Effective this week, Nashville is the site of the single largest school district reform effort undertaken by the Tennessee Department of Education.
A state-prompted reorganization of the Metro Nashville Public Schools central office is in progress, and is being taken by many as an indication of what future state involvement — which is expected only to grow — may look like in months to come.
Despite citywide fears of what a state “takeover” may bring if MNPS advances further into corrective action, people seem to like what they’ve seen so far of state involvement. The reorganization has taken place in full collaboration with the Board of Education and MNPS administration, and has the support of the Mayor’s Office, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and the teachers’ union — the Metro Nashville Education Association.
School board member David Fox, who made headlines earlier this year when he publicly proposed that Gov. Phil Bredesen be asked to empower the Mayor’s Office to appoint the school board, said Thursday that the state’s reorganization accomplishes the same end he had previously been seeking.
“I have been welcoming of any force that can be brought to bear to do a restructuring that allows the organization to be more successful,” Fox said. “There was just a little too much stasis. I felt that we needed something to come in and shake that and change it.”
MNPS, as a district, is currently considered in “corrective action” under federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation for repeatedly failing to meet certain student benchmarks. Corrective action status gives the state authority to approve all personnel resources. If the district advances further into corrective action next year, as many believe it will, the DOE will have the same authority over all financial resources of the district as well.
While the state does not need support to undertake these changes, DOE accountability chief Connie Smith said Thursday that she is glad to have it.
“You cannot fresh-start a school system without support from the community,” Smith said.
Mayor Karl Dean, when asked Thursday if he had ideas as to what DOE approval of district finances might look like if MNPS advances further into corrective action next year, said he didn’t want to “address hypotheticals.”
“What I will say is [that] the reorganizations the state is directing are positive, and I support them. We shouldn’t wait to make improvements in our schools. We should do it now,” Dean said. “I anticipate being very involved, and I anticipate having a positive relationship with the state and with the board of education.”
School board member George Thompson said the state’s growing role in the district has changed the local politics surrounding education. The state’s role at MNPS insulates the district from undue outside influence, he said.
Thompson is a seasoned board member who has publicly championed the autonomy of an elected school board. He believes, however, that if the state DOE goes on to play a controlling role in a function previously served by the board — approval of financial allocations and elements of district governance — the results will be positive.
“I think they’re using us as an example. I think they’re using us as a template for other districts,” Thompson said.
MNEA President Erick Huth takes a similar view. Huth said the state’s hiring back of popular MNPS administrator Beth O’Shea — who many believe was forced out of the district by former Director of Schools Pedro Garcia — sends “a message” about the state’s view of internal politics driving district decisions.
“I think bringing Beth O’Shea was the reversal of a political decision,” Huth said.
Smith said she can understand these lines of thinking and agrees that state involvement brings “a measure” of political insulation, as the DOE is the “primary agent or influencer” over district decisions.
The state wants to work with anyone in the community willing to support public education, she said. Smith has the support of many local public education stakeholders, and meets almost weekly with the mayor. Communication among leaders, Smith said, has made a crucial difference in cities in which outside entities have taken over school districts. Breakdowns in communication have resulted in system failure, she says.
“This situation in Nashville has the potential to be a model for the nation,” Smith said. “What you have here is a mayor who is focused on improvement in the public schools. You have a governor who supports that, and is focused, and has a knowledge base around Nashville operations. And you have two people who are quite powerful talking to each other. … That can do nothing but have good results.”
Reorganization “fresh-starts” central office
The initial changes put in motion by the state-prompted reorganization were announced Thursday with the appointment of current MNPS administrators Greg Patterson, Sandra Tinnon and Jim Briggs as the three assistant superintendents in charge of a newly formed Department of Curriculum and Instruction. The change breaks down the old MNPS Division of Teaching and Learning across grade levels. Patterson is in charge of elementary schools, Tinnon of middle schools and Briggs of high schools.
Over the next week and a half, these three will build staffs for themselves among existing MNPS employees. All areas falling under the Curriculum and Instruction umbrella will be affected, including special education, professional development and English language learning. Once the restructuring is complete, the salaries and job titles of all affected employees will be frozen for a six-month trial period.
The change is effectively a “fresh start,” Smith said, without employees being required to reapply for jobs with the district. The extent of this reorganization represents the most significant effort of its kind undertaken by the state DOE, Smith said. It was prompted not only by the broadness of the district’s failed academic benchmarks in reading and math, but also by the fact that MNPS has an interim director in place who lacks a background in curriculum.
MNPS Interim Director Chris Henson’s appointment was urged by Smith, who has publicly praised his leadership.
“He is great to work with, but he is not a curriculum and instruction specialist, and he will tell you that,” Smith said. “We are shoring up support.”
The state’s changes are also expected to have an effect on the district’s search for a permanent director of schools. Smith told board members Tuesday that she hopes candidates will be told upfront of the state-established structure, and of the expectation that it will be supported.
Restructuring offices and reassigning personnel are often changes associated with new directors of school. Director search firms have told the board, however, that No Child Left Behind is a reality that school administrators interested in the job will already be familiar with. The state’s level of involvement in the district, many board members say, will not be a deterrent to qualified candidates.