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.

My School of Thought….on My Role as a School Board Member

I read this on the floor of the Board during my first board meeting on September 11, 2018.

I would like to take a moment to make a statement about my beliefs and my vision for my term on this board.

I’m tremendously honored to be here, and to be entrusted with the responsibility of helping guide the direction of Metro Nashville Public Schools. I have spent my career in the trenches, starting as a substitute teacher, and moving from the classroom all the way to central office. I have dedicated my professional, and much of my personal life, to helping children, families and communities.

I ask each of you to judge my votes, and the actions that I take as a board member, through the prism of my values and beliefs about children, about educators, and about Nashville.

I believe that our focus and priority should be on student achievement and success, and that all other facets of the operation of this district, whether they are the creation of a budget, of our HR practices, or our operational functions or curricular decisions, or the evaluation of our Director of Schools, should always be judged by how they will impact student success.

I understand that there is a lack of confidence in TNReady scores, but take a close look at any metric, whether it is student proficiency on MAP tests, English Learner progress on WIDA ACCESS, the percent of 3rd graders reading on grade level, or the number of our schools in the bottom 10% of the state, college readiness on ACT scores, and the number of our graduates receiving a post-secondary degree, and the consensus must be that we are leaving far too many students behind. That we have not done all that we can do.

I hope we can restore a sense of urgency around student outcomes, and resist the urge get mired in conversations that can distract us, or place blame elsewhere. We are easily distracted by conflict between adults, or in assumptions about student ability, or whether our families value education, or whether the poverty we see is just too much to overcome.

I believe an effective board follows a model of informed and balanced governance, meaning that we should discourage micromanaging on one end of the continuum, and rubber-stamping on the other. Informed and balanced governance means that our oversight of the Director of Schools and his team requires us to set and monitor ambitious goals for student learning, and to have a informed understanding of the levers and strategies used to achieve our student learning goals. You must rightfully judge every action we take on whether we are moving the needle on those metrics.

And I believe in the concept of reciprocity of accountability – meaning that if we are in a position to hold the Director and his team accountable for accomplishing goals we have set for him, that we must also be held accountable for our ability to work together, to use data to inform our work, of using evidence in our decisions, and of pushing for innovation, collaboration, and results-focused strategies. But we must resist the urge to have an all or nothing set of criteria – knowing that we will make good progress in some areas, and need to double down or change course in others. We must own our mistakes when we make them, look our staff, students and families in the eye and tell them how we will make them right.

You can count on me to look at the evidence, to gather the latest research and consult experts before I make a decision. You may not always agree with the decisions I make, or votes that I take, but I commit to doing my homework and staying true to the values that I laid out when I decided to run for office. I will never make a decision in isolation, and will always welcome input and ideas.

I will celebrate and call out success in our schools, and press for us to replicate those great strategies. But I will also call out issues and ask the very hard, even painful questions, when I think we have not done enough.

I see my job as speaking up for our students, and that will make the adults uncomfortable sometimes. And I will remain focused on helping my fellow board members succeed, and do what I can to increase our effectiveness, and do my part to build a culture of mutual respect and collaboration, so that our children and our staff can excel, and our city can thrive.

My School of Thought . . . on Why Experience Matters

Last week I had the good fortune of attending a community meeting at Hillsboro High School about the progress on the construction of the new building. It was a low-key affair in the library, devoid of cameras or media. It was simply a gathering of neighbors, and we were able to hear from the project manager, a local council member and state representative, and from the principal. The questions and conversations reinforced my belief in the power of public service, and of people coming together to strengthen and sustain our community. Schools are important places where families and community members gather to support students, attend sporting events or theater productions, to vote, and discuss local issues. Good governance necessitates that city leaders attend community gatherings to hear ideas, get input, and report on their efforts. The meeting at Hillsboro reinforced my decision to run for School Board, and my hopes of building on existing relationships I have with council members, the mayor, state representatives and senators, commissioners, congressmen and current school board members. These are relationships borne out of many years of working across sectors to solve complex issues and of creating a table where more voices are heard.

As a School Board member I will not be starting from scratch. District 8 and MNPS will benefit from my years of building trust and leading on a range of issues. Nashville is having a difficult conversation right now, and we are taking stock, deciding what matters, and struggling to make sense of profound changes coupled with complex financial challenges. It is at this moment that we need leaders who can come together to focus on the public interest, to prioritize, and to find solutions that will benefit everyone, in every neighborhood. If elected, I will leverage my experience and my long-standing relationships to ensure that our students, our schools and our staff are heard, and are a central priority in our city.

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.