COVID19 and Schools

I hope this post finds every one of you safe and healthy in this time of uncertainty. I have really struggled this past week with weight of school closures, impending budget cuts, and worries about my own family, making it hard to concentrate on the work at hand. Eddie and I are so fortunate that we can work easily from home, and that our jobs are not in jeopardy. I have taken comfort in phone calls and Zoom gatherings with family, friends, and co—workers near and far.

I can’t overstate how terribly challenging this school closure is, and will be, for students and their families. This is a challenge of unique proportions, and without question the biggest one of my career. The impact and implications of closing schools are more urgent and far-reaching to our school system than to perhaps any other institution in our city. If there is one silver lining to all of this, it is that we have all been reminded of a truism about schools: they are an absolute necessity for the functioning of daily life, serving as the centers of our communities, providing indispensable services to students and families, and teaching and caring for children while their parents work. There is no precedent for closing schools (and at the same time child care centers, libraries, and community centers, etc.) at this scale, and the impending budget cuts will make our ability to recover and respond to student needs difficult at best.

It goes without saying that the longstanding achievement gaps between students– by income, race, zip code, parent education levels, disability or home language – will widen as a result of these closures. Our equity gaps will now come under the microscope, and I hope we can use this seismic change to institute some ambitious and bold changes to address them. There is ample research on the impact of chronic absenteeism, trauma, or poverty on student learning. We know that summer learning loss is real, and measurable. COVID19 has created a sudden interruption in schooling, but also in the economic stability of many families, creating stress on children across this city. That, more than anything else, keeps me up at night. I think about children in foster care, in homeless shelters, in unstable or unsafe home environments, who rely on schools for so much more than instruction. Schools provide routine, safety, comfort, meals, and connection to a range of adults who want to help them succeed.

Our priorities as a district are two-fold. Our first response has been to distribute food, using pick-up sites as well as school buses to deliver meals to our communities with the highest concentrations of poverty. Our current and urgent priority has been to develop a plan for a range of student academic needs: helping seniors stay on track to graduate on time; identifying the gaps in access to technology and internet for our students; providing direction and support to staff on communicating with students and families; and determining what is possible in terms of digital learning for our students.

We cannot, much to the disappointment of many parents, flip a switch and move schooling to an online format. Our teachers were not equipped to rapidly implement online learning, which is a learned skill that requires some training and planning under the best of circumstances. Virtual learning is not a substitute for school, and is not effective for many students, even under the best of circumstances. I can say with absolute certainty that the leadership team at MNPS is working tirelessly to identify and implement a coherent plan for remote learning at home, but it is clear that assigning grades and holding students accountable for homework and assignments should not happen at this time. We will provide a range of supports and avenues to address learning at home, but like districts across the country, we will make mistakes, hit roadblocks, but do our very best to maximize the resources at our disposal.

As chair of Metro Schools’ Budget and Finance Committee I now have the daunting task of facing a dramatically different budget process for the 2020 2021 school year. Indeed, we may have to make cuts in this current academic school year. Our reliance on sales taxes and low property taxes have placed us in a very precarious position. A serious economic downturn will have a profound impact on our ability to return to schooling as we knew it mere weeks ago. We will learn in the coming days about the funding from the recent federal stimulus bills, and how much that will fill our impending holes in our budget. This is when I’m thankful that we have a strong partnership between the Mayor, Metro Council and the School Board.

A little over two weeks ago the School Board voted to hire Dr. Adrienne Battle as our permanent Director of Schools. It was the right call – and we need her now more than ever. She has asked every employee to lead in this moment, and they are stepping up. Our teachers and staff are worried about their students, and miss them terribly. The stories of generosity and creativity are too many to list here, but we know that they are dropping off food to students living in hotels after the tornado, scheduling morning meetings online, posting videos of reading bedtime stories, calling students and checking on them, emailing activities each morning, and even organizing teacher caravans to drive through neighborhoods to greet their students and families. Teacher teams are meeting online, faculties are collaborating, and Dr. Battle and her team are working around the clock to address this unprecedented challenge. I believe that Nashville will respond in this moment with generosity and courage. But our students will need your support more than ever before – so please reach out with ideas or inspiration to help us get through this together.

