Dr. Shawn Joseph, director of Metro Nashville Public Schools, confers with some of the people who also attended Les Gemmes’ 12th Annual Literary Luncheon March 16 in the Airport Marriott Hotel. Photo by Clint Confehr

By Clint Confehr

NASHVILLE, TN — Metro Nashville Public Schools Director Dr. Shawn Joseph spoke March 16 in the Airport Marriott Hotel where Les Gemmes, Inc., held its 12th Annual Literary Luncheon.

Dr. Joseph spoke of a place where everyone in the community prospered. “Wakanda” may be known best as the primary place for the hit movie “Black Panther,” but for metro’s schools’ director, it’s how he saw Nashville, according to the speech he named “Fighting for Equity.”

Les Gemmes (the Jewels) is a non-profit organization founded in 1955 in Norfolk, Va., by four ladies who grew up as childhood friends. After attending their Historically Black Colleges and Universities of choice, they started Les Gemmes in the interest of socializing and monetary saving to ultimately affect positive change. Les Gemmes was incorporated in 1968.

See an overview news report in The Tennessee Tribune to read more about the 12th Annual Literary Luncheon held in Nashville.

Dr. Joseph provided the following text of his speech. It follows, verbatim.

A year ago, at the Urban League’s 50th Anniversary, I declared that Nashville had the potential to be a real life “Wakanda” — a place where everyone in the community prospered. We have many of the elements necessary:
We are one of the richest cities in the country.
We have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country.
We are extremely diverse—Our school system for example, is 43% African American, 29% White, and 25% Latino.

In general, we have some of the nicest people I have ever met in this country and Southern hospitality is always on display.

However, in your opinion, what is the one ingredient that is missing? What’s the one thing that Nashville is missing? Take a moment and talk about it at your tables.

The answer: The courage to be your brother’s keeper.
In 1st Peter, Chapter 4, Verse 10, we are called to use our gifts to serve others as faithful stewards of God’s grace. In that text, it speaks more to spiritual gifts like prophecy and healing, but more concretely, it’s about being a blessing others.
Now it’s one thing to say we care about our brothers and sisters, but it’s another thing to live our creed.

Nashville, I ask us, so how are we living? Can we look beyond our middle class and upper middle class lifestyles to see that there are thousands amongst us who do not prosper? More importantly, do we see that are children are not prospering, and if we see it, what are we doing about it?

Almost three years ago, when I came into this district, I saw challenges. It struck me that in a city that is extremely wealthy, over 70% of our children in public schools lived in poverty. 3 out of 4 children were not reading on grade level and no one was talking about it. I saw a work force that did not reflect the diversity of our children, especially in executive leadership positions. And I did not see a clear plan to move things forward. Yes, we had our share of challenges. And while my team understood this, we chose to look at this as an awesome opportunity to change things to help children be successful.
Make no mistake – our children have been and will always be my first priority. Adults matter, but children matter more to me. Children deserve us to work with a sense of urgency and with a commitment to excellence every day. And, as adults, when we see inequities between the performance of children, whether it be by race, socio-economic status, or gender, we must call it out and demand equity and excellence; not for some, but for all.

I have found that leading for equity is tough for anyone, but it is particularly difficult if you are a person of color. When I talk about equity, I mean finding a way to give people what they need to be successful. It’s the understanding that someone may need more love than someone else. That love may manifest itself in more time, more money, or more resource. Because this concept requires a re-distribution of resources, more often than not, people will push back on you and you will quickly be blamed for generations of failure out of the rage of those who are feeling a sense of loss that will be associated with change. I have learned many lessons about how to approach equity work as a result of my experience here in Nashville. One of the biggest learnings is that a strong multi-ethnic coalition built from the ground up with parents, teachers, and students being empowered to share their experiences and calling out what is needed must be created to help the establishment understand their political and moral responsibility to so something to help all involved. Leadership with equity is more about the leader cultivating and empowering the voices of others than it is about the leader being heard.

So you may ask, what is going in in Metro Nashville Public Schools because if you are like me and read the newspaper or watch the news, all you hear is about what’s not happening
I am proud to say that the board of education and our administrative team have made some traction. But I am not going to lie either, we have taken some young Mike Tyson-type of hits pushing for equity in this school district. But I don’t regret those blows because I know, in my heart, children deserve and have every right at an equal chance for success.

