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Nashville Business Journal

According to nearly every metric, Nashville is hot and getting hotter. Metro Nashville holds the 20th spot on Forbes’ 2017 list of the fastest-growing cities in America — this after coming in fourth on the publication’s 2016 ranking of the best cities for jobs. Growth brings jobs, and jobs beget even more growth. But growth at the rate Nashville is experiencing (the 14-county metro area gained an average of 30,875 people per year between July 2010 and 2015, according to U.S. Census data) can leave city administrators scrambling to keep up. Housing is an issue, of course, as is the matter of public transportation.

And then there are the schools.

In Tennessee’s 2015 School Accountability report, 15 Nashville public schools were on the priority schools list, which designates the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in the state, in terms of academic achievement. Metro also had nine on the focus schools list, which highlights the 10 percent of schools in the state with the largest achievement gaps between groups of students, including racial and ethnic minorities and those who are economically disadvantaged.

These and other factors help explain why many Davidson County residents opt for private school or simply move to a neighboring county. It’s also troubling for business leaders who struggle to attract top talent to the area and for Shawn Joseph, Metro’s new director of schools.

Joseph, 42, has been working to remedy some of those long-standing concerns since arriving from Maryland last May, and as he wraps up his first year on the job, many signs seem to point toward progress. Progress is a process, though, and as he fields the frustrations of the local business community, he also encourages leaders to help create the change they want to see in Nashville’s public schools.

Joseph can find the administrators, principals and teachers needed to implement the classroom curriculum that might improve test scores and public opinion. But what he really needs — to create and lead internships and other experiential learning programs, to prepare students for real-world industry, to fill in budget shortages that the state government can’t, or won’t — is you.

In an evaluation of your first seven months as Metro Nashville Public Schools director of schools, the board gave you straight As. What grade would you give yourself? I’d give myself a B.

Why? There’s always more that could be done. I wish I would have spent more time, at the beginning, getting into churches. And even though I had the “listen and learns,” I still missed students. If I had to do it all over again, I would have done more to engage students right up front — particularly our high school students, because they know what they have experienced.

At the beginning of the year we hired 32 new principals, and that’s a lot. And even though we moved to a new model where we have one principal supervisor for about 10 to 12 schools — versus the one-to-40 that they had [previously] — I still think principals needed more support, particularly for those principals who came from out of state, who know nothing about the wonderful world of Nashville.

And we had 96 vacancies to start the school year. Even though we hired about 8,000 teachers, for those 96 classrooms, [the students] didn’t have somebody there. I knew we had a virtual school, but I didn’t know the capacity of it. If I had to do it over again, I would have thought more intentionally about making sure that those kids had virtual teachers, so they weren’t losing instruction.

Are those areas still your focus going forward, or have new challenges presented themselves? Those challenges still exist, and there are others. As we looked at this strategic plan and this budget season, we kind of put the work in buckets: How do we ensure high expectations in all schools and all classrooms, particularly around literacy? What do we do to make sure we can hire, recruit and retain the best talent in America? What do we do to support our diverse learners — particularly our English-language learners, [of whom] we get over 1,000 a year? We have lots of students who just don’t come from a whole lot of money. So what do we do to support them so that when they get to school, we don’t see them as disadvantaged? … What do we do with our special-education learners, and our students who need more social and emotional support? It’s not easy living in the city, and there are lots of pressures that kids have on them now that we just didn’t have growing up. This whole social media thing is big, and we didn’t have that. So thinking about the social and emotional supports that are needed in the schools is a big piece for us.

And we’re looking at our compensation. Teachers don’t get paid half of what they’re worth — or even a quarter of what they’re worth. And neither do secretaries or bus drivers. So how can we make sure that people can live in Davidson County? It’s not cheap.

Why do you feel it’s important to connect with local churches? Schools and churches — and when I say churches, I’m talking about all religious institutions — are the two places where you get the full breadth of community. And I think they have been an untapped resource, in terms of getting the word out about what’s happening, providing support and really creating this sense of community.

What has your relationship with Nashville’s business community been like thus far? I have worked very closely with the [Nashville Area] Chamber of Commerce, and I commend them for their continued commitment to education. Education has been one of their No. 1 priorities for a long time, and when I was researching the district, one of the things that attracted me was that this business community was so engaged.

