An Open Letter to Nashville Families from Dr. Jesse Register

To the families of Nashville,

This week we dropped a big piece of news that left more questions than answers. That’s breeding anxiety among many, so we write today to better explain our ideas and let you know what’s happening over the next several weeks.

Pardon the length of this letter, but there is a lot to talk about. First, let’s address East Nashville, then we can get to your biggest questions and concerns.

There is a lot of good happening in East Nashville, but also a lot of schools that need to do better. We have excellent neighborhood schools at Dan Mills and Lockeland. We have an excellent magnet school at East. We have excellent charter schools at KIPP and others. We are developing a strong K-12 pathway to Stratford STEM.

How can we make every school in East Nashville more like these excellent schools, so that no one attends a struggling school and everyone gets to choose among great school options? That’s what we hope to find.

What are the facts so far?
We are 100% committed to getting parent and community input at the beginning of this process, which is right now. That’s why we announced our intentions this week and why we are holding the first of many community meetings next week.

The plan is still in such early stages of development that all we can share right now are broad ideas and a few specifics. As we speak to families, teachers, principals and community members, more details can be formed and decisions made.

Here are the facts so far:

  • This is a plan to address and turn around all low performing schools in Nashville. In three years, we will have no schools on the state’s priority list. To do this, we are focusing on the bottom 25% district-wide.
  • In East Nashville, we want to give all families high-quality choices. Under this plan, all families in the Stratford and Maplewood clusters would get to choose their school, and no one would be assigned to a school by default.
  • Successful schools must be preserved. There are successful schools in East Nashville – several, in fact. We will not do anything to undermine or destroy these schools.
  • If your school is high performing, it will not close or convert.
  • If your school is high performing and you like it, you can stay there.

Will you eliminate the GPZ at Lockeland Elementary?
There are no plans to change the GPZ at Lockeland. Instead, we’ll look for ways to expand its reach. It’s so successful that we want to use it as a model.

Does that mean adding or opening up seats at Lockeland? Maybe. Does it mean changing another elementary school to be more like Lockeland and attract the growing Lockeland Springs population there? Maybe. We will know for certain very soon.

Choice does not mean the elimination of neighborhood schools like Lockeland. Choice schools can still be neighborhood schools. Lockeland is the prime example of this.

What does this plan mean for priority schools right now?
In the immediate future – meaning now and through the end of this school year – there will be some leadership and staff changes. We will also start building and implementing individualized plans of action for each priority school. This means there will be a broad strategy to turn that school around. Each plan will be different, based on the very specific needs of that school and its students.

Within the next few months, we expect to announce any possible closings or transitions. Those will take effect at the end of this school year. Before the school year is over, we will work closely with affected families on the choices available to them.

What does this plan mean for the future of East Nashville?
East Nashville needs more schools like Lockeland, Dan Mills, East Nashville Magnet and KIPP. All four of those are good schools and present a wide array of options for everyone. Families need security as their children transition to middle and high school. They need to be sure they will get into the schools they planned for. There must be quality choices available for the growing number of families and young children in East Nashville.

So this plan is about greater choice, but it’s also about sticking with the choice for as long as you like to – without the uncertainty of a lottery.

Using those good schools as starting points, let’s build pathways that children can follow – if they so choose – from kindergarten to graduation without having to go through the application and selection process.

What does that look like in practical terms?
Details are still being developed, but here are just a few of ideas being considered:

  • Turn a low performing elementary school into a strong Paideia school that feeds directly into East.
  • Strengthen the pipeline into Litton Middle and Stratford High by pairing more elementary schools with Dan Mills. These schools will get strong turnaround attention based on the specific needs of the families within that school.
  • Consider a K-12 pipeline for KIPP while building more seats at other successful charter schools so families who want to choose a successful charter school can do so at any grade.

Giving parents this certainty will help them make decisions early, which attracts more families to these schools. There are already a lot of choices in East Nashville. Let’s make them all quality choices and give families the security to stick with them.

What about closings and conversions?
We expect an announcement in the near future about which schools could be closed or converted. Those discussions are still underway, but we expect it to be very few.

We won’t try to hide it: there are some really tough decisions ahead. It’s never easy to close a school or transition it to a charter operator. Both are disruptive to families and logistically very difficult.

But the simple fact is that right now there are many more seats in East Nashville than there are students. Closing or consolidating schools gives us tighter focus on fixing what’s not working.

