Metro schools are closed for the summer, but the district’s ongoing transformation of 12 comprehensive high schools is poised to pick up as students head back in the fall.
The redesign is based on new partnerships between schools and private companies.
At first glance, the concept doesn’t appear to be anything new at all. After all, the nonprofit PENCIL Foundation has been aligning resources from the private sector with Metro public schools for years.
What’s different is a greater emphasis on bridging the expertise of businesses — a few that will make significant financial contributions — into the actual curriculum. Specifically, the idea is to partner outside groups, in some cases corporations, with appropriate career academies — the district’s high school education model that divides grades 10 through 12 into separate programs, each arranging coursework in accordance with a particular career. Different career academies can be found at different high schools, and students pick their track.
Around 80 or so of these partnerships are to be unveiled June 18 at what the school district is calling a “celebration of current and future business-education partnerships.” The event, in which partners will sign on with career academies, had been scheduled in May, but was postponed because of Nashville’s flood.
School officials hope the ceremony ushers in a new beginning, of sorts, for the career-academy concept. Further, they’re looking to attract more public awareness to the approach — hence, a logo is in the works for the “Academies of Nashville,” along with sub-logos for each academy offered at every high school.
“At this point, it’s a symbolic letter of commitment that they have agreed to partner with that academy at that particular school around a particular theme,” said Jay Steele, associate superintendent of Metro’s high schools, alluding to the ceremony. “In a lot of cases, the partnership will be developed mutually between the school and the business partner.”
Naming rights for sale
On the highest end is the purchasing of naming rights, whereby a private company makes a sizable financial contribution to the high school and finds a program named in its honor.
The naming-rights concept kicked off in April, when the school board unanimously approved a contract with the Tennessee Credit Union, allowing it to team up with Antioch High School’s academy of business and finance. The Nashville-based company agreed to make an initial in-kind contribution of $100,000, with annual investments of $50,000 to follow.
The partnership begins this summer, when selected students will work for six weeks as paid employees at the credit union before opening a student-run credit union of their own inside Antioch this fall. Students who complete the summer program will work as bank tellers and managers.
“We made a commitment to get back involved in the community,” said Michael Martin, CEO of the Tennessee Credit Union. “We’re really excited about it. We’ve got some young staff who are going to be over there working with these students. To be the first is always the best.”
For now, Steele said Glencliff High School is the only other high school slated to receive a naming-rights sponsor. Though he declined to reveal the name of the company, a possibility could be Ford Motor Co., which has previously brought resources to Glencliff. Another three or four private companies have expressed interest in becoming naming-rights sponsors at other high schools.
Across the nation, bringing private dollars into public schools is often seen as a way to bolster school districts struggling with cashflow shortages. Given the shaky financial situation at Metro Nashville Public Schools — with $10 million in cuts targeting custodians, bus drivers, groundskeepers and 24 central office employees — some observers have assumed that’s the case here as well. Steele refutes that charge.
“Apparently, some people in the community were saying that the district is so hard up for money that we have got to turn to businesses,” Steele said. “Actually, very, very little, if any, will be cash donations. We’re looking for expertise. We’re looking for commitments for resources, and when I say resources, I’m talking human resources — people’s time, people’s expertise. Not cash. Now, we’re not going to turn down cash, because cash can always help enhance a program.”
Steele has a history with these programs. Tapped by Director of Schools Jesse Register in October to bring changes to Metro’s high schools, he came from the St. Johns County School District in St. Augustine, Fla., where he developed a reputation for his work with career academies. The mastermind behind the naming-rights approach in Metro, Steele said it proved “powerful” in Florida.
Still, some critics say selling naming rights undermines the notion of critical thinking, confuses the role of public education and often turns into direct marketing to children.
Catherine McTamaney, a lecturer at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development, is a member of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a national coalition of educators whose mission is to “reclaim childhood from corporate marketers.”
“If you think about how you get to the outcome of an independent, critical thinker, it’s probably not through a branded, corporate route,” McTamaney said. “My concern is that it takes the autonomy and independence away from schools to be able to think critically about the context of kids’ lives.”
According to McTamaney, the fastest-growing area of commercialism in public schools is corporate branding, and issues often arise with the types of partnerships planned for Metro schools.
“There are examples of times when restaurant chain A is the corporate sponsor for the culinary program at a school, and they offer special discounts to the kids at the school,” she said. “Or they have a special night that’s hosted at one of their restaurants where all the kids in the program are working as servers. So it becomes a school fundraiser, but embedded in the fundraising opportunities for the school are links to consumer loyalty and to profit outcomes for the company.”
Steele said he heard similar criticism at his former school district. “We had four named academies,” he said. “And after the very first one, many critics did say, ‘You’re marketing to kids.’ But we were very strict in the language in the contract that says this is actually about curriculum development.
“So, for example, with Tennessee Credit Union, it’s about financial literacy,” he said. “They’re really not promoting their product. However, the return on investment for that company — lifelong customers — is I’m sure a motivating factor [for the company].”
Programs vary by school
Steele said his goal is to have at least one naming-rights partner at each high school, but for the time being the vast majority of partnerships will be looser collaborations. Some include CMT and Gaylord Opryland at McGavock High School; the Associated General Contractors of Tennessee at Cane Ridge High School; HCA at Hillwood High School; and Shoney’s at Glencliff.
Some will provide student internships, while others will offer field trips to classes. At some high schools, MNPS officials have already arranged three-year business plans in which teams of teachers this summer are to attend weeklong externships hosted by business partners, who will help them design project-based curriculum.
Pearl-Cohn High School is slated to turn into an entertainment business-based school, Steele said. Officials are currently working with a radio station that will help install a web-based radio station inside the school.
“We will develop that over this coming year, and the partner will guide us on what software we should use, what is the equipment we should purchase, and what should be taught in the class to get kids prepared for FCC rules and regulations,” he said. “A lot of teachers don’t have that knowledge because they’re trained in English, social studies or language arts.”
Stratford High School, he said, is in the process of partnering with Vanderbilt University, which will assist the school’s academy of science and engineering. Through federal Race to the Top funds, the school is purchasing equipment and software that will mirror Vanderbilt’s. For six weeks this summer, a handful of Stratford teachers are set to work inside Vanderbilt laboratories where professors are to help design the high school’s curriculum. Vanderbilt professors will visit Stratford throughout the school year on regular basis.