By Reginald Stuart
NASHVILLE, TN — High school graduation tassels will be flying all over the region this month and next as seniors cheer their success while proudly walking with diplomas in hand and decades of memories in mind. The next chapter of their lives is set to begin with this major milestone achieved.
For Metro Nashville Public School Superintendent Dr. Shawn Joseph and his team, graduation celebration also means time to shift into high gear preparing for the start of the next school year. He knows already that the city will approve something akin to a ‘status quo’ budget for the coming fiscal year, starting July 1.
That means its’ not likely to allocate much more than the $924 million currently spent to help educate the city’s estimated 86,000 children enrolled in grades one through 12. The budget, currently being debated by the city council and expected to be finalized in late June, will be a lot less than the school board had asked for earlier this spring and will require some paring of the proposed budget for hiring, travel and new initiatives, Dr. Joseph says.
The superintendent’s ambitious efforts to get a meaningful pay raise for teachers and their co-horts who keep school running, appears on hold, as do several other plans he had envisioned earlier in the year for next school year.
Still, Dr. Joseph remains focused on the larger goals he faces as chief of one of the largest public school systems in the nation.
“Right now, too many kids leave us ill prepared,” said Dr. Joseph, the 43-year-old superintendent who came to the Nashville system some 20 months ago. “That’s something we have declared war on,” he said, explaining that school system internal research shows three of every four students are not reading a grade level.
Dr. Joseph’s emphasis in making sure early grade students read and comprehend well was among a wide range of subjects he discussed briefly during an interview for `Trending With the Tribune,” the newspaper’s Web-tv interview program.
During the interview, Dr. Joseph expressed delight over the chance to run Nashville’s schools system, had high marks for his 40 something peer Mayor David Briley, calling him a “strong supporter of public schools..a friend and confidant,” and spoke optimistically about the efforts to get more children to graduate high school and get some additional training so they can get jobs in the “legal” economy.
On the topic of budget, Dr. Joseph acknowledged the stressful relationship between school system employees and legislative leaders over staff compensation. He said he did not see Nashville joining the list of cities faced with a teacher and school system employee strike over compensation issues.
“Our teachers know we are fighting for them,” said Dr. Joseph. The entry level pay for teachers –approximately $43,000 — is competitive, he said. The issue is over the long term, he said, as teachers with tenure don’t do as well.
He said the school system has done a compensation study “to figure what we can do to have a long term strategy to be competitive. “Our challenge is over time,” he said. “We don’t keep pace as we should and could.”
Having spent most of his time working for the larger Montgomery County, Maryland School System, then a short stint in the neighboring Prince George’s County system, both adjacent to Washington, D.C., Dr. Joseph knows what ethnic diversity is and how to help that characteristic play to a system’s favor.
“We are extremely diverse,” Dr. Joseph said, as he ticket off a major breakdown of enrollment by ethnic group to illustrate his point. Today, as he illuminated his point, no one ethnic group constitutes a majority of the system’s students.
That also helps explain why he was so direct and absolute when asked about President Trump’s suggestion that school teachers be armed with weapons to help deter would be law breakers from picking schools as an easy target.
“Teachers have a lot on their plates as it is,” said Dr. Joseph, adding the system already has police officers in middle and high schools when needed. “We should leave that job to them,” he said, again standing firm in his opposition to arming teachers.
Diversity aside, he goes back to the system’s need to get students in school, educated through school and out of it.
“I continue to focus on raising expectations and focusing on getting our children to read at grade level by third grade,,” said Dr. Joseph. “It’s not a school system issue. It’s a community issue.”
He embraces the state’s enhanced efforts to help poor students stay on track to get as prepared for participating in the adult work force as possible.
Starting next fall, Metro Schools will start an early college program with Nashville State Community College, he said. It will involve 100 students who earn their high school diploma and a two year associate arts degree (equivalent to the first two years of college). That diploma is transferrable to a four-year institution to earn a bachelor’s degree or it can be used to get certification in a particular skill, said Dr. Joseph. An added incentive, he added, is all certification costs are covered, if the student choses to study for a trade certification.
“If we don’t help our kids through the mainstream economy, they will go into the illegal economy,” said Dr. Joseph. “We want to give our kids the competitive edge.”