Why weren’t parents consulted until now?
We are still very early in this process, so parents are getting in early. Final decisions will not be made until we’ve visited schools, spoken to teachers and families, and gathered community input.

A priority schools task force has been meeting for two weeks to examine the facts, pull ideas together and start building a first draft of the overall plan.

Who is on this taskforce? What goes on at these meetings? Why isn’t the public invited to participate?
The task force is made up of 20 or so of the top administrators in the district representing several areas of expertise. They have met multiple times over the last couple of weeks armed with stacks of data. Every meeting includes a deep dive into individual student and teacher data, identifying issues and coming up with new ideas on how to solve them.

The task force is working in three main areas:

  • Great School Leadership
  • Excellent Teachers
  • System Supports

There are also people working with in all three areas to gather information and plan for communications and community engagement.

What will happen next?
Earlier this week, I met with all principals in the Stratford and Maplewood clusters to talk about the plan and the challenges they face. I will continue to meet with them throughout this process.

Starting next week, I will begin visits to every priority school and every school in East Nashville. I will spend most of my afternoon at each school, doing three things:

  • During the school day, I will tour and observe classrooms.
  • After dismissal, I will meet with the faculty to listen to them and talk about ideas for improvement.
  • In the evening, I will meet with families from that school to listen to them, answer questions and give updates on planning.

The schedule is in development, but these meetings are expected to begin next Thursday, Sept. 18. There will also be larger community meetings and several one-on-one meetings with community members to gather input and answer questions.

Every Friday, we will publish an update on the planning process and address any big questions or concerns we heard during the week.

This is going to be a long process of development and implementation. Some changes will take place immediately, while others will take longer.

We have a lot of hard work to do, but we look forward to having great parent partners to help us along the way.

Sincerely,

Jesse B. Register, Ed.D.

DOWNLOAD this letter as a PDF

On the Job: Metro teachers’ attendance rate higher than “national average”

95.8% attendance rate in 2012-13 flies in the face of recent study

Did you see this report? It comes from the National Council on Teacher Quality, a think tank in Washington, D.C. The study claims more than two-thirds of Nashville teachers are “frequently absent,” meaning they miss anywhere from 11-17 days in the classroom each year.

This study makes several broad assumptions and big leaps. Chief among them is the definition of “absence.” In explaining its methodology, the authors say explicitly, “Professional development and other job-related absences that would require students to be taught by a substitute were included.”

We do not consider teachers taking professional development days to be absent, nor do we consider that a detriment to the students. When teachers are out of the classroom for full days of professional development, they are learning new skills and methods to improve instruction. That definitely benefits their students.

Using the study’s methodology, the authors come up with a teacher attendance rate of 92.38% for 2012-13. When you look purely at sick days and disability days, as we do, that rate is actually 95.8% – well above the 94% national average the authors calculate. Preliminary numbers for teacher attendance in 2013-14 look to hit 96.2% – an even further improvement.

Further, the study assumes that days spent with a substitute teacher harm students academically. We reject this assumption. As a district, we have strengthened our substitute teacher pool by requiring each candidate to complete a training program and pass a test. Once approved, each substitute teacher enters the classroom with experience in instruction, classroom management and working with students. The old days from years ago of substitute teachers effectively “babysitting” students are over. Substitute teachers in Metro Schools give instruction.

From the article linked at the top:

“‘While these big-city school districts are struggling to improve student achievement, they may be overlooking one of the most basic aspects of teacher effectiveness: every teacher being regularly on the job, teaching kids,’ said Kate Walsh, president of the Washington think tank that advocates for reform in recruiting, retaining and compensating teachers. It receives its money from private foundations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.”

We take teacher attendance very seriously and are making every effort to improve it. The numbers bear that out. We also believe our teachers are hard working and dedicated to their students. This study takes a much broader definition of “absence” than is reasonable, and its conclusions are suspect.

For the curious, here’s what teachers are allowed per year:

  • 10 sick days
  • 5 professional development days
  • 2 personal days

What can you do to help heating and cooling at your school?

We hear you: there are some heat issues in Metro schools. Some classrooms, lunchrooms and libraries scattered across the district are colder than normal.

We know it, and we’re addressing it. The unprecedented cold that has gripped Nashville this month has made it very difficult. When possible, principals and teachers work together to make other arrangements for students in cold classrooms. I’ve personally spoken with many principals who either moved students to a warmer part of the building or let them wear extra coats and jackets.