Here are just a few things we accomplished:
We boldly looked at Title I funds and made sure that our poorest schools had the resources needed to better help and support their students.

We placed significant emphasis on literacy, which I contend is a civil right. We worked with the Mayor’s office and dozens of non-profits to create the “Blueprint for Early Childhood Success,” an action plan for doubling the number of students reading on grade level by 2025.

We successfully achieved year-one benchmarks in reading, and we also made sure every school had a qualified literacy coach.

Research tells us that children who cannot read are more likely to have trouble finding gainful employment or getting into college. In many instances, they fall into generational poverty and remain disconnected from access to basic needs such as housing and health care.

I am so very thankful to be here to celebrate with you at this Literary Luncheon, and hope that all of you will keep encouraging kids to read. Literacy is the beginning of exposing children to new ideas, new places, and experiences different from their own. It is the gateway to knowledge that can never be taken away from you.

We know that by focusing on early literacy in Metro Schools is paying off because we saw the percentage of students meeting or exceeding growth expectations for reading across Pre-K through 4th grade grow, especially at the 2nd grade level, which jumped seven percentage points. In addition, we grew faster than any other district across the state in literacy achievement.

So, what else have we done to level the playing field for all students?
We doubled the number of students taking advanced courses in high school, and nearly doubled the number of students taking college entrance and industry certification exams. We saw improvements in the pass rate of students who took industry certifications which jumped from 59 percent to 61 percent. The number of students taking the exams also increased by 70 percent over the previous year. Average ACT scores increased from 18.7 to 18.9, with more students taking the exam. In addition, more students are earning a 21 or higher on the ACT.

We have ensured all students in our elementary and middle schools have access to gifted and talented services by creating the Advanced Academic Resource Teacher position and ensuring all schools have at least a part-time person serving students.

In my first year, the board and our team were able to secure a 3 percent raise and a step increase for hard working employees. And while we were not fully funded by the Mayor and Metro Council to support raises last year, and had to cut $15 million from our budget, we are still fighting the good fight, and will again seek pay raises for all our employees, including a $1 increase for our bus drivers this school year.

We secured $24 million in federal dollars to support the creation of five elementary magnet schools and to provide more socio-emotional support to Pre-K students as well as professional development for arts-related educators.

We developed a strategic plan for the district with clear accountability measures and a new evaluation tool for the Director of Schools. In fact, Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, deemed the evaluation tool one of the most rigorous in the country.

Suspensions are lower than in previous years. We reduced suspensions by 1,782 infractions from 2017 to 2018. And the greatest headway has been made with African-American males, who were being suspended at disproportionate rates.

We established a Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM) focus at 18 middle schools, and ensured that coding is offered in those schools with a reduced technology ratio and more targeted professional development for teachers.

We increased funding for special education services and English Language Learner services by $7.2 million during the 2017-2018 school year.

We established an Early College program for grades 9-12 in collaboration with Nashville State Community College to allow up to 100 students per year to earn a high school diploma and an associate degree. The previous program did not require all students to earn an associate degree, and it did not begin at the 9th grade level.

While this is not inclusive of everything accomplished, I am very proud of the hard work that has taken place to help turn this ship in the right direction. All of this has created new opportunities for all students, particularly those who may not have these opportunities otherwise.
Is there still work to do? Yes. Because in education, there is always work to do. You don’t go into education to get rich, you go into education because you want to make a difference.
As I close, I want to leave you with this…

I encourage you to read the book Savage Inequalities by Jon Kozol and Making the Unequal Metropolis by Ainsley Erickson. The second reference, in particular, will give you context for Metro Nashville Public School’s current challenges with inequity. Challenges that have been pervasive since 1957, the year Nashville develop plans to desegregate schools and it should be noted that it was not until 1971 that plans were actually enacted.

To conclude this amazing literary event with one of my favorite Harlem Renaisannce writes, Langston Hughes, who wrote about the struggles of African Americans in the the mid-part of the 20th century,
Yes, I can tell you that..
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
And I will keep climbing on and keep fighting for our children.
Thank you.

Clint Confehr

Clint Confehr — an American journalist since 1972 — first wrote for The Tennessee Tribune in 1999. His news writing and photography in South Central Tennessee and the Nashville Metropolitan Statistical...