Interim Director of Schools Chris Henson addressed an assembled crowd of city, community and business leaders at the annual release of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce Education Report Card on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015.
The following are his unedited remarks.
Thank you, Mayor Barry.
We greatly appreciate the support you continue to show for our schools.
The Director Search Advisory Committee that your office is leading in partnership with the Public Education Foundation is vitally important for the future of our school district.
I’ve said since I stepped into the Interim Director role back in June that I’m happy to serve in this capacity – I’ve done it before – but I’m not interested in the permanent role.
I am, however, extremely interested in seeing our city recruit top-notch candidates. We’ve come a long way in recent years, but we need a visionary leader to carry us forward if we’re going to fulfill our goal of becoming the highest-performing urban school district in the country. And I believe we can.
So again, Mayor Barry – thank you for your leadership during this critical time.
I appreciate the hard work that the Chamber and volunteer committee members put into developing this report each year.
It speaks volumes about our business community that the Chamber has made education its No. 1 priority, and that it invests such a great deal of time and resources into supporting our school district’s continued improvement.
I’m going to respond on behalf of the school district to some of the Report Card recommendations, but I also want to take this opportunity to describe the progress we’re making this school year.
We’re in an interim period…but we’re not standing still.
We have a strategic plan – Education 2018 – that was approved by our Board, and we’re continuing to work toward the goals outlined in that plan.
This plan is centered around personalized learning for our students.
Our school district is diverse, and so too are the needs of the students we serve.
To meet those needs, we have to meet every student where they are, and challenge them with high expectations.
We’re doing this by empowering our principals to be instructional leaders in their buildings.
Personalized learning can’t happen through top-down mandates. It happens when high-quality school leaders – who know their schools and know the needs of their unique student populations – are able to design their own instructional plans.
We’ve empowered our principals to do this in a very real way – by giving them direct control of over half of our school district’s 800-million-dollar budget.
Through student-based budgeting – which went district-wide this year for the first time – schools are given a funding allocation based on the individual needs of the students they serve, and principals are given the flexibility to align their resources to meet those needs.
The Report Card Committee recognized this important step, and I appreciate principal autonomy being included in the list of this year’s commendations.
I won’t address every Report Card Recommendation, but I do want to respond to a couple of them.
First, on the recommendation for “dramatic intervention for all students reading below grade level in the first through third grades”:
As a district, we agree with the committee, that success in elementary school is synonymous with success in reading.
We know that children who lack the ability to read at grade level are likely to face problems in other subjects as they move through their education.
The early years of elementary school are our opportunity to curtail that risk. They are critical years.
We also agree that literacy needs to be an increased area of focus. This has been a point of discussion for the Board, as well.
Academic achievement data from last year point to declining reading levels as a state-wide trend. However, this doesn’t excuse the need for us to focus on changing that trend here at the local level.
Through student-based budgeting, principals can hire staff to support the academic needs of their schools – this includes instructional coaches and literacy coaches, who work with teachers on best practices in the classroom.
As an additional support measure for our lowest-performing schools, we offer elementary schools that rank in the bottom 20% of schools on our Academic Performance Framework, the opportunity to participate in our district reading initiative – called Reading Recovery.
This program was bolstered this year with an additional $1.4 million in funding, thanks to the support of the Mayor’s Office, the Metro Council and our School Board.
Participating schools receive a full-time Reading Recovery teacher, who works with the schools’ lowest-achieving first grade readers.
This program is currently in 20 of our schools.
It’s a short-term, early intervention program, that’s one part of our layered approach to literacy instruction.
Our school district is large, and the need is so great, that we need many layers of literacy intervention in all schools, but especially in our most high-need schools.
Other supports include Reading Interventionists, who support the next tier of low-performing schools – those at risk of falling into the bottom 20%.
We also have a Literacy Partnership with Lipscomb University that provides intensive training to literacy coaches, including some of our English Learner coaches.
This allows us to work on establishing literacy leaders in all schools, which is something we need to do to make the type of impact our district needs in this area.
Improved and expanded literacy resources, and principal training on literacy, are some other tools we’re using to improve reading proficiency with our youngest students.
We’re proud of the work we’re doing in this area, but we know we need to do more.
We’ve targeted our resources to help our lowest-performing schools, but the reality is all schools have some low-performing readers.
Additional funds could support the expansion of this program and broaden the pool of available resources for principals to add literacy supports to their school plans when they see the need.