But you should know this: our maintenance crews are still working long hours to make repairs. They haven’t stopped working since this cold snap started early this month. They prioritize repair jobs according to a strict system and get to work on what needs it most.

So what is the long-term solution here? Besides making basic repairs or temporary fixes to get us through the rest of the winter, what can we do to keep students comfortable now and in the future?

Support funding for our schools.

Food for thought: MNPS has 14 million square feet of space in 200 buildings. The average age of our buildings is 43 years. Each campus has an average of 100 pieces of heating and cooling equipment. Many of these systems are old, sometimes very old.

We have a team of just 15 people on our HVAC crew to maintain them all.

Our maintenance employees work hard to keep systems running, but some just need to be replaced. That takes capital funding. The best way to ensure long-term solutions to cold buildings is to support capital funding for Metro Schools.

By supporting capital funding, you are not only making sure we can replace aging boilers and air handlers, you are also helping us get rid of portables at schools like Lakeview Elementary, Westmeade Elementary, Paragon Mills Elementary and many more. The more classrooms we can build with capital funds, the fewer students we will have to serve in portable, temporary classrooms.

How does capital funding work? Our Board of Education approves a capital funding request that includes all projects we want to fund this year. The Mayor and Metro Council then review that request and decide how much of it to fund.

The Board of Education will vote on this year’s Capital Budget request in a specially called meeting this Thursday night at 6:00 p.m. You can watch the live-blog of their vote right here.

See the full Capital Budget proposal right here.

To see what it’s like to be one of those people working hard to keep HVAC equipment running, read this.

To see how this season has affected our crews – and their budgets – read this.

Tell us what you think of the 2014-15 district calendar

Two years ago we came to you with an idea to change the school calendar in a pretty big way.  We wanted more balance between blocks of school days and breaks. That meant starting school on August 1, giving us extra days throughout the year to benefit students, and shortening summer break to reduce the gap in instruction from one school year to the next.

Last year we used those extra days for intersession, just like we’ll do this year. Intersession is an opportunity for students to extend learning beyond what they could get in regular classroom time. In order to be truly successful, it requires funding to match its ambitions.

That did not happen. Cuts to federal funding meant we could not serve as many students as we’d hoped. While we are pleased overall with how intersession went in its pilot year and heard good reports from participating families, lack of transportation and limited funding for programs meant most students did not take advantage of it.

Intersession fills a need and want for many families. But it is just one element of a balanced school calendar. We are now exploring alternative ways to extend the school year, including one that benefits all students.

A calendar committee that included parents, principals, administrators and employee union members developed these recommendations for the board of education. In all options:

  • The first day of school is August 1
  • The last day of school is May 28
  • The 2014 summer break is nine weeks long

The options for the 2014-15 district calendar are:

  • Option #1
    Consistent with the current calendar, this option has two intersession periods in October and March. This option is cost neutral.

    • 175 regular instructional days
    • four days each in October and March that could be used either for intersession or an extended break
    • five days each for fall break and spring break
    • five days for teacher planning and professional development
    • five days built in for inclement weather
  • Option #2
    This calendar essentially turns intersession days into regular school days and more professional development days for teachers. This option would cost an additional $20-21 million for the added days.

    • 180 regular instructional days
    • nine days for teacher professional development (including four from local funds)
    • five days each for fall break and spring break
    • five days built in for inclement weather

Option #1 is a good calendar. It served us well last year and will serve us well this year, too. The intersession periods give us the opportunity to reach as many students as we can for enrichment and remediation without additional funds. Given the current economic situation, we do not know what intersession could look like in 2014-15, but we will do our utmost to make it valuable to Nashvillians.

Option #2 is our preferred option. We want to add more time in the classroom for all students so we meet the national standard of 180 instructional days. Further, we want to ensure that time is quality time in the classroom by providing our teachers time for professional learning and growth throughout the year. As a result it gives teachers ten additional paid workdays in the year.

The final decision on which calendar to use falls to the Board of Education, but we want to know what you think. Which calendar would you prefer?

See all calendar options.

Send your feedback to
MNPSCommunications@mnps.org

Come to our public discussion on
July 24 from 5:00 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
in the MNPS Board Room.

Investing in Latino Parents Today Brings Success Tomorrow

“89% of Latino parents believe that college is important for success in life, yet less than half feel that they have the knowledge to help their children prepare for college.”

