City leaders will closely watch Nashville’s public school administration and Board of Education in coming months and years, as the district ramps up its implementation of Smaller Learning Communities (SLC’s) and Career Academies.
The district’s high school redesign — which, when complete, will include Ninth-Grade Academies and Career Academies in all Metro comprehensive high schools — is strongly supported by Mayor Karl Dean, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, and other political movers and shakers.
Initial funding for the redesign has already been provided by a landmark $6.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, and the school board has voted both to implement the redesign and to support the new structure wholeheartedly.
However, almost everyone involved agrees that SLC’s will only be as effective as its administration.
“People are going to be watching next year to see [if] these new ideas have been implemented successfully,” Dean told The City Paper. “I think implementation’s the key. We have to implement them successfully.”
Marc Hill, chief education officer for the Chamber, told school board members at a public budget hearing that the district’s implementation of Career Academies, as well as its ability to address the benchmarks of federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, are the two actions that parents and community members will be watching most closely in the next few years.
Considering that Metro Nashville Public Schools as a district is currently in “corrective action” status under NCLB — meaning there is an unprecedented amount of state involvement in the district’s governance and a chance that the state could “take over” in a few years if necessary improvement isn’t made — Hill’s prioritization is noteworthy.
As a concept, SLC’s can be difficult to translate into concise explanation, according to Metro public relations employee Noelle Mashburn.
SLC’s, in general, are divisions within larger high schools in which small groups of students interact with assigned leaders, teachers, staff, and guidance counselors.
Career Academies are SLC’s organized around specific careers or themes selected by students. Enrollment in all Career Academies will be strictly voluntary. The Career Academies are to be designed for students of all academic levels, whether kids plan to go to college or directly to the work force, and are supposed to integrate existing academic requirements with knowledge specific to students’ interests.
Within the next few years, each high school should have its own Ninth-Grade Academy, a self-contained unit for incoming freshmen designed to improve the transition to high school. Ninth-Grade Academies have already been established at McGavock, Hillwood and Antioch high schools.
The next implementation step will be forming Career Prep Centers for 10th-graders at select high schools, Mashburn said. The schools to be involved are still being determined.
District leaders say they hope SLC’s will not only have a positive effect on student engagement, graduation rates, and employment readiness, but will also be able to play a role in luring Nashvillians away from private schools.
But all parties involved emphasize that the new structure will only be effective if it is implemented well, a point underscored by results from the first year of Ninth-Grade Academies. Problems with registration at select schools, most notably McGavock, dampened some parents’ opinions of the new structure.
Board member Steve Glover, whose district includes McGavock, said registration for the Ninth-Grade Academy at McGavock turned into a “nightmare.”
He also, however, cited improvement in retention rates at other Metro schools with Ninth-Grade Academies.
Some board members, as well as Nashville community leaders, have said they believe support for SLC’s should be an integral characteristic of the next director of MNPS. Dean said he doubts that any educational administrator would advocate against smaller learning communities in general, given the research behind the concept linking it to student engagement, but said it would be important to find a district leader with management skills sufficient to make the redesign operate smoothly.
“I think the key thing is going to be how to build and administer what the board is already doing, and to do more. … I think that’s what we’ll be looking for,” Dean said. “I think it’s a positive thing that the board has been moving in the direction with smaller learning communities like the Big Picture School, the Career Academies, the Ninth-Grade Academies. Those are all good, but I think we need more.”