What can Alan Coverstone learn about school culture from elementary students?

by Gay Burden, Manager of Innovation Design

We’ve heard it repeatedly: Students want more voice in school decisions and policy. And as we work to speed up our progress and improvements, they will definitely be heard.

Our partners at Tribal Education were the latest to bring this to our attention as they reviewed 34 of our low performing schools. They spoke extensively with students, teachers, and parents to find out what each group needs and what will help our schools serve them better.

As we looked over their reports and wrote up plans for improvement, Alan’s Lunch Bunch was born. This is a venue to give students a greater voice in their schools. Alan Coverstone, Executive Director of Innovation, sits down with a group of randomly selected students at one of our schools from the Innovation Cluster just to talk about how things are going.

So what would students do with a magic wand to create a perfect school? Every Lunch Bunch goes in a different direction. Sometimes they talk about changes to instruction, other times they talk about changes in the school culture.

This week at Napier Enhanced Option Elementary School students talked about their principal, their goals this year and what they would do if they were principal for a day.

Here are just a few things the students shared with Alan:

  • “He (Dr. Ronald Powe) is nice to us and helps us when we need it so we can learn more so we can grow up to be like him and be a principal.”
  • “When others put us down, he picks us up.”
  • “My goal is to make graduation.”
  • “My sight words are so easy, now I am ready to read real books.”
  • “If I were principal, I would compliment all of the teachers because they help all of us do the best.”

Alan learns quite a bit about the culture from each Lunch bunch.  At Napier Elementary, Alan was struck by the strong and growing relationships between the adults and students.

“It was fun to see the students excited about their school and learning,” he said, “particularly the admiration the students, teachers and staff have for the principal. Dr. Powe does a great job at making everyone feel they are contributing to the success of Napier.”

Interviewing students to get ideas about what is working or not working in a school is a great way to learn their perspectives. It is also a great way to generate ideas for new strategies or fresh approaches to initiatives focused on student learning. Ultimately, the Lunch Bunch is about building a positive community culture in our schools.

Pictures from Alan’s lunch at Napier Elementary:

Litton Middle School’s new renovations and new attitude serve its East Nashville neighborhood

Apply to Litton Middle School

UPDATE: The official dedication of the new Isaac Litton Middle school brought out Rep. Jim Cooper, Mayor Karl Dean, Councilman Anthony Davis, and more! See a slideshow of photos from the ribbon cutting below.


Original post:
When I arrived at the newly renovated Isaac Litton Middle School, principal Tracy Bruno was fleeing the spray of a lawn sprinkler deployed to help the parched and newly planted landscaping. The grass may not have been prepared for the drought, but the school is prepared for more students and a higher profile in its East Nashville neighborhood.

“We are the epitome of a neighborhood school, right here in the middle of all these houses,” Bruno told me. And it’s true. Litton sits nestled between small, residential streets like Winding Way and Littonwood Drive right off Gallatin Pike.

The renovations that have taken place over the last year and a half have transformed the school into a building that looks practically new – and that’s because a lot of it is. The main office has been expanded. The library has a massive bank of new windows opening to the front lawn. The cafeteria is brand new and full of natural light. And the gym – once completely disconnected from the main building – has now been built out with new entrances, a new concession stand, and a host of new classrooms underneath it for fifth grade and related arts classes.

The rest of the building has been so spruced up, refinished, and painted that there is no disconnect between old and new. It all feels new to 2012. Just in time, too, because Bruno and his faculty have made it their mission to make Litton the neighborhood middle school in East Nashville.

“You can’t just sit around in your office and wait for kids to come to your school. You have to go out there and market your school and sell it, tell people the great things that are going on at your school because nobody’s going to do it for you.”

One of those great things happening at Litton is a strong focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education. With new computers and projectors in every classroom, multiple iPad and netbook carts, and thousands of dollars in new STEM technology at the ready, Litton will prepare students to head right into Stratford STEM Magnet High School – another East Nashville neighborhood institution.

And Bruno’s mission to market his school isn’t self-serving. He sees in Litton the opportunity to bolster the sense of community that draws many people to East Nashville in the first place. He and his teachers have been working hard for the last year to make that happen, organizing events at feeder schools like Dan Mills Elementary and even going door-to-door to introduce themselves and build support for their school.

Fifth grade teacher Ashley Croft worked with the Martha O’Bryan Center on the Promise Neighborhood survey and used the opportunity to start building one-on-one relationships with the community.