As another way to boost achievement in these early grades, the Report Card also mentions the importance of aligning pre-K curriculum to the instruction taking place in elementary grades – and we fully agree.
With the federal pre-K grant we were awarded, we have – for the time as a district – provided standardized curriculum for all of our pre-K classrooms. And as a next step in that process, we’ve hired a veteran principal to work on aligning instructional practices from pre-K to third grade.
We’re excited about the benefits we know this work will begin producing very soon.
The other committee recommendation I want to address is the “independent, comprehensive review” of our Human Capital department using HR professionals from some of Nashville’s leading businesses.
As members of the Council of the Great City Schools organization, which represents the largest school districts in the country, we’re able to access the expertise of large urban districts through peer reviews. We’re planning to reach out to them to perform an independent analysis of our HR division.
We agree that teacher recruitment and teacher retention are a challenge for our district – and for all school districts in some regard, as the interest in entering the education field has waned over time.
But we also agree that we have no greater lever to improve student outcomes than having a highly-effective teacher in every classroom, and so the work to attract and retain top teaching talent should consistently be a priority for our district. And it’s appropriately included as a strategy in our district’s strategic plan.
While I support the Report Card Committee’s recommendation, I think it’s important to point out that teacher recruitment and retention is not an issue that one department can solve – because the experiences that our high quality teachers have, that make them love where they work, or choose to leave where they work, are impacted by the school environment, by many different departments, and by the culture of the district as a whole.
Along these lines, we recently completed a Teacher Retention Plan – which was one of the recommendations in the Metro performance audit released at the beginning of the year.
This plan was presented to our School Board at their meeting a week ago.
It was the culmination of four months of research and teacher focus groups by a cross-department work group.
The work group’s own findings were that most teachers who leave Metro Schools leave for personal reasons – that accounts for half of our attrition, according to exit surveys.
But the next top two reasons were school culture or dissatisfaction with the administration.
We have to remember that not all attrition is bad. We should expect to find dissatisfaction from low-performing teachers, or those who realize teaching in not the profession for them.
But what’s concerning to me is the number of teachers we lose who are top performers – teachers who score a 4 or 5 on their TEAM evaluation. These are the teachers we want to keep.
The teacher retention work group developed a set of recommendations that focus on four big themes:
- Central Office culture
- Principal quality
- Onboarding and teacher induction processes, and
- Elevating great teaching
- We look forward to beginning work on implementing these strategies.
And we agree with the Report Card Committee that there’s still more we can do to improve the structure and practices of our Human Capital department.
Teacher retention is not the only issue we’ve tackled this school year.
Most of you have probably heard the media reports earlier this semester about our bus driver shortage.
We need over 500 full-time drivers to be fully staffed, and we started the school year about 50 drivers short. By October, that number had grown to over 100 vacancies.
The pay we were offering wasn’t competitive in the local market for commercial drivers. On average, we were losing 5 drivers a week to other job opportunities.
Our Transportation department and our Human Capital department came together to solve the problem. We took the time to listen to our bus drivers and study the local job market.
Earlier this month, we rolled out a new pay structure that will allow bus drivers to earn more income as they gain experience.
To me, this was a great example of what can result from collaboration and innovative thinking.
It also highlighted the significance of our support employees.
Whether they’re driving a bus, serving lunch, or assisting in a school’s front office – every Metro Schools employee contributes to our ability to run an effective and efficient school system, and ultimately, give each of our students a great education.
We’re already beginning to plan for next year’s budget, beginning with our capital needs requests.
We opened two new elementary schools this year to address overcrowding.
Relieving overcrowding in our elementary grades and renovating our dated high schools continue to be a primary theme of our capital needs discussions.
We’re unique among urban school systems in that our student population continues to increase, rather than declining. On average, we’ve been growing by an additional 1,500-2,000 students each school year.
I believe that’s indicative of Nashville being a dynamic city, as well as more families recognizing the value of our public schools.
We need to continue to plan for this growth, and that requires significant capital investment every year.
We look forward to engaging with the Mayor’s Office and the Metro Council on this issue as budget planning progresses.
As I said earlier, this may be an interim period, but we’re not standing still.
We’re continuing to implement our strategic plan, solve challenges as they come along, and plan for the future.
When the Board hires our new leader, we’ll be well positioned to take our school district to the next level of success.
Again, I appreciate the Chamber and the Report Card Committee for all of the work that goes into this annual report.
We appreciate the constructive nature of the report, and the support it provides for issues that we agree need to be addressed.
As we do each year, we’ll study these recommendations carefully and work to implement them.