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.

How implementing Common Core State Standards has changed my classroom

by Cicely Woodard, 8th grade math & Honors Algebra I teacher at Rose Park Middle Magnet

Since implementing Common Core State Standards in my middle school mathematics classroom, my role as teacher has changed.  No longer am I the ultimate source of knowledge in the classroom.  Instead I am a facilitator of student-centered, student-led learning.  No longer am I helping students to choose the right answer.  Now I am helping them to develop deep understanding of mathematics that has meaning to their lives.  My expectations are high, and everyday my students are rising to meet those expectations.

The role of my students has changed as well.  In the past, my students were doing math activities just to master concepts.  Now they engage in high level math tasks that require them to think critically about mathematical ideas.  Before my students listened to me explain math concepts and gave some explanations to me.  Now they are participating in deep discussions with their peers in which they must formulate their own understandings, justify their thinking, and critique the reasoning of others.  At one time, my students focused on choosing the right answer on a multiple choice test.  Now they concentrate on learning math that is relevant to their everyday lives and communicating their understanding of that math.

My students are becoming effective communicators and courageous problem solvers who are not afraid to tackle rigorous math tasks.  They have a sincere desire to be successful.  When I see them, I see young people who are one step closer to being ready for life after high school.  They truly are becoming prepared for college and the workforce.  I attribute all of these positive changes to the implementation of Common Core State Standards in my classroom.

Learn more about Common Core State Standards & PARCC Testing:

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.

Myth vs. Fact: Building a new school for Antioch

MYTH
There are no elementary age students in the area.

FACTS
Lakeview and Thomas Edison Elementary Schools are overcrowded. Right now Lakeview serves nearly 900 students in a building meant for 650. Overcrowded schools mean portables, large classes and increased difficulty serving students in a building and grounds designed for fewer children.

There’s no denying it. These schools are packed to the rafters and need relief. On top of that, the Antioch area is the fastest growing in the city. We currently have six projects in the planning stages for adding classrooms to this area of Davidson County, and the demand keeps growing.

The need is clearly there, but what about this specific school? What sort of impact would it have?

In the proposed (not final) zone for a new elementary school on Smith Springs Road, there are 400 elementary age students currently attending Lakeview and Thomas Edison. That doesn’t count students in optional schools or students who will reach elementary age before the school is built.

The immediate impact of a new school opening right now on Smith Springs Road would be 400 fewer students at Lakeview and Thomas Edison. In the two years it would take for the school to open, that number will be much larger.

Ask teachers at Lakeview or Edison and they will tell you: that means welcome and sweet relief from a serious overcrowding issue.

MYTH
The school would cause major traffic problems on Smith Springs Road.

FACTS
We never build or renovate or expand without considering the impact on traffic. We commissioned a traffic study from an independent civil engineer who graded different areas of Smith Springs Road an A-F scale. Separate grades are given for different times of day to give a complete picture of traffic throughout the day.

As it is now, the road rates A’s and B’s. There is one C, given to the intersection at Smith Springs and Anderson Road during morning rush hour.

Existing Traffic Study - Resized

Looking into the future when an elementary school sits on the property, traffic doesn’t look much different. There are a few more areas rated C, but added delays would not be significant.

Projected Traffic Study - Resized

Any development on this property would have an impact on traffic. It’s a large piece of land with just two houses on it. No matter what this land becomes in the future, it will bring more traffic with it. But we believe strongly in respecting and enhancing the neighborhoods we serve. We want to minimize the impact. That’s why our plan calls for installing turn lanes in front of each school entrance. We also plan to build sidewalks all along the property line on Smith Springs Road.

Ordinarily we would connect those sidewalks with the city sidewalk system, but there are no city sidewalks in this neighborhood. The Metro Planning Commission has recommended sidewalks be installed on Smith Springs Road. That recommendation is before the Metro Council right now.

MYTH
There are other properties better suited for a new school.

