Metro schools’ new chief instructional officer, Sandra Johnson, recently recalled a passage from Alice In Wonderland to explain the school system’s five-year plan for improving learning among the city’s nearly 70,000 public school students:
“Would you tell me, please,” said Alice, “which way I ought to walk from here?” “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat. “I don’t much care where...” said Alice. “Then it doesn’t much matter which way you walk,” said the Cat.... “So long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation. “Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”
The school system is much like Alice. “In some ways,” Johnson says, “Nashville has walked long enough, but we still don’t know where we’re going. We will be working to define clearly where we want students to travel in their learning. Our belief is, if we don’t define what students should learn in K-12, how can we get them there? We want students to get somewhere, not just anywhere.”
If recent reports are any indication, Metro’s new schools director, Pedro Garcia, along with Johnson, the nearly 6,000 licensed instructors within the system and the 69,400 enrolled students, may have a long way to go. Last year, it often seemed that if it weren’t for bad news, there would be no news at all. Consider these sobering statistics and findings:
♦ In October, state Comptroller John Morgan broke the embarrassing news that Tennessee can no longer stand on Mississippi’s shoulders when it comes to spending on education. He recently delivered figures showing Tennessee’s spending on K-12 education now ranks last among Southern statesand ahead of only Hawaii nationallyand is nearly 20 percent behind the national average. At $7,038 per student, Metro spends $400 less per student than the national average, but nearly $1,000 more per student than the dismal Tennessee average of $6,066.
♦ One wonders, though, if that $1,000 more per student is money well spent, considering that state test scores, released in early September, show that only six of Metro’s 128 schools posted above-average achievement scores when measured against the national average.
♦ In November, the state Department of Education reported that the highest marks K-5 students achieved in Metro schools were in attendance, scoring an A; they earned a B in 4th-grade writing; Cs in promotion and language arts; Ds in reading, math, science and social studies. Marks for grades 6-8 were also dismal: A in attendance; B in 7th-grade writing; C in language arts; Ds in reading, math, science and social studies; and F in promotion.
♦ Meanwhile, in Sumner County, where the average per-student spending is $5,434below Metro’sK-8 students received As and Bs. In Williamson County, where spending is $6,326 per studentalso below Metro’sstudents scored straight As. Some point to the fact that more than 50 percent of Metro students are eligible for the free and reduced meal program as evidence that Metro’s task is more difficult. In Sumner County, that number is just 21.6 percent, and in Williamson County, just 5.5 percent of students are considered poor.
♦ According to the Nashville-based Tennessee Institute for Public Policy, Davidson County finished 128 among 137 school districts in the state.
♦ A Dec. 7 Metro schools accountability report showed that the Metro school system failed to reach any of its goals for 2001, the target date of a four-year plan for improvement. The closest Metro came to any of its goals was in writing scores, where it missed its mark by only one point: Last year, 69 percent of 4th graders scored well on a writing test, up more than 25 points in four years. Yet, only 45.5 percent of third graders are reading at the national average, down nearly three points from 1998.
Four targets posted worse than last year, and on five targets, the 2001 scores were worse than the 1997-98 results. Metro also failed to reduce the performance gap between poor students and those in affluent clusters. And though one important goal was to reduce the dropout rate for high schools to 10 percent or less, it actually increased slightly, to 16.8 percent.
But there is some good news. Nine Metro schools earned all A’s on achievement tests, and students in 21 other Metro schools earned above-average achievement scores. There are significant success stories in classrooms all over Davidson County, but the larger picture indicates dramatic improvement is needed to save what many consider a sinking ship.
“I think this report vindicates the board’s decision to hire a change agent from outside the system,” school board member Chris Norris said after the Dec. 7 report was released, referring to Garcia. In late June, after a nationwide search, Metro’s nine-member school board voted unanimously to hire Garcia, a Cuban native who comes from a family of educators. When he was just 31, he became the youngest principal in Los Angeles County.
In 1994, he became superintendent of the Corona-Norco Unified School District, a challenging school system not unlike the one facing him today, with well-below-average test scores; conflicting, confused administrative policies and curriculum; and a lack of strong, stable leadership. He outlined a plan and its goals and invited teacher input. It took several years, but last year, the district’s students scored in the 71st percentile in the Stanford Achievement Test, a 59 percent increase from three years earlier.
Metro schools have nearly twice as many students, an annual operating budget of over $400 million and a central system administration that Garcia calls “dysfunctional.”
He has yet to master the Southern art of wrapping criticism in a compliment. Instead, he shoots from the hip, and his outspoken nature and hastysome say harshassessments have ruffled feathers among his staff and many of the nearly 10,000 schools employees. No onefrom bus drivers to principalshas escaped his scrutiny, and Garcia has tangled repeatedly with Harry McMackin, president of the local teachers’ union.
But it’s obvious that if public schools are to improve, changes are needed, and Garcia is taking personal responsibility for it. He believes that no matter what a child’s socioeconomic status, every student can learn. Within four years, he says, he will improve student achievement, markedly raise test scores, develop many of the system’s poorly trained teachers and principals and reform central administration. His right-hand manor woman, in this caseis Johnson. She, Garcia and the school board have completed a five-year strategic plan for the system that will clearly outline goals.
That plan, which the school board approved Dec. 11, alleviates some of the sting of the criticism from the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. Its recent report rated Metro school performance in 2000-01 “unsatisfactory,” citing failure to improve student achievement and the lack of a plan to reverse that trend. Still, Ted Helm, chairman of the chamber panel that produced the report, was optimistic. “We believe that the changes begun this year will pay off, and that 2001-02 will be the year that begins the change.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, many parents in Nashville have chosen private schools for their children, and there are plenty of choices available for those willing and able to dig deep for tuitions that range from about $2,500 to over $11,000 a year. (Financial aid is typically available.)
And a diverse range of options for higher education is available to those who want to pursue a degree close to home: In Middle Tennessee, nearly 90,000 students attend 18 colleges and universities.
Regardless, all of us have an interest in seeing our city’s public schools improve. Longtime education advocate Nelsen Andrews shrewdly notes that if you want to see the future of Nashville, all you need to do is look at its public schools.
That’s reason enough, isn’t it?
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