Dr. Shawn Joseph

By Clare Bratten

NASHVILLE, TN — Superintendent of Metro Nashville Public Schools Dr. Shawn Joseph led a presentation to a packed audience of educators, media and parents why some 21 Nashville area schools had been added to the state list of “priority” schools – meaning schools that have fallen below minimum standards on testing results and were a priority for improvement and additional state funding. Most of the low performing schools designated as “priority” were linked to problems of students missing too much school–often because of poverty related issues–no adequate health care, no dental care, not enough clothing or food to eat.  

Dr. Sharon Gentry

Dr. Sharon Gentry, Board Chair, said that many parents of children in her district do not have jobs. 

“Until they get a job–a job–we’re going to have challenges. This situation did not get created overnight. We didn’t create it, but it is ours now to own.” 

Dr. Joseph asked Dr. Lisa Coons, Executive Director of Schools of Innovation, to explain that “priority schools” were those in the bottom 5% and some of the poor performing schools elsewhere in the state had closed which had the effect of landing some Nashville schools in the bottom 5% of the list. Board Chair Sharon Gentry also said that the Board of Education “was not taking off the table” this tactic–closing down under-enrolled schools while it considers how best to use the $3.6 million dollars in Federal grants and additional state funds towards improving the performance of schools (with adequate enrollments) that are ‘priority’ schools.  

Dr. Joseph emphasized that the district’s strategy was successful in moving four of the previous nine schools off the state’s 2015 list. He characterized his approach to improving schools as “research based” in response to a question from a parent from Tusculum Elementary district as to why Reading Readiness Program and other supports had been stopped.  

“I’m a research guy. Some of those programs were not shown to be successful. When it’s not working, we won’t do it. It’s not the program that makes the difference, it’s the people. We need to invest in training, leadership,” Dr. Joseph said. Joseph also said the level of funding coming from the federal grant and state funds were less than the levels he had requested. He said “We’ll still make progress, but it will be slower.”

The strategy that seemed to be most effective was to hire the best teachers, coach teachers, and ensure the curriculum was strong.

“In addition….it was clear that strong community partnerships were significant in helping transform the schools that successfully exited the priority list,” said Dr. Lisa Coons.

MNPS schools that exited priority-designation were Inglewood Elementary School, Napier Elementary School, Pearl-Cohn High School and Whitsitt Elementary School. Of the five remaining schools, two schools – Robert Churchwell Elementary and Buena Vista Elementary – saw growth that moved them off the state priority list but not off the federal-designated Comprehensive Support and Improvement list. The three middle schools remaining on the list faced significant challenges around staffing. 

“The increase in priority schools indicates the need for us, as a district, to place more differentiated resources into our neediest schools; it further speaks to us as a collective community to better provide community-based supports to schools to ensure we can accelerate them,” Joseph said. “The question we must ask ourselves is how do we make all of our schools a priority so that they are all successful.”

The meeting included one success story from a school that had come off the priority list. Justin Uppinghouse, principal of Whitsitt Elementary, explained how things improved.  

“When I first came to the school in 2014 we were in the bottom 1.6% in the state. The problem was that we believed that 98% were better than us. Our students come to school with great challenges. We are working to change the culture and climate of learning for students, families, parents who want to participate in the change. Parents are now proud to be part of the school. We won a Federal magnet school grant to become a priority STEAM school focused on environmental engineering. I see a level of enthusiasm in the school now.”

The sense of urgency from parents and media who wanted to see speedy changes was tempered by an administration that warns against quick fix programs in favor of changes backed by research and data that verify improvement. Dr. Joseph and Board chair Sharon Gentry both emphasized the need of the community to make education a priority – by funding it adequately to hire the best teachers at adequate salaries, engaging parents and getting partnerships in the community from businesses and non-profits.  

Sharon Gentry quoted an African proverb that was more of a warning than the more upbeat “it takes a village to raise a child.”  She quoted the proverb “The village that does not support the child will one day see him return to burn it down to feel its warmth.”