My School of Thought…on 2019 and What’s Next

I hope each of you have enjoyed the holidays! If you are like me, you are gearing up for 2020 and all that a new year brings. I thought I would pass along some reflections on 2019 and hopes for the coming year. I remain in awe of the tremendous responsibility of serving on the School Board in Nashville, and thank each of you for your support and encouragement along the way. 

I’ll start by offering some acknowledgments:

  • to the students of MNPS that I have met over the past year – their experiences and aspirations are central to my work and guide every vote I take
  • to our district staff – from the hardworking teachers, staff and principals in schools, to those that take care of our buildings, drive our buses, and lead our district – I salute each of them for the love and care they show the children of Nashville every day
  • to our community partners – their work in our schools makes all the difference in the world
  • to the advocates – the ones that push the Board to face tough issues – advocates like NOAH, neighborhood associations, parents, labor, charter leaders, teachers, and students. I thank you for making your voice heard! 
  • to my board colleagues – the complexity of our task and the difficult and long-lasting decisions we make are not for the faint of heart. We may not agree on every issue, but I committed to collegiality and mutual respect, which have been graciously reciprocated
  • to my family – to Eddie for the eternal support, to my parents for watching the meetings (!), and to my kids who inspire me every day. Gracias to all of you.

2019 brought tumultuous change to MNPS. My first nine months on the board were dominated by the challenges related to Dr. Joseph’s tenure, which made it nearly impossible to build an agenda focused on the most pressing issues in the district. I wrote about the experience in this op-ed for the Tennessean, and am still grappling with the effects that the conflict, both internally and externally, took on the district and the city.

Dr. Joseph’s departure coincided with the budget season for Metro government and the school district. I found our budget process opaque and the negotiations with Mayor Briley and the Metro Council to be challenging at best.  I came out of that difficult process with newfound respect for our teachers who boldly pushed for an increase in pay, and for the leadership of Councilmember Mendes, as well as others on the council, for their efforts to inform the city and ask for an increase in our property taxes to fund the needs of the city. 

We were fortunate that Dr. Adrienne Battle agreed to step up and serve as the interim Director of Schools in April, and her leadership has given us an opportunity to recalibrate and set a new course. She has appointed seasoned leaders to her cabinet and been responsive and thoughtful from the outset. A search for the permanent Director of Schools began in December, and we hope to conclude that process by the end of March. Dr. Battle will throw her hat in the ring, and we know that it will be a competitive process, but one that will allow us to make bold decisions in 2020.

In the meantime, I continue to serve as chair of the Governance Committee, where we routinely examine existing policies, or create new ones to address issues within the district. Additionally, I now serve as Budget and Finance Chair with hopes of building greater understanding of what it means to fully fund our district, and how to best leverage our funding to get greater results. I am concerned about our prospects without a new property tax in 2020. It will be impossible to recruit, retain and support great teachers without a budget increase. And in an environment of budget and resource scarcity (in a thriving city at that) it is our students who suffer the most – with a persistent lack of access to instructional materials, textbooks and technology, as well as a long list of delayed infrastructure improvements that are vital to their learning environment. 

As I look ahead to 2020 I’ll place some important markers in the ground. I will focus my energy the following priorities: helping select a permanent Director of Schools; working with Mayor Cooper and the Council on a bold and transparent budget for our schools, staff and students; leading a conversation on high school start times; digging in on the research on literacy and weighing in where helpful; and aggressively pushing for us to offer a world-class education to each and every one of our students. 

Please continue to reach out to me with thoughts, advice, reading and podcast suggestions, and things I should have on my radar. I commit to staying in touch in 2020. Happy New Year!

-Gini

P.S. In hopes of simplifying my life a bit, I have closed my Gini for Schools Facebook page. I remain active on Twitter @ginipupo and you can reach me via email at gini@giniforschools.com You can learn more about all things MNPS School Board, including agendas and how to watch or to sign up to speak at a meeting, here

My School of Thought…on 2018 and What’s Next

2018 was an important year for our family, ushering in changes and much to celebrate. Eli entered his senior year at Centre College, Eddie earned a Guggenheim award for his research in Mexican history, and I was elected to the School Board with the help of family, friends and an amazing team. We have a lot to be thankful for, and I know that 2019 will be a year of learning and growth. 