“The whole idea was for parents and the community members to know that the teachers and the staff here care about the community,” Croft said. “And so showing up at their door for this survey – not even directly representing the school, but just for building community – I think it meant a lot to some parents.”

Bruno sees Litton’s zoned population, neighborhood placement, and STEM focus as advantages in an area filled with school options. Students in Litton’s neighborhood can choose among magnets, charters, and private schools. That’s a lot of competition in such a tight radius. But he sees plenty of reasons for parents to choose Litton.

“They live around the school. There’s familiarity. You have kids down the street that go to the same school your kids do. It’s just more of a community feel.” Indeed, listening to Bruno talk about what a neighborhood school can offer, he sounds a bit like a principal from a different era, working next to a doctor who makes house calls and a butter and egg delivery truck.

“I have no problem making a visit to a child’s house. I’ve had parents before who would call and say ‘Hey, my child missed the bus. I can’t get them there’ and I’ll go pick them up. It’s not a big thing, but the parents appreciate it. It could be a child who just doesn’t want to go to school. I will go to your house and talk to your child and tell them they need to go to school because sometimes parents need that help.”

And he expects a bit of reciprocity from parents; his open door policy means he is readily available to speak with parents, hear their concerns, and take their suggestions. “It helps the neighborhood take more ownership in the school and feel like they have a bigger part in the school and share as a stakeholder in the school.”

If Litton is the “epitome of a neighborhood school,” as Bruno boasts, then Bruno himself is the epitome of a great neighborhood principal, just like ones found all over Nashville in Metro’s other neighborhood schools. Principals from Joelton Elementary to Oliver Middle, Hermitage Elementary to Hillwood High build their schools the same way: to serve as resources and points of pride for their communities. Neighbors come to Overton football games donned head to toe in red and black. Long lines of early arriving parents gather outside Lakeview Elementary to chat and share stories from the school and the neighborhood.

That’s because our neighborhood schools are the neighborhoods they serve. Students live down the street, families play on the playgrounds, and school faculty and staff strive to better their communities through education.

Tracy Bruno can already see the change happening. “We have volunteers who were asking for things to do. That never happened three years previous. We had people at the doors asking, ‘What can I do to help Isaac Litton Middle School?’ That is a huge step in the right direction.”

With the new renovations, Litton has room to grow. And Bruno plans to fill it up.

“I want to see every classroom in this building filled with neighborhood kids. And I believe we can get there. There are enough students in East Nashville, in our cluster, in our zone, to fill this school up.”
His goal is to build a future for Litton where the young families now populating East Nashville feel great about sending their children there.

“I had a teacher in here last Monday who said ‘I will do whatever it takes to make my kids successful this year.’ When you have that kind of enthusiasm, the sky’s the limit.”

Keeping Metro Schools Cool: A ride-along with air conditioner repair

It’s seven a.m. and trucks are already rolling out onto Murfreesboro Road, headed to schools with air conditioning problems. The storm the previous night knocked out the A/C at twelve schools, and with classrooms nearly ready to receive teachers, there are several other jobs waiting, too.

Richard Hill and his ride.

Richard Hill, who has been working with the Metro Schools HVAC team for 34 years, drives one of those trucks. He knows a lot about heating and air and has seen a lot of change in his department, his schools, and the district. His father was a plumbing foreman for Nashville Public Schools starting in the 1950s – long before “Metro” even came into the picture.

He’s headed to Julia Green Elementary School, where four A/C problems were reported that very morning. Hill has to be versatile. He’s staring at four classrooms with three different problems and three different types of units.

Hill works as part of a team, but is personally responsible for 11 schools. In all there are 14 techs like him, six more dedicated to changing air filters, two mechanics for window units, three coordinators, and two more employees to run the energy management system. That’s 27 people responsible for heating and cooling more than 13 million square feet of occupied space, changing 50,000 air filters every year, and maintaining an average of 100 pieces of HVAC equipment at every campus.

A chain reaction led to a busted fan motor.

Job number one at Julia Green is a large outside unit used for a classroom and a hallway. He opens the panel to reveal a jumble of wires, circuit boards, coils, hoses, and tanks. The problem is clear: a busted bracket led to a busted fan blade and eventually a busted fan motor. It can’t be fixed today; parts have to be ordered and pieces taken apart. With such a complicated machine, when one part breaks, others are likely to follow.

