Two days after the Metro school board passed one of the most controversial budgets in recent memory, Director of Schools Jesse Register gave his “State of the Schools” speech Thursday night.
The timing wasn’t lost on the superintendent.
“When we scheduled this state of the schools address, we did not know it would be during such a highly charged and eventful week,” Register said as he began his remarks.
The $633 million budget for the next fiscal year, which still lacks a revenue source for $25 million, has been relentlessly criticized for cuts that target school custodians, groundskeepers and bus drivers.
For Register, generally well-received by Nashville’s education community since his arrival a year ago, the budget — and the protests that have followed — has put the mild-mannered director under fire for arguably the first time at Metro Nashville Public Schools.
“We did not make those decisions lightly,” Register told the crowd of local educators. “Our priority was protecting our teachers and instructional programs, and I’m proud we were able to do that.”
Transitioning from controversy, Register chose to spend the remainder of his 34-minute speech not unveiling any new initiatives, but instead focusing on the “traction” in reform that he believes has resulted from his MNPS Achieves program, which targets nine different areas to turn around.
Register went from item to item to make his case. He said areas of progress include: moving instructional coaches away from the central office and into schools; improving business practices throughout the system; revamping small learning communities within the district’s high schools; opening two new academies to give students a second chance to receive a diploma; starting a new so-called virtual school to facilitate online learning; and launching a transitional school for incarcerated youth.
“We are making progress in all areas, and in some we are on the cutting edge of reform nationally,” he said.
In addition, Register said the district is making significant progress in improving teacher quality through teacher recruitment and professional development — an academic expression that refers to training teachers. He also pointed to his installment of new principals in a few high schools that were previously in “crisis,” a decision he said has produced changes.
The district, he added, is making a concerted effort to address the needs of students with disabilities and English Language Learners — MNPS next month is expected to receive a yearlong ELL evaluation conducted by George Washington University.
Despite the reason for optimism, Register tempered expectations, pointing out that student test score standards in Tennessee are poised to increase this year.
“We know that our schools will be graded against those higher standards this year, and when the new test scores come out that the scores will not be as good,” Register said. “The only high school in the state that passed (last year) based on the new standards was Hume-Fogg.”
To conclude the speech, Register took an unexpected twist, comparing MNPS to the famous, but often forgotten, Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton, who took several voyages to Antarctica in the early 1900s. On one expedition, his ship was hemmed by icy water, forcing Shackleton to keep his crew mobilized and working together on nearby land.
“Like Shackleton and his crew, we will remain focused on our goal of preparing our students and our schools for the future, adapting to change, and working together,” Register said.