2002 Nashvillian of the Year 

Pedro Garcia’s radical style has given people hope and faith in public education

Pedro Garcia’s radical style has given people hope and faith in public education

As the director of Metro schools, Pedro Garcia probably would prefer that the 70,000 some-odd students in his system show a healthy respect for authority, shun violence and obey their parents. In other words, be everything that he wasn’t.

Born in Havana, Cuba, in 1946, Garcia came of age in the bloody aftermath of Fidel Castro’s ascendancy. Garcia’s parents, both of whom were teachers, had openly supported Castro, who, as a budding rebel, promised to topple the corrupt dictatorship of Juan Batista. But shortly after 1959, when Castro was swept into power, he turned out to be just as oppressive as his predecessor, confiscating private property and executing many of Batista’s followers.

“He became the dictator we were fighting against,” Garcia recalls. “Only more ruthless.”

Within months, Garcia’s parents soured on Castro, openly protesting the Cuban Revolution. They soon lost their jobs as teachers, ultimately packing up their families for the United States. But before they fled their homeland, Garcia became entangled with an older gang of raucous teenagers intent on deposing the hated Castro, by violent, even ridiculous, means.

Because his father had worked as a chemistry teacher, Garcia had access to a substance called white phosphorus, a volatile agent that can explode as soon as it’s exposed to air. Garcia and his friends would steal the white phosphorus, which was sealed in a solution, pierce a ping-pong ball and pour the solution into the ball. The young rebels then tossed the balls into local sugarcane fields, sometimes setting them ablaze. Their mission was to destroy as much sugarcane as possible, wreak havoc on the Cuban economy and hasten Castro’s downfall.

“Obviously, we weren’t very successful,” Garcia says. “If we were caught, we would have been shot on the spot.”

Of course, Garcia and his friends were hardly intermittent rebels. The roughshod gang also launched Molotov cocktails at government buildings. They were not exactly honor roll material. In any case, the police arrested some of Garcia’s friends, but he was never apprehended, often escaping, he recalls, “by the skin of my teeth.” Funny how fate works. Had the police ever caught up with him, Garcia might still be holed up in a Havana jail cell.

Today, as he serves as the city’s top educator, Garcia wavers between regretting the acts of his youth and justifying their intentions. “That wasn’t a good thing to do and I don’t recommend it,” he says. “But we were fighting for freedom. It was no different than George Washington fighting against the British.”

Some people don’t change. He’s not committing crimes anymore, but Garcia, 56, remains a revolutionary, fighting just as intensely to bring change to the city’s long languid, ineffective school system. His methods now are more civil, but his goal is just as radical in spirit as the one from his youth. Garcia wants to develop what he says will be the first successful urban school district in the nation.

In fact, he believes that all children, regardless of race or class, can learn. That is, in fact, his gospel. Garcia places a near fanatical emphasis on improving test scores in all academic areas. Looking ahead, he also wants to give parents and students more school and academic choices.

Only two years after arriving in Nashville from Corona-Norco, Calif., where he served as the school superintendent, Garcia has ushered in dramatic change, asserting his leadership before a captive city. It’s too early to predict whether Garcia is the messiah people want him to be, but he’s certainly not sitting around, appointing study committees and waiting for suggestions. Garcia, a rabid moviegoer, is a veritable action hero, quickly sizing up the problems and indiscriminately tackling them.

In just his first year on the job, Garcia reassigned more than 50 principals, revamped a scattered central office and (justifiably) attacked a largely unpopular Metro Nashville Education Association (MNEA), the local teachers’ union. Garcia isn’t known for tact. In fact, the director exhibits chronic disdain toward the MNEA, gratuitously deriding it in public, often to great applause.

The school board is expected to spend nearly $100,000 in the current academic year to survey Metro teachers, staff, parents and students about the director, the board and the general progress of the school system. Garcia doubts that he’s as unpopular with teachers as his reputation would suggest. Asked if it really matters, Garcia shrugs and says, “Not really.” After an awkward silence, Garcia elaborates. “My job is not to be popular. It’s to do the job, and if that ruffles some feathers and teachers don’t like it, then so be it. So long as kids are learning, I know we’re going in the right direction.”