The HVAC shop runs as its own well-oiled machine with dozens of moving parts, and work orders are run through a strict priority system. First, above all else, is Harris-Hillman School. Any big problem for the exceptional education students at Harris-Hillman, many of whom are medically fragile, immediately becomes priority number one. Second are elementary schools, because younger children are much more sensitive to temperature changes. Middle and high schools rank third and fourth, respectively. They also look at the size of the issue to determine priority, with widespread problems coming out ahead of single classroom issues.

You’ll notice the offices at Bransford Avenue are not on the priority list.

Urgent calls pop up, too. Sometimes whole schools lose heat or leaks cause standing water. Those hazards are treated as emergencies, and can throw a wrench into addressing other jobs.

Hill searches for the source of a water leak.

Job number two at Julia Green is a leaky A/C unit inside a classroom. A small puddle of water has collected underneath. Hill lies down on the floor to get a good look at the cause. He can’t get to the problem without removing the whole unit from the wall. Another seemingly simple problem with a complicated solution.

With 180 buildings of varied ages, the HVAC units are widely varied, too. Renovations at Julia Green led to newer units being installed alongside older ones of completely different types. That’s typical of schools across the district. But Hill and the other techs have the know-how fix them all. They work on circulating pumps, spray pumps, cooling towers, boilers, chillers, gas packs, heat pumps, VRT units and VRV units. They replace parts and fix units in closets, in classrooms, in ceilings, in basements, on grass, and on rooftops. They know their stuff.

Job number three is a non-starter. Floor waxing is in progress and Richard doesn’t want to disrupt the work or risk messing it up.

He’s used to that, though, and takes care not to upset normal operation of the school, even stopping to pick up bits of leaves he’s tracked in from outside. He often has to work around class schedules when on the job. Teachers may want the heat or air fixed right away, but they also don’t want loud vacuum pumps to run while they’re trying to teach or groups of kindergarteners distracted by ladders reaching up into the ceiling. That’s why Hill likes closet units – he can work all day long and not interrupt instruction. He always takes instruction into account.

Hill uses his hands and ears to find the problem.

Job number four is a closet unit. He suspects there’s a leaky hose, so he feels around and listens carefully for escaping and harmless nitrogen gas. Touch and hearing are simple enough tools for a man with decades of experience.

For the past 18 months, all school maintenance requests have been made through a computerized system called ‘SchoolDude,’ which automates and streamlines the process. When a work request is made, it’s automatically sent to the relevant repair department, prioritized, and marked ‘In Progress.’ Foremen know exactly what’s going on, who’s working on what, and how many orders each school has made – ever. Request records are not erased. That way, as HVAC foreman Mike Porter puts it, “If we have an on-going issue with one particular classroom, I can do a report and see exactly what’s going on.”

That improved communication with schools helps ease the repair process and ease the nerves of teachers, principals, and parents waiting for a repair.

A reminder of why they do what they do.

No one takes this job lightly. There are stats posted on the wall of the HVAC offices showing air conditioning to be the #1 building condition to affect student achievement. The men of the HVAC crew work hard and work often – there’s even one man each week designated for 24-hour on-call duty. But they can’t control the weather and they can’t stop the requests from coming in.

“During the year, you can say we average 25-30 work orders a day,” Porter says. “When school gets ready to start, when everybody comes back in, when kids start, we’ll average 75-80 work orders a day.

“I really, truly try to do 24-hour service, but sometimes it’s just not possible. It’s just not feasible all the time.”

When it gets hot, systems work harder than normal, and some may not be big enough to handle extreme heat. That can lead to breakdowns or freeze ups. More break downs means more requests, which can mean slower service.

But no one is forgotten. All Mike Porter, Richard Hill, and the rest of the team ask for is patience while they work their way through dozens of tickets.

“People gotta realize some of this equipment is 35 years old,” Porter says. “Harris-Hillman is a perfect example. The chiller that runs that school is 35 years old. It’s set for replacement this year, finally. That capital money we got – it helps. It really does help. To be able to put that money out there, where it needs to be in schools like Harris-Hillman is a huge help. Huge help.”

There are only so many HVAC repairmen to go around, but they do get around and they never lose focus on why they do what they do. As Porter puts it, “The whole reason why we’re here and why any of us has a job is for the students.”