Metro Schools’ own Gini-Pupo Walker writes about the importance of involving and empowering Latino parents in their children’s education.

Investing in Latino Parents Today Brings Success Tomorrow

Gini was recently named to the National Latino Educational Leaders Commission. In her first article written for the group, she highlights the programs to involve Latino parents here in Nashville, including partnerships with Conexión Americas.

Read the Full Article

District-charter collaboration leads to transparency, high standards, & real opportunity

by Alan Coverstone, Executive Director of the Office of Innovation

In Nashville, when we first sat down to determine if it would be possible to build a collaborative relationship between our school district and charter school leaders, very few places had tried it. Just a short time later, our District-Charter Collaboration Compact was recognized as one of the first nine nationwide, and charter and district leaders have been building their cooperation ever since. We are learning a great deal with and from each other, and most of the lessons were made possible by the leaders who agreed to explore that first step.

We are fortunate the district leaders and charter leaders who helped develop the compact had the foresight to realize that unless we agreed on the outcomes we expect from our schools, we would never be able to work together effectively. Spending our time trying to show the data on our schools only in the most favorable light, whether in favor of charters or district schools, is a waste of time and contributes to misunderstanding and cynicism. Parents need to know objectively how schools are doing with all schools measured on the same balanced, objective criteria so their school choices will be informed through data.

Our District-Charter Collaboration Compact begins and ends with our shared commitment to high-performing schools for every student in Nashville regardless of whether that high performer is a charter, magnet, design center, enhanced option, or zoned school. Holding all schools to the highest possible standards is good for kids and making the information fair, useable and available for parents is too.

Nashville Public Schools Scorecard

We have taken an important step in that direction with the release of our new Scorecard comparison tool that allows parents to see the same measures for different schools side–by-side. With this information, visits to schools can be even more helpful as parents get to know the people in the building working hard to improve achievement by creating real opportunities for students.

 

Explore the Scorecard

Explore Your School Options

A letter to parents: So you’re a Focus School. What does that really mean, anyway?

UPDATE: The Tennessee Department of Education has awarded Focus School grants to Amqui, Carter Lawrence, and Ruby Major Elementary Schools, as well as Pearl-Cohn Entertainment Magnet High School. These grants are worth anywhere from $100,000-300,000 and will be used to help close achievement gaps at these schools.

To learn more about these grants, visit the DOE website.


Dear Parents,

When the Tennessee Department of Education released the list of “Focus Schools” with a few MNPS schools on it, we heard from parents right away. There was some confusion and more than a little concern. Focus is a new label with a new definition, and it’s not immediately clear what it means. Some assumed it was a replacement for the old label of a High Priority or “Failing” school.

That’s not the case. The state defines Focus Schools like this:

“The 10 percent of schools in the state with the largest achievement gaps between groups of students, such as racial and ethnic groups, students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, students with disabilities and English-language learners.”

The achievement gap is a key concern of Tennessee’s new accountability system for schools and districts. MNPS wants to see all groups of students achieving at high levels, and we are making progress across the district.

Here’s what it can mean to be a Focus School:

  1. The school has high achieving students.
    The state’s own guidelines say, “Schools on the Focus list are not necessarily there because of low achievement. In fact, many showed excellent growth last year.” If your school saw big gains in all students – including those at the very top of the honor rolls – that’s a wonderful thing. But, it also means the gap between the top students and everyone else didn’t get any smaller. We need to increase all students’ achievement and close the achievement gap at the same time.
  2. The school is diverse.
    Our schools have many students with different backgrounds, different home lives, and different abilities, and they’re all held to the same standard. Some students have a great balance of support systems at home and at school to help. Some don’t. By giving schools this label, the state is asking that we “focus” part of our attention on these schools to increase achievement for all students of all abilities. That’s just what we’ll do.
  3. The school is eligible for additional financial help to close the gap.
    Again, from the state guidelines:

“Focus Schools will be eligible to apply for grants aimed at dramatically closing the achievement gap. Schools not awarded a competitive grant will be provided state resources to close their achievement gaps.”

The school labels under the new system are much more accurate and provide a fuller picture of a school than the old No Child Left Behind labels. The new labels place the focus on increasing academic performance for our schools’ highest achievers as well as on those who need the most help, so everyone achieves more.

Sincerely,

Your Metro School