My School of Thought . . . on Advanced Academics

My children, Eli and Sara, benefit from the experience and education that Eddie and I are fortunate to have. From their first years in preschool, until their senior year in high school, we made sure they had access to excellent teachers and to rigorous and enriching programs that would prepare them for college. This required a plan, which included enrolling them in high school-level classes while in middle school, and in a range of advanced courses once in high school. We left nothing to chance, paying for tutors when necessary, and urging them to take more challenging courses each year.

Every high school in Metro Schools offers advanced academics, which are defined as Advanced Placement courses, International Baccalaureate programs, Cambridge programs, and Dual Enrollment or Dual Credit classes. Designed to provide a head start on a college education, these classes conclude with rigorous, externally scored examinations, success on which can earn students college credit, often saving them thousands of dollars in college tuition. Their value is clear; students in advanced academics receive more scholarships, are admitted to more prestigious and selective institutions, and enter college and the workforce prepared to succeed. We know the strongest predictor of whether a student will achieve success in college is whether he or she had a rich and rigorous course of study in high school.

However, access to advanced courses remains a problem for many students in Metro Schools. Barriers include small numbers of course offerings, middle school tracking that can prohibit entry to advanced courses in high school, limited counseling services or parent awareness of options, and prohibitive fees and costs associated with the tests and advanced programs, which require that students must pay to play.

In an effort to address the costs carried by students, Metro Schools paid their testing fees for the past several years, which opened the door for many more students to participate in the courses. Unfortunately, as a result of our budget shortfall, Metro Schools recently decided to stop underwriting those fees for the coming year, which cost nearly 1 million dollars annually. I recognize that tough choices had to be made, but this one will have a direct and long-lasting effect on our students, impacting college options, readiness and success. Additionally, we have students registered for advanced courses for this fall, and master schedules have been built, teachers assigned and trained, and programs developed with those registration numbers in mind. Students will have to make hard choices, and many will opt out of the credit-bearing tests, or will withdraw from the courses or programs entirely. This is a tremendous step backwards for our district, and one that we must address now. I urge Dr. Joseph and his team to find a way to cover those costs in the coming year.

If you believe that Metro Council must fund Metro Schools at a higher rate, I urge you to attend their meeting tomorrow, June 5th, or reach out to your Council member and let them know you support increased funding for our schools.

My School of Thought . . . on Our High Schools

I graduated from Hillwood High School at a time when most of the neighborhood kids went there, and during the tumultuous years when Bellevue and Hillwood High Schools merged. I was uninspired by my courses until my junior year, when I took US History from Barbara Henegar, who challenged us and treated us like scholars. She encouraged me to take an AP course my senior year, and I began to see myself as a serious student. I didn’t receive much in the way of college advising, and college visits and exploration were not what they are now. My parents encouraged me to look beyond Tennessee, and I enrolled in Indiana University, where I had to take remedial math, but I excelled in my humanities courses.

My high school story is not unusual for that time; I was given little in the way of guidance on careers or context for my learning. I had no meaningful work experience, no internships, nor opportunities to shadow people in the workplace. Luckily, our high schools today are structured to provide students with a multitude of ways to explore their interests, to deepen their understanding through a focused pathway, and to prepare themselves for college and for high skill and high wage careers.

The Academies of Nashville are now in their tenth year, and I am proud to say I was one of the first Academy Coaches, seasoned teachers who helped redesign our high schools into smaller academies. I implemented career academies at Overton High School, asking teachers to work in teams, to plan together, and to tie their instruction to relevant and real world applications whenever possible. It seemed revolutionary then, but many teachers welcomed the new opportunities for leadership and collaboration. The Academies are now in the DNA of our high schools, with hundreds of academy partners embedded in schools, designing curriculum, hosting interns and teacher externships, and becoming part of the school community. Take a look at the most recent Annual Report to see the impact the academies are having across our city, or read the 10-year Storybook to hear the stories of students whose lives were changed by their academy experience.

