By Tribune Staff
NASHVILLE, TN — When Dr. Sito Narcisse was named Metro Nashville Public Schools’ chief of schools in 2016, he was returning to familiar territory. As a former student and teacher in the city, much of what he remembered about Nashville had changed significantly – but still much had not.
As no stranger to Nashville, he earned his master’s degree in secondary education from Vanderbilt University. From there, he went on to become a student-teacher at Antioch High School, as well as a French teacher in the Williamson County Public School district.
“I started my educational career here in Nashville,” said Narcisse, who also completed a Doctorate in Educational Administration and Policy Studies and Leadership from the University of Pittsburgh. “I taught in my first classroom here and then in Williamson County. That experience showed me the equity differences even in communities right next door to one another.”
Nashville’s landscape is much different with more buildings, more people and more traffic, yet improvements in public education lag behind other areas of the city’s growth.
“Unfortunately, there is not equity in the system for all children,” Narcisse said. “For a poor child, a child of color, an English Language learner – this is not an ‘it’ city for them.”
In the role of MNPS chief of schools, Narcisse oversaw the mentoring, support and evaluation of all school-based administrators. Prior to leading in this position, Narcisse brought back with him some impressive experience from other school districts including serving as a teacher, a principal and turnaround leader as well as associate superintendent and director of school performance in Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. He also spent time in Boston Public Schools, Pittsburgh Public Schools, and Prince George’s County Public Schools, where he oversaw 74 schools. His focus on creating equitable schools resulted in improvements in graduation rates, the establishment of two International Schools for English Language Learners, and increased achievement in the schools he supervised.
“No matter where you go, education is tough work,” Narcisse said. “The growing pains Nashville is going through are not unique, but what seems to be the biggest challenge is the division by race, class, and socio-economic status instead of the community taking a collective input approach to solve its pressing problems.
He continued, “Dr. Shawn Joseph was given a direct charge from the Metropolitan Nashville Board of Education when he arrived here – and that was to provide access to all kids and to galvanize this city and community for the benefit of improving education in this school district. Unfortunately, the expectation that the director of schools can do it all is simply unrealistic.”
However, in less than three years, Narcisse said there have been some clear successes. He points to the establishment of a quadrant model to better support school communities, the fact that more students are reading on grade level, more students are taking the ACT college entrance exam, and more emphasis has been placed on social-emotional learning supports.
“I remember being at a leading education conference and the presenters were pointing to the work we were doing here in Nashville as a model of educational reform in an urban school district,” Narcisse said. “I knew at that moment, in that room filled with professional educators, that we were doing great work here that was being recognized around the country.”
Literacy was an area that former director of schools, Dr. Shawn Joseph, and his team took on aggressively. That approach led to results for students who were trailing behind in reading, particularly minority and EL students. In just two years, the district saw gains with Pre-K through eighth grade students meeting or exceeding the national growth average in literary.
There was also more access to advanced academics with the Encore program being opened to all elementary and middle schools for gifted and talented students. Funding was added to the budget to provide free ACT testing for every junior (11th grade) helping to eliminate yet another barrier to potential college aspirations. Through the establishment of the Early College High School Program, students can earn a high school diploma and college associate degree at no cost and in just four years. Further, supports around social-emotional learning were increased helping to better train teachers and work with students struggling with learning and behavior.
“Despite the challenges of being a chronically underfunded, diverse urban school district, working with a severely fractured Board of Education, and experiencing unbalanced reporting by some media outlets, there were many things we accomplished which has placed Nashville’s school district in a better place,” Narcisse said, adding that access to high quality curriculum, wrap-around services, and more community involvement in schools are still areas needing improvement.
The main issue Narcisse said is primary to improving any public-school district is equity. He said it’s important to have all different types of voices around the table.
“Everyone knows there is inequity they just don’t have the courage to do something about it. I heard some people say we were moving too fast for what this city was ready for, but my question is what is too fast when it comes to doing the right thing for the benefit of children? We need to stop talking about what the problems are and start talking about solutions.”
In Narcisse’s second departure from the Music City, he said he hopes the community will begin to focus on three things: 1) talk more about children and less about adults; 2) take a collective approach to improve schools, and; 3) put in the necessary work to truly make Nashville an ‘it’ city for all.
“There is no beginning or end to schools doing well – education has, and always will be, about improvement,” Narcisse said. “It has been a pleasure to come back to Nashville and serve this community. I would not have done anything differently in the city where I started my career in education.”