See more photos of HVAC repair work

Mayor Dean, Dr. Register show us why Southeast Davidson County schools need capital improvements

Director of Schools Dr. Jesse Register took Mayor Karl Dean and other city and district officials on a tour of a few of the schools in Southeast Davidson County that would receive much needed renovations and expansions under the $100 million capital improvement plan for MNPS.
Capital Improvements Map
The first stop was Oliver Middle School, just eight years old but already 100 students over capacity and in need of more classrooms. The plan for Oliver is to add 12 classrooms to replace its seven portables currently housing sixth grade classes, art, chorus, and Encore.

The story was the same at nearby A.Z. Kelley Elementary: built in 2006, Kelley is 100 students over capacity and in need of ten new classrooms. Parents present at the tour told reporters they support the Mayor’s plan to for a property tax adjustment in order to pay for expansions at this school and others. The Cane Ridge and Antioch areas are among the fastest growing in the county, and schools need to expand along with the population.

While at A.Z. Kelley, Mayor Dean and Dr. Register joined students for lunch in the cafeteria.

The tour then took them to Antioch Middle School. Antioch is in dire need of improvements and renovations. The HVAC, lighting, electrical, and plumbing systems all need major upgrades. Many of the windows are original to the building – from 1948 – and are drafty and crumbling at the edges. The school also needs new flooring in many areas, a new roof, adjustments to ceiling height, and a litany of other repairs and upgrades.

The last stop was Norman Binkley Elementary, where teachers have named a section of the campus “Portable City” because of the 11 portables that house the entire fourth grade class, art and music. The main building at Norman Binkley is also in need of repairs, including replacing the original steam radiators used for heat.

These four schools are among the ten schools that would receive significant capital investment under the Mayor’s budget proposal. The plan also includes money to purchase land for new elementary and middle schools in Southeast Nashville.

How are capital projects chosen and prioritized?

In order to see this plan pass, the Metro Council must pass the budget and an adjustment to the county’s property tax. To voice your opinion on this issue, contact your Council Member.

Below is a detailed list and cost of the projects planned for these four schools. 


Henry Oliver Middle School
($3.6 million) 

6211 Nolensville Road, Nashville
Original Construction: 2004 (expansion needed due to growth in zone)
Enrollment: 804  Capacity: 707
Grades Served: 5-8

  • This project includes new construction for an additional 12 classrooms and minor revisions to the existing building at the location of the addition.
  • Oliver Middle has seven portables, which house sixth-grade classrooms, Arts classes, the Chorus program, and the high-academic program called Encore.

A.Z. Kelley Elementary School
($2.65 million) 

5834 Pettus Road, Antioch
Original Construction: 2006 (expansion needed due to growth in zone)
Enrollment: 561  Capacity: 665
Grades Served: PK-4

  • This project includes new construction for an additional 10 classrooms and minor revisions to the existing building at the location of the addition.
  • A.Z. Kelley Elementary has four portables. In past years, it has had as many as 10, and due to growth in zone, will likely need additional portables next year.

Antioch Middle School
($11 million) 

5050 Blue Hole Road, Antioch
Oldest remaining construction: 1948; additions 1950, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1959, 1963, 1969, 1972; renovation 1999
Enrollment: 461
Grades Served: 5-8

  • Antioch Middle has six portables.
  • Renovation of Antioch Middle would include
    • new finishes – paint, ceilings, floorings
    • major upgrade to HVAC and improvements to electrical, lighting and plumbing systems
    • replace exterior windows
    • new entry vestibule at main entrance
    • revised kitchen area
    • revised administrative area
    • repair or replace roof
    • modify drive to separate car and bus traffic
    • comply with ADA, current building codes and LEED

Norman Binkley Elementary School
($6.5 million)

4700 West Longdale Drive, Nashville
Original Construction: 1960; additions 1961, 1963; 2007
Enrollment: 475  Capacity: 356
Grades Served: PK-4

  • Norman Binkley Elementary currently has 11 portables, which house the fourth grade class, Art, and Music
  • Renovation to Norman Binkley Elementary would include:
    • New construction to provide for improved art, music, library, and kitchen spaces
    • New construction to provide for improved administrative spaces
    • New finishes, paint, ceilings, flooring
    • Major upgrade to HVAC (replace original steam radiators) and improvements to electrical, lighting and plumbing systems.
    • Replace exterior windows
    • New entry vestibule at main entrance
    • Site lighting upgrades.
    • Comply with ADA (repair or replace chair lift), current building codes and LEED.