But there is work left to do. A recent report from Tennessee College Access and Success Network and the Nashville Public Education Foundation shows that only 24% of our graduates are receiving a degree within six years (from either 2 or 4 yr. college). The decision to place college counselors in each high school is an important step, but we must also ensure that our students are ready to succeed on the first day of college. We must increase access to more rigorous coursework, and provide the requisite supports and resources for student success. As a school board member I will focus on ensuring our students are graduating ready for success in their next chapter, which requires shared vision and purpose from pre-k through graduation day. That is our fundamental role as a public school system and ultimately how we must define our success.

My School of Thought . . . on Teachers

I was a high school Spanish teacher for over a decade. My student teaching experience at Hillsboro High School was mostly terrifying, and my first year in my own classroom in Seattle remains a blur. I never felt caught up, and was amazed at how easy it seemed for my seasoned peers. I was earning a little more than I had as a waitress the year before, but was thrilled to finally get to teach students every day. Over time I found my confidence and eventually took on a leadership role in my school. I was hesitant to leave the classroom, but excited about the challenge. And frankly, we needed the money. We had two kids entering high school, and college expenses were on the horizon.

The people that have inspired me the most in my life have all been teachers; my father, my aunt Sandy, Professor Irving Katz at Indiana University, and countless colleagues and mentors in the schools where I have worked.

The teachers I worked with are selfless; many give more in time and attention to their students than to their own families. But there is a limit to that selflessness, and change is in the air. Over the past few months we have seen teachers standing up and demanding better pay and greater voice in walkouts across the nation.

I see this as a moment of opportunity – a chance to increase teachers’ pay and benefits, and to expand their access to critical supports and resources. It’s also a chance to acknowledge the value of their work, and provide them with greater voice in the decisions being made on their behalf.

Much has been asked of teachers in Tennessee; implementing new standards, differentiating instruction, adapting to a new teacher evaluation system, utilizing the latest instructional technology, and most importantly, ensuring every student is successful. And Tennessee teachers responded to the challenge, helping our state become the fasting improving in the country over the last decade.

But the compensation for our teachers does not honor the work that we ask them to perform. Tennessee teachers, with an average salary of $45,000 per year, often have multiple college degrees, yet they are grossly underpaid in comparison to their similarly educated peers. Many teachers supplement their salaries, taking on summer or part-time jobs to make ends meet. Time is not on our side. We face teacher shortages nationwide, and we must tackle this issue soon.

Our gubernatorial candidates have all committed to raising teacher salaries. Let’s make sure that we don’t end there – we must convince school district and city leaders to do the same. One of my four priorities as a candidate is to focus on our people. As a school board member I will commit to supporting increased teacher pay. But I’ll also promote policies that increase time for planning and preparation, peer support and feedback, and authentic opportunities and mechanisms for teachers to share their ideas, hopes and concerns. Let’s bring our teachers to the table instead of forcing them to walk out of their classrooms.

Election day is August 2nd – make sure you are registered to vote!

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My School of Thought . . . On Being Latina

I grew up in a Nashville with few Latinos, and those we knew were professionals, associated with universities and medical centers. My Latino consciousness was formed by experiences with my father, who left Cuba at the age of 24, a year before the revolution, to study at Duke University. We made the long drives to visit family in Miami, and shorter pilgrimages to an international grocery on Church Street with a small Latin section—Goya products, plantains, pasta de guayaba, mangoes. My consciousness evolved as a teacher in Seattle where I was the only Latino educator in my school. Students and staff saw me as an interpreter and bridge between the school and the community. I took the responsibility seriously and learned a lot about my students and my own heritage in the process: traveling to Cuba and other Latin American countries, and teaching Spanish to students from all over the world.

While I was gone Nashville was changing. On visits home in the mid-90’s, I was struck by the landscaping crews and construction sites full of Latino laborers, a visual representation of the emergence of the New South. I returned for good in 2004 and I taught hundreds of Latino students at Overton High School to read and write in Spanish, their first but fading language. They wrote of borders, crossings, funerals missed, hard work in the family business, teen angst, traffic stops, and deportations. I attended quinceañeras, graduations, and weddings. I became an advocate, working with colleagues and partners across Nashville to create a more welcoming city and opportunities for Latino families.