I spent the last four months on a rather steep learning curve as a School Board member, trying to identify and master the “hidden rules”, as we say in the education business. I did my homework before for each meeting or retreat, and asked questions and contributed when I thought it furthered the conversation. I came in with the distinct advantage of having strong relationships with people inside and outside of MNPS, all working hard to help our school system succeed. But I still have a lot to learn about how change is made, how to use my voice, and to measure success or define challenges and solutions in a range of key areas. Thank you for giving me the space to learn this fall, and I am glad to be back with my blog to share some thoughts. Here a just a few of my highlights from 2018:

I met hundreds of amazing people on the campaign trail and since my election, and have learned so much about my hometown and about our commitment to public education.

Once elected, I began to visit District 8 schools, attending celebrations and events, and hearing from principals and staff about their experiences, needs, and aspirations. 

met and heard from many parents, and did my best to provide them with information, and to troubleshoot issues whenever possible. 

visited classrooms and made presentations to students, and I got to see our incredible teachers in action.

I have read countless articles and books on education leadership and policy-making in an effort to inform my thinking.

I was named chair of the Governance Committee, and am learning how to use the position to address key issues, provide clarity, and to examine existing or potential policies that support our work. 

built strong working relationships with the Metro Council members that serve District 8 and am inspired by their dedication and knowledge.

I was able to keep the Stokes building from the auction block as we face significant budget challenges. I believe we must hold on to our assets and not sell them just to cover a one-time shortfall, and I hope to work with community leaders to find a solution for Stokes that benefits the neighborhood.

committed to re-launching an exploration of later start times for our high schools, and look forward to working with parents, staff and students to study this issue. 

And here are some of my priorities and interests for 2019:

I have begun to build my own dashboard, if you will, on a broad range of key data points and information related to the success of MNPS. I will make decisions this year based on the evidence at hand, and will share how I interpret and use it to inform my work on the board, including our upcoming budget process and our mid-year and summative evaluations of the performance of Dr. Joseph. 

I am committed, along with some key allies, to creating a forum for our community to participate in conversations about public education in Nashville.  I hope to create opportunities for dialogue on what research and practice tell us on topics like school turnaround, teacher recruitment and retention, school funding, integration, choice, parent engagement and leadership, instructional practice, school culture, discipline, and more. 

I will remain vigilant on the implementation of the new Sanctuary City bill that passed the state legislature, and push to make sure that our immigrant families and students feel welcomed and safe in every one of our schools. 

hope to participate in efforts to create workforce housing for teachers in Nashville, and to build on the success of other cities that have been able to do so.

I will launch an inclusive and open process to examine later start times for our high schools. 

I will serve as an advocate for our students and schools by working closely with Mayor Briley, Metro Council members, the State Board and Tennessee Department of Education, and state and national legislators to make sure they understand our unique opportunities and challenges, and to ensure that we get the resources and support necessary for our success. 

commit to using my voice as a School Board member to build trust in our ability to lead and to improve outcomes for every student in our city. We must model the behavior that we expect from our students and staff, and honor the hard work that they do every day.

Thank you as always for your support and please continue to reach out to me with ideas and opportunities to engage and help our schools and community. Happy New Year!

  -Gini

P.S. I am using Facebook very rarely now (I’m debating with whether I should keep an account at all), but remain active on Twitter @ginipupo If you want to read previous blog entries you can see them here. You can reach me via email at gini@giniforschools.com

My School of Thought…on Effective School Boards

I now have two school board meetings under my belt and have spent the last six weeks reading research on the traits of effective school boards and how they impact student learning and success. I have found commonalities across studies, which reinforced my decision to run for the board, as well as my values as a board member. I’ll share what I learned, and my expectations for the coming months.

I’ll start with the Lighthouse study, a landmark project that began in 1998 and which is considered important and rigorous research on school board effectiveness. Lighthouse reveals that school boards in high-achieving districts, or those that have substantially raised achievement, have attitudes, knowledge and approaches that separate them from their counterparts in lower-achieving districts. They identify the traits of “moving” and “stuck” boards, and argue that despite their “distal” relationship to the classroom they can have a dramatic effect on achievement.