FACTS
There aren’t. This is the best available property for our needs. Here’s why.

Picking a site for a new school is a long and complex process. A lot of thought goes into choosing just the right spot. The property on Smith Springs Road fits several key criteria for a new school:

  1. It sits in the middle of a high-need area. We need more classrooms in this area, and this site is well suited to provide them.
  2. It’s available. This is surprisingly important. In an area that’s seeing a lot of development (like Antioch), it can sometimes be tough to find an available property at the right price.
  3. It’s already well-suited for construction. We need our property to be relatively flat and easily accessible to families. This property isn’t filled with hills and rises. In other words, it won’t require a million dollars worth of digging before construction can begin.
  4. It’s in close proximity to all needed utilities. This includes water and sewer, which can be expensive if not already present. It also comes with the needed water pressure for fire services, which can also be expensive to make from scratch.

There was one other piece of property on Smith Springs Road that looked promising, but it was much smaller and would have been more difficult and costly to develop.

Some have suggested the former Starwood site as a perfect location for an elementary school. In theory this isn’t a bad idea. But in reality it’s a long way from ideal.

To start with, that property is directly across the street from Mt. View Elementary School. It doesn’t make sense to build one elementary school right next to another one. How do you draw the zones? Why build a new school where one exists already? In addition, it’s too far away from where it’s needed most: Priest Lake.

We didn’t make this choice lightly. School site selection is a long and involved process that looks a lot of different factors. This property on Smith Spring Road checked off all of those factors better than any available property in the area.

MYTH
New schools would reduce property values.

FACTS
New schools on Smith Springs Road would add public green space, community meeting space, ball fields and playgrounds to the neighborhood. They would also bring high-quality education to the neighborhood in brand new facilities.

Neighborhood schools add value to their communities.

MYTH
Metro Parks wants to buy the property for a new public park, but can’t because we want to build a school.

FACTS
This is not true.

While Metro Parks officials expressed interest in the property years ago, they currently have no plans to pursue it. Parks Director Tommy Lynch personally assured us of this fact. Any rumor to the contrary is completely untrue.

MYTH
This decision was made with no community input or consultation with the city.

FACTS
There were several community meetings when the district developed its 10-year student assignment plan for the area, which was approved in 2010. See the website for more information in Spanish and English.

Our planning teams met with the Planning Commission more than a year ago to review this specific site. They have also met with Metro Public Works to look at the plan. The appropriate parties were consulted at every stage of the planning process and will continue to be.

Our Board members have held two public community meetings on this issue open to all neighbors and Council Members.

MYTH
We want to immediately build two schools – one elementary and one middle.

FACTS
Our immediate plans call for a new elementary school. The Antioch area badly needs a new middle school, as well, but that is not in our immediate plans.

We do plan to work with Metro Public Works to address neighborhood infrastructure needs in anticipation of a new middle school in the future.

The property is well suited for both an elementary and a middle school. We prefer to buy property that can serve both tiers, as we have done for A.Z. Kelley Elementary / Thurgood Marshall Middle and Shayne Elementary / Oliver Middle.

Rumor Control: Metro Says Student Can’t Slack Off With New Grading Policy – NewsChannel5.com

This piece from Aundrea Cline-Thomas at News Channel 5 sums up the new middle school grading policy pretty well.

Good grades used to be easier to come by.

“In the past maybe some of our grading practices inadvertently kind of made some grades a little bit invalid,” DuPont Hadley Middle School teacher Jennie Presson explained.

Assignments for extra credit would inflate the grades and could be a crutch especially for struggling students.

“Under the new policy students grades will be a really really accurate reflection of their level of understanding,” Presson added.

“It is a culture shift and we know it’s going to take some time,” Dr. Lora Hall, Associate Superintendent of Middle Schools said.

Full story:
Metro Says Student Can’t Slack Off With New Grading Policy – NewsChannel5.com | Nashville News, Weather & Sports.