Dr. Register calls for civility, formal cooperation in the education community

Director of Schools Dr. Jesse Register delivered these remarks to the Metro Council Education Committee on Thursday, July 10, 2014:

Chairman Glover, members of the Council Education Committee, and other Council members, after Steve talked to me about this session, I asked for a moment at the start of the meeting to say a few words to you about our school system in general and specifically about today’s briefing on Public Charter Schools. Your decision to meet as the Education Committee of the Metro Council on this important topic is both farsighted and commendable. Thank you for taking the time to be here today.

I know I am taking advantage of my long-standing relationship with Chairman Glover with this request to address you, but without his involvement six years ago, I might not be standing here today as your superintendent, as Steve was the first person from Nashville to ask me to apply for this job. I appreciate this opportunity to say a few words, not as your director of schools necessarily, but as an educator, someone who cares deeply about public education and particularly about our school system and our children.

First I want to commend the Council and Mayor Dean for the significant investments in funding public education in Nashville you have made during my tenure here. We could not do what we do without your help and support. Thank you.

Let me start this off by saying what I hope all of you already know—we have a really good school system in this city with a strong foundation, great leaders and committed wonderful teachers. We have pockets of notable excellence and, of course, we still have a few areas of weakness. We are absolutely on the right path, but that path is not always easy.

As my official time as the leader of this community’s education system begins to wind down, and as I consider my experience as a lifelong educator and longtime superintendent, I want to tell you that your school system has the potential to be great…not just good or adequate, or OK, but truly great. The possibilities are endless, our goals are absolutely attainable, and the future is bright.

As all of you know, we have over the last few years experienced transformational change in the way we approach the education of our children in this community and across the nation. These changes have greatly increased the amount and the intensity of education-related discourse in our neighborhoods and across the city, as well as in the media.

The on-going, and frankly sometimes passionate, discussion about this important topic is good. Passion around the education of our children should be encouraged and celebrated. But over the last year or so there has been a steady and ever increasing tendency toward miscommunication and gamesmanship in our dialog and a push for polarization in our ongoing discussions about the future of public education in this city. These actions have created distrust and hard feelings where understanding and common purpose once ruled the day.

In the very near past when we disagreed, we did so respectfully. Not so today. It has at times become mean and personal. We have lost civility in our dialogue on education reform in general and, regrettably, particularly as it concerns our public charter schools. This loss of civility has caused good people and quality institutions that have the same basic goals—the quality education of future generations of Nashvillians–to take sides and develop an unhealthy “us” versus “them” mentality.

I think that most in the room will agree with me….enough is enough! This is not some sort of game where it’s OK to judge “winning or losing” by which press release or pithy statement gets printed in the newspaper or gets highlighted on the nightly news, or gets the most play on social media. This is not about a campaign to discredit one person or another because they may disagree with you; it should be about, and only be about, what’s best for our school system and developing and maintaining great schools for our children.

When we take a step back and really think about it, the biggest losers in this kind of scorched earth campaign-style approach to our discussion about schools of choice are our children. I believe this type of behavior needs to stop and it needs to stop now. If you agree with me, I ask for your help.

I am asking all of you tonight, individually as important opinion leaders in our community, and as members of the Council, to join me in finding the most effective way to immediately transition our dialog to a place where this community, and our school system, can find stability and reinstate a collaborative and transparent environment where innovation and true partnership can flourish. A place where all ideas are discussed respectfully. A place where the best ideas rise to the top and are implemented. And a place where bad or outdated ideas are simply left behind.

I plan to ask my partners over the coming days and weeks – Mayor Dean, Vice Mayor Neighbors and this Council, our state legislative delegation led by Speaker Harwell, Governor Haslam’s administration, community partners like the Public Education Foundation, Nashville’s Agenda, the Chamber of Commerce, SCORE, The United Way, the Charter community, and of course, our School Board, to join this effort.

It’s my desire that over the next few weeks and months we can address and eliminate the hard feelings that have developed and reinstate a constructive climate of trust and true collaboration. Why do I think this is so vitally important? Because our future, I believe, depends on it.

The next mayor of this city and the next superintendent of your school system will have an exciting opportunity presented to them as they transition into their new roles. These opportunities include the opportunity to take public education in Nashville to new heights of excellence. But I respectfully submit to you that if we aren’t thinking about how we reset the conversation on public education in this city, right now—tonight, starting right here in his chamber, this very instant–the new mayor and the new superintendent are going to find themselves in a precarious place and will be less able to take our system to the next level. This meeting today is the perfect context for this topic.

It is absolutely critical that the District embrace the important role that our education colleagues in the charter school sector play in the future of education in Nashville. I know that this District’s charters are by and large very successful. It is evident that we are seeing outstanding educational gains from public charter schools as well as from other schools of choice and many of our zoned schools.

While I am so very proud of all of these schools, I acknowledge there is a real and pressing need to literally reset the conversation about charters and other schools of choice. Specifically, I want to immediately jump start the process of determining best practices associated with what makes charters and other high performing schools work for our parents and children, and to facilitate the implementation of some of those ideas across our system. I hope the charter community will agree to assist me with this important work.

To that end, and as a first step, I am asking the Charter Center to work with me to convene a monthly meeting with charter school leaders, Dr. Coverstone, and other members of my senior staff, and any willing members of the Board of Education. There is so much common ground that exists among these individuals and institutions and we simply need to work harder to find and exploit this for the benefit of our children. We should be about this work starting tomorrow morning.

In the end, the question that we seem to have missed in the ongoing and overheated debate about charter schools is really very simple: How we can utilize our district assets—all district assets–especially our high performing schools that are built around some level of choice and excellence to ensure that our children, ALL OF OUR CHILDREN, regardless of where they reside, or where they go to school, can achieve to their highest potential.

To that end, I will be reaching out to my partners in the Nashville educational community (generally as we did with our recent attrition study) to have them assist the District in conducting in-depth research that will assist us in analyzing our financial practices to make sure that we are giving adequate weight to educational quality, results, and “return on our investment” in our District funding models. This research, when completed, will advance and build upon the limited initial work of the fiscal impact study that is currently underway, such that when both studies are complete we, and our constituents, partners, and funders, will have a more robust and complete, comprehensive and unbiased understanding of what it takes to lead our schools to the results we desire and that our children richly deserve.

In conclusion, I want to reset the conversation about the future of public education in Nashville. We must learn and build on our best practices from all high-performing schools to improve practices in every school. Most importantly, I want to renew a sincere spirit of civility, cooperation, and optimism when we agree, and lead a respectful, meaningful and constructive dialogue when we don’t. Over the next year, I am committed to doing everything I can, professionally and personally, to position Metro Schools to move toward being a world-class school system for this community. On this you have my word. Thank you Mr. Chairman for indulging me this courtesy, and thank you all for all you do every single day for this great city.

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