Their findings are consistent with those reported in multiple subsequent studies, and are the foundation for the National School Board Associations’ Characteristics of Effective School Boards. In summary, “moving”, or effective school boards:

1. Commit to a vision of high expectations for student achievement and quality instruction, create a sense of urgency, and set clear goals toward that vision
2. Have strong shared beliefs and values about what is possible for students and their ability to learn
3. Are accountability driven, applying pressure by spending less time on operational issues and more time focused on setting high expectations, and crafting policies to improve student achievement
4. Are data savvy: embracing and monitoring data and progress constantly, even when the information is negative, and using it to drive continuous improvement
5. Have strong collaborative relationships with one another, staff and the community, and create strong communications structures to inform internal and external stakeholders
6. Align and sustain resources to meet goals, and maintain high expectations even in the midst of budget challenges
7. Demonstrate commitment to student learning through board actions and decisions (evaluation of the superintendent, resource allocation, contracts, instructional time or design of the calendar, etc.)
8. Participate in a deliberative policy development process, understanding the role of policy for guiding and sustaining district work

The research that I read underscores my belief that student achievement must be central to the work of our board in MNPS, and that we play a pivotal role in how well our schools perform. I’m deeply concerned that the number of Priority Schools in MNPS has doubled since 2014. I believe that the Board of Education bears considerable responsibility in setting a course for improvement, and that you must hold us, as well as district leadership, responsible for the results.

My expectation is that the Board of Education will receive very regular and detailed reports on the improvement process in our Priority Schools, with supporting data and evidence on progress towards both interim and long-term goals. We must also take time to learn from our schools that came off of the Priority School list this year. Additionally, it is important to create processes to regularly examine student and school success beyond TNReady, including MAP and WIDA results, measures of college readiness, chronic absenteeism and discipline, as well as school climate and culture for both students and staff. We must know where we are in order to plan, adjust and improve.

I commit to doing my part to ensure we are a “moving” board so that we can collectively address the most critical challenge before us, which is to provide an excellent education for every single child in our city.

My School of Thought…On My School Board Chair Vote

It’s been quite the week! I have received requests to explain why I voted for Sharon Gentry as School Board Chair. I read a statement on the floor on Tuesday that is really the foundation of what I believe and why I ran. I recognize that my statement was not enough for some, and I also know that some people will never be satisfied with my reasoning, no matter how much detail I give. I will say this:

I respect Amy Frogge and her commitment to the issues and causes that she believes are important in education in Nashville and beyond. Her loyal following and her ability to mobilize advocates impress me. I believe that if you want to see change, get in the ring and do the hard work. She has done that and I admire her for her tenacity. Our views on education, and what we believe needs to happen for our schools in Nashville, just happen to be on opposite ends of the education continuum.

If you want to know more about my career, what I have done and what I believe, take a look at the op-eds I have written, or the articles that have been written about me, over my career. I have never wavered from a belief in accountability, on many fronts, and have spoken and written at length about my educational philosophy. If you know me, or if you followed my campaign or read this blog, you should not be surprised by my vote on Tuesday night.

It is easy to say that my vote for Sharon Gentry was a referendum on Shawn Joseph. I saw my vote as about much more than that. While not a perfect board chair in the past, I feel that her orientation and her approach to leading are what are needed at this time. I was asked numerous times during my run about what I thought of Dr. Joseph and his leadership to date. I answered the question honestly, and so did my opponent. I knew that I was not privy to all of the information I needed to make a complete assessment of his tenure, but I also spoke frankly of my concerns about issues like the budget, HR issues, and most especially about achievement. I also said we needed to have measured, fair, and transparent conversations about where we are and where we need to correct course. I still believe that, and will push for that as a board member. You can see my answer to the question about Dr. Joseph, as well as my opponent’s answer, on our Channel 5+ forum the night before my election. The next day I won by an almost a 2:1 margin, and I believe that my message resonated with District 8.

Dr. Gentry is one of nine board members, and it is incumbent on all of us to help her perform her duties in a transparent, thoughtful and collaborative manner, and I plan to be an active voice and presence on and off the floor. I hope you will give me, and the Board, time to settle into this new chapter, and will continue to reach out with questions. I am always open to conversation about how we improve our system for students, and how we make MNPS the best place to work in our city.

I’m in it for the long haul, and look forward to continuing the conversation.