In fact, Garcia concedes that he loaded additional responsibilities on his teachers—mandating more time on classroom instruction and student evaluation and emphasizing the need to improve achievement scores. He notes that the board has spent millions of dollars training staff in the latest teaching methods for math, science, reading and other subjects. He admits they never get a break. “We keep our teachers running a 100-yard dash all the time,” he says. “I’m not trying to be mean. But we are so far behind, and we have so much to do.”

Despite the popular perception, not all teachers despise Garcia. In fact, some say that whatever grievances they have with the director’s bottom-line philosophy, he is simply reflecting the demands of parents and taxpayers who want more accountability. Still, many of them bristle at his autocratic leadership, particularly his emphasis on test scores. In fact, some say they have reached a breaking point.

“I think teachers feel like they are very much under the gun,” says Jim Hartline, a guidance counselor at Granbery Elementary and a former classroom teacher. “There are many good, dedicated teachers who are saying, 'I can’t do this anymore.’ To an extent, you’ve always had that, but it’s never been worse than it is now.”

Of course, part of Garcia’s style is to call it like he sees it. Shortly after he arrived from California, Garcia characterized the district at “dysfunctional,” a word more typically associated with Al Bundy’s brood. And yet this description was no slip of the tongue. He continued to trot out “dysfunctional” again and again. His wife says that, in some cases, brutal frankness has its place.

“I think you can be too nice with your words and never get anything done,” says Priscilla Partridge de Garcia, the director’s third wife. “He just started out by being honest. The system had many great programs and teachers, but many things in place had no logic. He just wanted to say how it was and start off with a baseline.”

Among the system’s more illogical pieces was its pattern of instruction. Just before the 2001-2002 school year, Garcia and his chief instructional officer Sandy Johnson, a former California colleague, began to rewrite Metro’s curriculum, updating it to prepare students for the demands of the modern marketplace while also aligning it with state standards. That means teachers now cover the material in the state achievement tests—one of those simple initiatives that, somehow, no one figured out before. Of course, in the process of authoring a new pattern of study, Garcia and Johnson have more or less dismissed what’s known as Core Curriculum, the legacy of former mayor and now Gov.-elect Phil Bredesen.

All the while, the tall, distinctive Garcia has become a Nashville celebrity, glad-handing at social functions, appearing on talk shows and giving well-attended luncheon speeches. Students ask for his autograph, while gushing business leaders fawn over him like schoolgirls.

“He’s a great man and a great asset to the community,” says Marty Dickens, BellSouth of Tennessee president and chairman of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. “I think he’s done an outstanding job. We’re so fortunate that he decided to come here. He’s brought focus and structure to improving education in Nashville, and he’s gotten the attention from all the right folks. He knows what works. And he’s not deviating from it.”

Hartline, the guidance counselor, says Garcia’s popularity shows that the public wants easy solutions to more complex educational and social problems. “We’re a society that likes things fast. We like quick decision makers and aggressive stances. People want answers, not ambiguity.”

Most parents seem to like Garcia, although some of the more involved ones worry that his focus on the younger, more marginalized students has hurt older, high-achieving students. While the board has hired more teachers for the elementary schools, it has shifted some away from the high schools. As a result, class sizes have increased in many of the system’s high schools, especially in Advanced Placement classes. And some parents say that not only is there less emphasis on the arts and physical education, but on foreign language programs as well.

“The biggest frustration that parents feel is that while Dr. Garcia and his administration are doing such a good job with students in the lower half of achievement, they are reducing options for kids in the upper half,” says David Kern, who has three children in the Hillsboro cluster. “Programs across the board are being cut and affected in negative ways.”

Garcia says, however, that while there was an initial push to help the struggling students, he has no plans to ignore the students who need more than the fundamentals to be challenged. He wants the system to have more National Merit Scholars and have more students enrolled in Advanced Placement classes. He even says that regardless of whether test scores skyrocket, if more students and their parents opt out of the system in favor of the area’s many private schools, he will have failed. “My goal is to attract students into our system,” he says. “There are a lot of reasons why students go to private school, but I don’t want it to be because they are escaping our system.”