Although I am not licensed to teach English Learners, I have spent much of my career advocating for them, and for policies that would bring them out of the shadows of our schools and ensure they received an education worthy of the their aspirations and the sacrifices made on their behalf. My strategy is to bring people together to solve challenges; I helped start COPLA, a Spanish language parent advisory group in MNPS, served on the boards of the YMCA Latino Achievers and Conexión Américas, and currently serve on the board of FUTURO, a leadership development program on 8 college campuses in Middle Tennessee. I am also a Master Fellow for the National Institute for Latino School Leaders. Today 27% of the enrollment in MNPS is Latino, which translates to roughly 24,000 students. This community needs a voice at the table.

I am honored to be the first Latino to run for school board in Nashville, and if elected, I’ll be the first Latino school board member in the state of Tennessee. The goals of the parents in District 8 are no different than the goals of our immigrant parents across the city.  As a school board member I will ask hard questions about the quality of our academic programs, including those for our English Learners, and I will continue to press for more thoughtful parent engagement and academic and social-emotional supports for our newest Americans. And I look forward celebrating their success, and the amazing teachers and school leaders across MNPS that move mountains to help our students and their families every single day.

Election day is August 2nd – make sure you are registered to vote!

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My School of Thought . . . On Testing and Assessments

This morning students across Nashville will begin taking TNReady, Tennessee’s annual state assessment. Testing often creates pressure for students and educators alike, but it is also an opportunity for students to show what they know, and for parents, teachers and schools to gather crucial information that will inform their year ahead. I taught Advanced Placement (AP) Spanish, and I offered practice tests to my students to increase their confidence and gauge their readiness. Each May my students took their AP tests, and while their scores were critical measures of their mastery of Spanish, they were also a measure of my effectiveness as a teacher. My students’ tests were scored with those of students in AP Spanish classes across the country, giving us a clear understanding of where we fell when compared with peers nationwide, and information for me, and my principal, to use for the coming year.

Students in Nashville take many types of assessments over the course of an academic year. Teachers create and use formative assessments daily or weekly to get regular feedback from students in order to adjust and re-teach, or to move ahead. Some students require diagnostic testing in order to identify and address learning disabilities. Immigrant students take the WIDA ACCESS test each spring to assess their progress towards learning the English language. Teachers give 2-3 interim benchmark assessments annually to gauge student learning in relation to academic goals, and to predict their performance on TNReady in the spring. MNPS recently began using the MAP as our district benchmark tool, and believes that it is strongly aligned to TNReady and a reliable predictor of student performance. 

Each spring students in grades 3-8 take TNReady tests, and high school students take a variety of End of Course tests. Our high school students also take the ACT their junior year, as well as a range of early postsecondary assessments. All of these summative assessments are used for student grading and school reporting purposes, teacher evaluations, policy and program decisions, resource allocation and professional learning priorities. While we have had major challenges in the administration of the TNReady tests over the past two years, it is essential to press forward, correcting errors and holding the State and the vendor accountable for successful administration of the tests. 

I believe that measuring student learning is essential for informing instruction, designing teacher support and training, and for ensuring accountability and prompting improvement when necessary. I currently serve on Tennessee’s Assessment Task Force along with educators, policymakers and parent and student advocates. Together we review the type and number of tests administered annually, as well as the timely provision of results and reports to schools and parents. We recently chose to reduce testing time in grades 3 and 4, eliminate the English III and Chemistry End of Course tests, and hope to continue underwriting the ACT retake opportunity for seniors. 

As a parent I wanted to know how well my children were performing, but I also wanted to know how well my children’s school and district were serving students. As a teacher I wanted to have timely and useful information so that I could help my students excel. As a board member my goal will be to use the benchmark and summative data that is gathered over the course of the year in order to make critical decisions on funding, policies and the performance of the Director of Schools. We must have high quality assessments of all kinds, and clear, timely, and actionable information so we can address the complex issues before us, and work together to solve them. 

Election day is August 2nd – make sure you are registered to vote!

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