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Friday, June 13, 2008

Metro Nashville Public Schools: A System under Construction

About a month ago we were invited to the graduation ceremony of our neighbor's daughter at Hillsboro High School in Nashville, Tennessee. It was the first time I attended a U.S. high school graduation. I received my secondary school education abroad.

The ceremony was festive with hundreds of graduates and a huge crowd of family members filling a college basketball stadium. I was struck by the diversity of the students and their achievements. Scores were honored for their successful participation in advanced placement courses. Others had fulfilled the requirements for the international baccalaureate, permitting them to study overseas.

A number of students were recognized for their accomplishments in the sciences and the languages. Among the high achievers was a young man with Asperger's syndrome who addressed the audience in a passionate speech. The student who received the loudest cheers had Down syndrome. It was an evening of elation. Everyone was very proud. The students seemed equipped and ready for great careers to come.

These impressions are in stark contrast to the district-wide performance of Metropolitan Nashville Schools. The school system is in a deep crisis. A number of schools have missed government-set benchmarks for student performance (TCAP) for four years in a row. The passed director of schools was the second choice at the time of his appointment. He worked hard on improving instruction for the children of recent immigrants with poor knowledge of English. His rule was draconian. His personnel decisions were not well received. The teachers chafed under his reforms. The introduction of school uniforms complicated lives and did not make a difference. His days were eventually counted, when his unpopular measures did not deliver the successes that the school district direly needed.

Stipulated by the disastrous test results, the Tennessee Department of Education sent emissaries to institute reforms. A private company is being hired short-term to pay special attention to the students at schools with poor showing. Nashville is looking for a new superintendent. The search will not be easy. Apt candidates with career ambitions may hardly be interested in a position that may reduce them to expediters of state policy with little prospect of earning own acclaim. The public debate about Metro Schools' future is heated. Nashvillians want to improve their school system, but are wary of increased taxes. The local newspaper The Tennessean provides comprehensive coverage.

To date, most change precipitated from the top down. Yet, the student performance problems are specific to neighborhoods. The socioeconomic and geographical nature of the problems suggests that solutions must be sought at the individual schools in discussion between the educators teaching the affected children and the communities where the children live. Traditionally, these communities have had little confidence in the system. Great expectations have been raised in the past and proved too hard to fulfill in actuality. They have been disappointed many times. Any proposal for change may be perceived as yet another short change.

In this situation, newly created facts on the ground must disprove any false perceptions. Short-term fixes are not going to win the confidence of the affected communities. Solid investments have got to be made that produce lasting, palpable and visible results locally. The children and parents will embrace reforms only, when they are convinced that the offered help is more than just a promise.

Addenda

  • Jesse Register, the newly appointed Director of Metro Nashville Public Schools, took office Jan. 15, 2009. Today The Tennessean's Jaime Sarrio in her article entitled "New schools chief calls for unity" on his first public statements about his vision of leadership for the school district delivered to the Metro council's education committee (02/03/09).
  • Updated facilities constitute the smallest part of the effort. The greater part will consist of keeping the students to attend school. During the last summer, the implementation of truancy programs was widely discussed in the community as a measure too improve the abysmal attendance in the schools that did not meet the criteria of the No Child Left Behind Act, known as Title I schools. Here, attractive and affordable after-school care may motivate students to come to school on a regular basis.

    My children have been enrolled in a superbly-led after-school care program while at Eakin Elementary School in Nashville. The program has had a deep, positive influence on the development of their social skills and homework ethics. The prospect of meeting friends after school has been a cheerful motivator on dreary mornings. Exactly such programs are needed in the under-attended schools. The children would benefit highly from the exposure to a socially structured environment in the afternoons where conflicts can be resolved under adult supervision, where they can study, do homework, can explore computers, learn crafts and handiwork to develop their fine motor skills as well as have pure fun playing games and enjoy each others company. The children would wish to be at school.

    In my experience, such programs do work for all children. One summer, my son attended a Boy Scout Summer Camp in Nashville's Shelby Park. Most children were from so-called distressed neighborhoods. My son was hesitant about meeting them at first, but got quickly acquainted with his new pals. The kids got along fine. The group experienced one troublesome incidence during the week. Nobody was hurt. The councilors immediately sat the boys down to discuss how to resolve the conflict. They told us parents about the event in the evening. I walked away convinced that social engineering can work. In addition to good teachers, effective after school care may be essential to progress at under-performing schools (02/24/09).
  • I have written more about the value and the needs of education in this state in my posts dated Jan. 24 and Jun. 27, 2008 (03/12/09).
  • Today The Tennessean's Jaime Sarrio reports in her article entitled "Nashville schools to tackle key needs all at once" on the reform plans of the new director of schools announced yesterday. The plan focuses on improvements for children with special needs and children who speak English as a second language. In addition, attention will be paid to improvements of school safety and climate (04/01/09),
  • Nashville Mayor Karl Dean bought into the idea of boosting after-school care, according to Heidi Hall's post in the Tennessean entitled "Dean plans to expand after-school programs" yesterday (05/08/09).
  • With incredulity, I found out today that our new Director of Schools decided to move one of the most competent principals I ever met, Roxie Ross, from our daughter's school, Eakin Elementary. Roxie oversaw the relocation of the school into newly built and restored facilities a few years ago and led the school with greatest professionalism and enthusiasm as a place of learning for all children. Eakin has performed above expectations under her guidance, fulfilling the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act year after year. No reasons were given for the decision. No parents were consulted. It seems highly demoralizing for the teachers, the children and the parents to remove a principal from a post in which she excelled. Parents trust in the continuity of the system, when they commit their children to its schools. Functional schools are precious and should not be tampered with. Without them, a city loses its attraction as a place for families to raise their children (07/07/09).
  • Last year the school board decided to rezone the district. The idea was that the rezoning would improve the underperforming schools by steering students to schools in their neighborhoods with the hope that this might facilitate parent school involvement. Most parents of the affected students were highly skeptical that rezoning was a step in the right direction. Many perceived the plan as an erosion of school integration. A federal law suit was filed. Regardless, the school board went ahead with a shaky implementation of its controversial plan this school year. Today The Tennessean's Chris Echegaray reports in his article entitled "North Nashville students get books day after judge's order" that as a result students of one rezoned middle school received their text books only now, that is three weeks after the school year began (09/03/09).


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