NASHVILLE, TN — As a Lincoln University student tutor, Shawn Joseph met an 11th grader from Philadelphia unable to read. “I couldn’t understand how in America, we couldn’t allow any child, not to be able to read, especially an African American boy. So I walked into my junior year and totally switched my major from Biology to English Education.“
The first in his family to graduate from high school, Joseph changed his career choice from doctor to educator. “I came from a house where there was lots of love, but there wasn’t push. It wasn’t until I got to Lincoln University that I got pushed.”
That passion – and push, turned him into English teacher, reading specialist, English department chair, dean of students, assistant principal, a 2009 Maryland Middle School Principal of the Year, director of school performance, a rural school district superintendent, a deputy superintendent in Prince George County, the 17th largest district in the U.S., and now superintendent of Metro Nashville Public Schools.
With a School Board charge to “move with a sense of urgency”’ he’s working to make MNPS the fastest improving urban district in the country.
Starting ahead of contract schedule, he drew criticism for a car driver and administration salaries. “In my first month we hired 22 principals, had dozens of central of- fice staff vacancies. We had hundreds of teachers that needed to be hired.” He attended 179 meetings in his first 100 days. He says it’s a question of efficiency in handling emails, calls, meetings and actions to guide an 800 mil- lion system with 10,000 employees.
“Parents in this community really care about education,” He said of 2,400 families, community members and staff who attended education Listen and Learns. “People were very thoughtful and passionate about what we do to ensure kids get a good education here.”
The MNPS website invites community input and sup- port while Joseph wants to ensure an equitable system for every student. At his 100th day mark, he’s focused on ways to create a learning organization that constantly in- vests in building the capacity of its people while increasing performance of students.
“I spent 16 years in Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. One of America’s largest, highest performing school districts in the country, one of America’s most diverse school districts. There I saw a system that pushed, that had very high expectations.”
While a middle school principal, “I was expected to have 80 percent of my kids in algebra. When I got the job, 20 percent of the kids were in algebra, and there was this thought, “There’s no way we’re gonna get 80 percent of the kids to pass algebra, without watering it down, changing and so forth.” But the system gave us the tools and the resources, and the expectation was there. Three years later, I had 86 percent of the kids passing with a 90 percent pass rate. If they never expected it, it would never have happened.”
Joseph credits a Saturday school, teacher capacity training, staff development personnel and substitutes, so teachers could step out of class for professional development.
He supports high school restorative justice programs and “paying people what they’re worth” as part of expanding expectations of MNPS employees and students.
“I’m a father first. The same hopes and dreams that I have for my children (who will attend MNPS), I have for all the 86,500 children in this district. I was a teacher that was obsessed with pushing my kids. I want every teacher in this district to be obsessed with pushing the kids that sit in front of them….The word on the street about MNPS must be that there’s some good stuff happening in this town…We’ve got to have that mindset that all of our kids are gifted, they just need someone to pull it out of them.”
Joseph wants a track record of excellence for MNPS and encourages parents to get involved in their child’s school life and meet their principals – especially if they’re not satisfied with the education their child is getting.
“I think we must recognize education is our strongest tool for social and economic prosperity and we can’t squander the opportunity.”