 weeks from now having to take some of them out. I’m not in favor of holding building leaders responsible for contact tracing,” board member Sharon Gentry said. “That’s where the fortitudes come in. 

Somehow it has become the accepted norm among board members that being critical is the same as being unsupportive. So instead of talking about what the public clearly wanted to discuss, there was going to a retreat to talking about charter schools. A conversation that took up over half of the board meeting, with every board member chiming in.

My response is, who the fuck cares? I don’t care who oversees KIPP. My priority is that MNPS is taking steps to keep my child safe and provide quality instruction. Convince me of that, and then I’ll worry about the other.

Sorry to be so blunt, but board members decided they wanted no part of KIPP when they decided to deny their application, an unsatisfactory application by all accounts. The state overrode their decision, and now it’s on them. MNPS is losing BEP money no matter who is the oversight board. If MNPS suddenly picks up the slack every time the state board overturns a decision of theirs, what’s the impetus for the state board to honor the district’s decision on who to grant charters, and who to deny? Maybe if they have to suffer the consequences of their rulings they’ll be a little slower to interfere with local proceedings.

Board member Fran Bush made a salient point when she stated that KIPP has been in Nashville for 15 years. Operations during all 15 of those years were overseen by Randy Dowell. At this point, it should be pretty clear that Dowell and KIPP are going to do whatever they want, so the idea of a potential collaborative relationship is moot unless “collaborative” is defined as bending to the will of KIPP. They are here, they are not going anywhere, so let the state deal with their latest ventures while MNPS deals with the schools they approved.

Meanwhile, despite our endless talking, charter school attendance continues to grow at an alarming rate. In 2015 there were 7788 Nashville students enrolled in charter schools, today, despite all the machinations and discussions there 13422 Nashville students enrolled in charter schools. That’s nearly double the number in 5 years and no matter what defenses may be offered that’s 13422 kids whose families feel more confident with putting their children’s education in the hands of private operators than Metro Nashville Public Schools. And if you want to know why I’d argue that you have to look no further than Tuesday’s board meeting.

In the middle of a pandemic with kids schedules being disrupted, teachers suffering from overwork and high stress, along with clear indications of stakeholder unrest, the MNPS school board not only fails to hold a significant conversation about current circumstances but doesn’t even put a director’s report on the agenda. Is there anybody out there that thinks that qualifies as being responsive to stakeholder needs? Or a sign of quality leadership?

Thankfully board chair Christianne Buggs – who for the most part is doing a pretty good job in her new role – thought to ask Dr. Battle if, despite there being no scheduled director report, she’d like to offer a few words. In response, Dr. Battle offered a few platitudes and then offered further fuel to the fire by indicating that the district was concerned about rising numbers of infection and was possibly, maybe, perhaps, looking at modifying the current phase-in process. I’m sure that instilled confidence in teachers, parents, and every other stakeholder.

I have no idea, what the best strategy is, though in observing attendance yesterday, I think it’s safe to say the current strategy needs work. Lest anyone think I prefer one of yesterday’s groups over the other, let me just say, I think neither is serving their cause well.

You can’t get up and cry that everybody who is wanting schools open is trying to kill you and your family and expect a positive response. Likewise, you can’t get up and say, “relax, you’ll be fine” either. Both are hyperbolic and do nothing but make the needed conversation more difficult. A conversation that is clearly needed.

Teachers are legitimately concerned. Both for their safety and the safety of their families. As the numbers tick upward, as more and more future complications from contracting the virus are discovered, as more and more colleagues bury loved ones, a heightened level of concern is certainly warranted. Becoming a teacher isn’t like joining the military, or becoming a police officer. It doesn’t come with the implied possibility that you may one day be called upon to sacrifice your life. Nor should it.

By the same token, many parents are legitimately concerned about the delivery of remote learning and what it means for their child’s future. Equally important is the potential negative economic impact of having to oversee a child’s education while trying to fulfill the obligations of a job. Nobody prepared any of us for this.

Sans robust plans, coupled with constant communications, people fall prey to their worst fears. It’s completely understandable and combating that needs to be a key component of any potentially successful strategy. Yet the district continually fails to provide concrete details that demonstrate there is a cohesive plan in place. As a result, people are unhappy.

It is always argued that people hate change. I’d argue that people hate undefined change where their role is uncertain. Hence the importance of communication.

