NASHVILLE, TN — Many school districts across the nation are feeling the squeeze that smaller budgets and higher expectations for achievement are placing on their already challenged learning environments. While there is a constant push to do more with less, committed board members, administrators and teachers continue to fight through those challenges to remain focused on the goal of elevating student achievement.
This scenario is a strikingly familiar one for Metro Nashville Public Schools, a chronically underfunded district tasked with the expectations of meeting rigorous state and national achievement standards despite scarcity in resources. Out of thousands of school districts across the nation, MNPS stands as the 41st largest educating 86,000 students from diverse communities. Like other large districts, the directive to meet growing educational demands has become a stark reality, even when the funding does not compliment this top priority.
Tyese Hunter, who represents District 6 and serves as the Metropolitan Nashville Board of Education Budget and Finance Committee chair, said although it was a difficult budget process this year, the misperception of all doom-and-gloom is inaccurate. She said while the decrease in funding is significant, the board was diligent in laser-focusing on priorities to have the greatest impact for all students.
“Despite what some have communicated, a lot of progress was made in this budget, even with all its challenges,” Hunter said. “We engaged in some very tough conversations and worked really hard to determine which priorities would be most impactful to students and families.”
She added, “Leadership is about meeting the tough challenges and not allowing a few vocal voices to get in the way of progress. There were some very brave conversations this year around equity across our district, and I commend my board colleagues for being courageous enough to address this critical issue by voting for a budget that prioritized students who have been underserved for decades.”
In a tight budget year, the district looked at how it could provide its poorest and neediest schools with a boost through how it allocated its Title I funds. Title I funds are dollars given to school districts by the Federal government to help poor students perform better in schools. The Board voted 7-2 for a budget that provided equity and access to some of the district’s most vulnerable students, which led to a total of $7.2 million additional dollars being allocated to schools with $5.2 million being given to special education and $2 million for English Language Learners. Thanks to the Metro Council, an additional $2 million was provided to increase paraeducator pay and to ensure all students can take and earn credit for advanced coursework at the high school level like Advanced Placement courses, International Baccalaureate courses, and dual credit courses through Nashville State Community College, as well as industry certifications – for free. Over the past two years, the district has allocated an additional $14 million directly to schools.
These bold moves coupled with the work the Board of Education approved last year providing resources to ensure each elementary and middle school had Encore, which is offered through Gifted and Talented programs, and teachers and qualified literacy experts in every building. New literacy curriculum in all schools will ensure that Metro Nashville Public Schools is serving the needs of all students without taking anything away from all students.
“We want to make sure all students, regardless of their academic status and background, are not left behind,” said Dr. Shawn Joseph, director of schools. “Our most accelerated learners are not getting short-changed because we are addressing the needs of special education and ELL learners. We believe we can, and we will, provide equitable services across this district that ensures every single child’s educational needs are met.”
Hunter, who represents one of the city’s most diverse school populations, said Metro Schools has made strides over the past two years. Reading and math scores are up, ACT scores are moving in the right direction with more students taking the test, more are taking and passing AP and IB tests, and additional funds toward special education, gifted and talented services, and English Language services are areas that are being addressed.
“As budget chair this year, we had a hard conversation about equity in this district. We sent more money to our neediest schools and held 10 community budget meetings to ensure we received input and concern from parents and the community,” Hunter said. “This is unprecedented and resulted in nearly every cluster receiving an increase in funding over the previous year.”
Reports from organizations such as the Nashville Public Education Foundation and the Nashville Chamber of Commerce link Nashville’s future to its success with education. How the city invests in this key economic driver which is tied directly to job creation and global competitiveness will determine its ability to hold on to the “it-city” persona that has caught fire across the country. According to the U.S. Department of Education, increasing educational attainment by a single grade level boosts lifetime income, is a potent weapon against poverty and illiteracy, shapes active citizens, and builds safer, stronger and healthier communities, among other benefits.
“Education is an investment, and while MNPS did not receive the level of funding we wanted from the city, we expect this district’s administration to ensure the funds we have been provided are put to good use,” Hunter said. “Further, as we move ahead, it is important that we continue to exhibit this type of courage and decision making on the board, and to keep at the forefront what is best for children over politics.”