A number of key business leaders were on my transition team because we realize that you can’t have a great city without a great school system. And if our schools are not strong, it’ll be very difficult for our business leaders to attract and retain high-quality people, or they’re going to have to pay $50,000 or $60,000 more because they have to put an education bonus in the salary so people can go to private school. And I think that’s been the case in Davidson County for too long.

Are concerns about Metro Nashville Public Schools a matter of perception — a problem that can be remedied by getting the word out about what’s going on in the schools? Or is it an issue of quality? It’s both. We have some extremely high-quality [educational] opportunities, and I think we have some schools that need significant work.

We have schools where kids can get a great education, and they can be a part of programs that you couldn’t get anywhere else. At McGavock High School, there’s an aerospace program for kids who want to become pilots. And we have the Cambridge programs and the International Baccalaureate programs. We have STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] programs. We have highly gifted centers and the Hume-Fogg and [Martin Luther King Jr.] programs. Within the academies at the high schools, there are different career tracks that students can go down to really learn and have internship opportunities that you just don’t get anyplace, depending on where you live. Lord knows, I grew up on Long Island, N.Y., and we didn’t have any of that.

But we’ve got to focus on quality. We’ve got to focus on being clear about what our key performance indicators are and our metrics, and we’ve got to be transparent with the public. … Are we making progress? And if we’re not, what are we doing about it? If we are, how do we communicate that?

Reform takes time, so how long do you expect it to take to close the educational gaps in Nashville schools, especially concerning minority and low-income students? Research typically says it takes anywhere from three to seven years to really implement reform. Step one for us was to develop a strategic plan; be clear about what the key performance indicators are; get the right people on the bus, in the right seats; and begin to think about what resources are needed to accelerate.

What I love about Nashville is the fact that we do have a partnership with the business community. We’ve got an extraordinary mayor who’s passionate about education, and we have a [Metro Council] that’s extremely supportive. And what we have been talking about — what I’ve been extremely excited about — are the public-private partnership opportunities that exist. We can only do so much with the funds that we have, and it’s really going to take those private dollars that are strategically targeted, with our local dollars, to help us accelerate.

In Tennessee, we still, in comparison to all states, underfund education. [Gov. Bill Haslam] has done a good job adding funds to the overall budget — he’s probably funded education more than his predecessors — but we’re still behind by anywhere between $4,000 to $5,000 per child when you look at what Connecticut does, or what Maryland does, or Delaware or Massachusetts. Those top 10 states are getting better outcomes because they’re putting in a stronger investment.

So what do you need local businesses and business leaders to do to fill in some of those holes? They can partner with some of the existing support systems that exist. Collaborate with the Nashville Public Education Foundation, with the Pencil Organization or with the chamber of commerce. We’re looking to really ratchet up the work that’s happening in our middle schools, for example, and we want to do that by focusing on science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics. So if there are businesses in that realm, working with the chamber of commerce to help us connect those partners with schools would be tremendous.

It’s not always about more money. Sometimes it’s about having the right expertise at the table and helping us help our kids get world-class opportunities that go outside of the classroom. Or it’s about helping our teachers understand their respective industries much better because business leaders are living it day-to-day, and teachers may not understand what the industry standards and expectations are.

Mayor [Megan] Barry, rightfully so, is trying to expand internship opportunities for kids. So helping our kids get exposed to the industry that exists here in Nashville [would also help]. Nashville is an incredible place, and there’s a lot of resources and a lot of extraordinary business [taking place]. But I still think many children and many families are not a part of the prosperous growth of Nashville.

When we look inside our boardrooms, I don’t think we see the same diversity that we see in our schools. And if kids don’t see [diversity in business], sometimes their reality is such that they don’t think they could be a part of it. The business community can help students see the boardrooms and let them know how they can become a part of that boardroom dynamic. Because if we don’t help our kids redefine their definition of reality, then shame on us.


Shawn Joseph

Title: Director of schools, Metro Nashville Public Schools

Employees: 12,000

Students: 86,000

Career highlights: 2014-16: Deputy superintendent, Prince George’s County Public Schools (Md.); 2012-14: Superintendent, Seaford School District (Md.); 2009-12: Director of school performance, Montgomery County Public Schools (Md.); 1996-2009: Principal, assistant principal and English teacher, Montgomery County Public Schools

Education: Bachelor’s in English education, Lincoln University, Lincoln, Pa.; master’s in reading education, Johns Hopkins University; doctorate of education in administration and policy studies, George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

Family: Married to Ocheze Joseph, a fellow public school educator; two children, ages 8 and 13

Nashville Business Journal

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