I’ve been hard on principals, and some rightfully so, but they’ve been placed in a continually untenable situation. They have been left to craft plans with just the barest of guidance. Much was made of the hiring of Clarksville’s Mason Bellamy as the new chief of schools. But his contribution to date seems to consist of telling people about his past experiences and saying, “We currently don’t know the answer to that question.”

As a result, principals are left to supply their own answers. Right or wrong, it’s the best they got. On some level, we should be thankful that they are continually hanging in there and trying to find solutions. I’m not sure I wouldn’t have washed my hands and walked away long ago.

I’d like to take a minute to offer Mason a bit of advice. Since nobody else seems willing to.

Recently I started a new bar gig. I’ve been tending bar longer than most of my co-workers have been alive. But guess what? They don’t care. They don’t care to hear about all my old bartender war stories and accomplishments. They don’t care about the super cool places I used to work. Do you know what they do care about?

They care about whether or not I can do the job and if I’m actually going to do it. So I shut my mouth and set about showing that I can. I set about learning how they currently approach the job and how I can support them. I let my actions tell my story. Bellamy might want to consider doing the same. Instead of telling about that time in Clarksville, maybe he should spend some time finding out the answers to principals’ questions. Just a thought.

As an offshoot of the pandemic, it seems to me that MNPS as a whole has lost sight of its mission. MNPS’s mission statement isn’t to fill school buildings. It isn’t to thwart the privatization effort of outside entities. It is simply this, “We deliver a great public education to every student, every day.”

You can’t do that if you are not treating teachers with respect and dignity, allowing them to be a part of the conversation.

You can’t do that if you are not treating parents and families with respect and dignity, allowing them to be part of the conversation.

Throughout all of this, I’ve continually had educators tell me that the pandemic may be unprecedented, but the current circumstances are nothing new. I’m sure many parents would echo those sentiments.

Very few of the current issues can be directly traced back as solely rooted in the coronavirus. For years there has been a growing chasm between central office and schools. For decades there have been increased inequities between individual schools. For even longer, we’ve demanded that teachers do more with fewer resources and less compensation. It’s just that now that school transpires in our living room, it’s gotten harder to ignore those realities. But lord knows we’ll try.

Earlier today I was ruminating over a recent Peter Greene piece,

The coronavirus spread and the national conversation started including the question, “What about the kids?” And for a half a second you might have thought, “Great! This is the perfect opportunity to start talking about how we can remake public education in a better, stronger, more equitable form.” But no. The next part was not “How will we insure their education” so much “How can we get them out of the way so that the economy can start reviving.”

As usual, Greene manages to succinctly sum up much of today’s current circumstances. We started by looking for ways to make kid’s educational experience more equitable and somewhere shifted to recreating October 2019.

If public education is going to remain viable in the future, we need to stop playing defense and trying to retreat. We need to stop worrying exclusively about the actions of others. We need to focus on our schools ensuring that every day they deliver a great public education to every student.

On reflection, I guess my anecdote isn’t only applicable to Mr. Bellamy. It pertains to all of us. Nobody cares about your great experience as a kid in a public school. Nobody cares about how well public education prepared you for your future. Nobody cares how much you loved going to a public school.

What they care about is whether or not public schools can deliver a great education to every student every day. Be it in person or remotely, or a combination of the two. And that starts with having the hard conversations and working with parents, principals, and teachers instead of against them. Success should come due to leadership’s input, not despite it.

Based on the numbers that showed up last night, I’m willing to bet that there are a whole lot of people that question whether public schools can deliver on its promise. The question now is how will MNPS leadership answer that question? It is an answer that will not only have an impact now but on the future going forward. The way to slowing charter school growth is not dissimilar to slowing drug use. You can legislate all day, but until you take away the desire, your efforts will ultimately prove futile.

Remember people weren’t out before yesterday’s board meeting protesting over who would oversee the new state-approved KIPP charter school. They were out there because, as primary stakeholders, they felt MNPS was not addressing their concerns. I would suggest MNPS leadership take that to heart.

That’s it for today.

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Categories: Education

3 replies

  1. Well done! You hit the nails succinctly on all of their heads!

  2. I agree with all your points about charter schools, but do have one thing to mention. They have a marketing budget than many (all?) metro schools don’t have. We are zoned for Hillsboro yet constantly get mailers for Valor and I also see their yard signs. No one is advertising our zoned schools.

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