While the breadth, depth and chutzpah of Garcia’s initiatives have startled some, nobody expected him to tinker around the margins. After all, last year, when Metro school board members began looking for a candidate to replace the business-as-usual Bill Wise, they made it clear that they wanted an outsider to come in and break the school system out of its eternal funk.

Plagued for decades by court-ordered busing, high dropout rates and inept leadership, the Davidson County district was one of the worst in a state not renowned for education excellence. In 2000, Roger Abramson, a former research and policy analyst and sometime Scene contributor, tracked achievement scores for every school district in the state, collecting data from every subject area. Davidson County finished 128 of 137 in overall achievement scores, lagging behind every urban district except Memphis.

Garcia has spent the beginning of his tenure improving reading and math scores for elementary students. He says the district has nearly 18,000 students in fourth through 12th grades who read at the bottom 35th percentile. To reverse that trend, Garcia has focused his efforts on training instructors in better ways to teach reading. And the school board has hired almost 65 reading specialists.

“Right now the push is read, read, read,” says Garcia, who loves to repeat words for effect. “We shifted dollars to areas where we thought we’d make an impact economically.”

After only one year, elementary reading scores jumped significantly, prompting Garcia to make good on his bet of shaving his head and kissing a pig. Elementary school students also made impressive gains in language and math. Most importantly, those improvements offered hope that the system’s many slumping students finally would catch up with their peers across the state and nation. Another cause for celebration came this week when a panel sponsored by the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce applauded Garcia’s early changes. The panel handed the district an overall “C” grade, a mediocre mark that is nevertheless a sharp improvement from last year’s “U”—as in unacceptable— designation.

“He’s done exactly what we hired him to do,” says Pam Garrett, vice chairman of the school board. “He came in, reorganized the district and focused on student achievement.”

While Garcia is a prototypical workaholic who rarely sleeps more than a few hours a night, he somehow manages to lead a life outside of public education. He tries to see every movie release, recently catching four in one day: Solaris, Frida, Far From Heaven and Treasure Planet. Garcia’s favorite of the four, if not the whole year, was Far From Heaven, a film about a husband who discovers he’s gay and his wife, who has an affair with a black gardener. “Great acting,” he says. “And very interesting social issues.”

A graduate of the University of Southern California, where he received his doctorate in education administration and higher education, Garcia is a fervent fan of the school’s storied Trojan football team. He religiously attends every home football game in Los Angeles and goes to most away games. Making the average Vols fan look like a Buddhist monk, Garcia has turned his office into a Trojan shrine, blanketing it with glossy USC paraphernalia.

Somehow Garcia still has enough energy for the arts. Every week, he takes lessons in voice and conga drums. His wife also notes that Garcia is an avid photographer, having won various awards for his work. And he’s even penned a screenplay, Red Cane, based on his rebellious youth in Cuba.

That Garcia has redirected funding from the performing arts to more academic programs has been a source of controversy for the director—with many people painting him as a cold technocrat with a narrow perspective on primary education. Garcia counters that while he values the arts—“my son is an artist,” he says—Metro students are failing the fundamentals, and that’s what needs to be remedied first. “If you look at our performance arts, there was a reduction, but not to the point where we wiped out the whole program,” he says. “I don’t make excuses for that. We have 18,000 kids who can’t read at the appropriate level.”

In a clear contrast to his often-stern public demeanor, Garcia is the consummate family man, with five children and five grandchildren (and a sixth on the way).

In his wallet, Garcia keeps a copy of Deuteronomy 31:8, which reads, “And the Lord is one who goes ahead of you, he will be with you, he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”

In much the way that biblical passage reassures him, Garcia has engendered confidence within the community that public education doesn’t have to mean mismanagement, inequity and poor results. It is, in fact, capable of preparing all children to become intelligent, open-minded and productive citizens. That Garcia seems to believe this with all his heart and soul seems to be why Nashvillians are willing to let him go ahead, with faith that he will not fail or forsake them.

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