Metro schools administrators really should have known. Try and dislodge a tree that's been growing in one spot for nearly 30 years, and you might be surprised how deep its roots go.
The pushback over last week's announcement that veteran Hillsboro High School teacher Mary Catherine Bradshaw would be replaced as the school's International Baccalaureate diploma coordinator — a program she's shepherded since its inception — should come as no surprise. Nor should outrage at the rumor of her transfer at semester's end.
After 27 years at Hillsboro, Bradshaw is something of a spiritual leader, both for the school and IB programs across the state, which allow students to take internationally recognized courses for college credit. She's managed to carve out the only K-12 IB continuum in Tennessee, one of just a few in the country.
Her firing from the program comes at a time when new Metro schools associate superintendent Jay Steele is restructuring the district's high schools into a collection of "career academies," a hand-in-glove enterprise with the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce to funnel students into high-demand career tracks like information technology.
There's been much speculation that Bradshaw's successful, university-focused IB program has run afoul of Steele's pet project. Administrators have yet to explain the sudden move to a bewildered public. But a picture is starting to emerge.
On March 7 and 8, Hillsboro principal Terry Shrader invited a group of prominent teachers, including Bradshaw, to attend a "transformational leadership retreat" at the Martin Professional Development Center. There, they would discuss the future of the school, according to teachers who spoke with the Scene on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
They say the discussion leader — John Norris, a former consultant to MNPS director Jesse Register during his tenure in Chattanooga — was having difficulty steering the group toward a "broad conversation" on the direction of Hillsboro. Bradshaw and others had specific questions about the IB program's future at the school.
Afterward, Bradshaw and other teachers who were vocal during the meetings were pulled aside and asked where their "loyalties" lay.
"Not only did that happen at Hillsboro, that's happened at other schools," a Hillsboro teacher tells the Scene. "They get these people in a room and figure out who's outspoken and will take a stand, and they get them in line."
Steele, several teachers say, was seen consulting with the discussion leader at the Martin Center that day. Roughly nine days later, over spring break, sources say Shrader told Bradshaw that given Hillsboro's new direction, she'd be happier at another school.
Last Wednesday, as news of her removal began to circulate, administrators asked David Williams, the IB middle-years coordinator at Hillsboro, to replace her as diploma coordinator, sources familiar with the offer say. Williams, who did not respond to interview requests, declined the job. The second choice was veteran teacher Sharon Chaney. She was named interim IB coordinator last week.
"It validates the fact that they didn't have a plan," a Hillsboro teacher tells the Scene.
Meanwhile, a standoff between school administrators and current and former students, parents and other teachers quickly shifted from a Facebook phenomenon — some 2,200 have joined the "Burros for Bradshaw" page — to a full-on imbroglio, culminating at a well-attended demonstration in front of Hillsboro High Sunday afternoon. Students hoisted placards and blew into vuvuzelas to passing motorists on Hillsboro Pike.
This week, a group of Hillsboro teachers issued a general statement of protest. After little more than a year in Nashville, they wrote, Steele "does not fully understand our community."
"As educators," they continued, "we have grown enormously under [Bradshaw's] leadership and example, and it will be us left to pick up the pieces of an unnecessary upheaval precipitated by a bureaucratic mistake."
Hillsboro teachers who spoke with the Scene are uniformly stunned by the swiftness with which Bradshaw was swept aside. The recipient of a number of awards, including Metro Teacher of the Year, Bradshaw was the ideal to which many aspired. During the summer of 2010, Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, honored her with a state House resolution saying she "epitomizes the dedicated teacher who is wholly committed to the highest ideals of public service and quality education for all. ..."
Even more perplexing to Hillsboro educators, they say, is that Bradshaw had been supportive of Steele's new vision for the career academies. She was reportedly on board with Steele's "new direction." They note, not without irony, that the press release announcing her replacement also unveiled the expansion of IB courses into the "Business and Management, and Sports, Exercise and Health Science" academies — an idea Bradshaw developed last fall.
The conflict between Steele and Bradshaw is becoming a proxy battle between two competing ideologies at MNPS. Is the purpose of an education to serve the needs of local businesses by producing career-tracked, workforce-ready high-school grads, whose paths are ostensibly mapped by Steele's academies by the time they've gone to prom? Or is it about teaching students to think critically, exposing them to a diversity of opinions and, maybe, preparing them for a four-year university? Clearly, not every student goes on to college, but at Hillsboro, it's pretty close: as many as 80 percent, according to some teachers.
So maybe it should surprise no one, then, that Hillsboro High — one of the last viable IB diploma programs in the district and an institution with a reputation as a place where a public-school kid can take private- and magnet-school-caliber college preparatory courses — would emerge as a flashpoint in Steele's course correction. And if it has, it's caused some teachers at Hillsboro to take a second look at MNPS' new heading.
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