Head of the Class 

Nashville’s earnest new mayor is willing to try something different to fix schools

by Matt PulleThe students at LEAD Academy, a Metro charter school anchored in a bleak North Nashville neighborhood, have been in class for nearly four hours on this particular Saturday, but they’re not all surly and staring at the ticking clock. Instead, everyone is focused on the computers.

The students at LEAD Academy, a Metro charter school anchored in a bleak North Nashville neighborhood, have been in class for nearly four hours on this particular Saturday, but they’re not all surly and staring at the ticking clock. Instead, everyone is focused on the computers. The boys are playing a football game that awards touchdowns each time they answer a math problem correctly, and some of them noiselessly pump their fist with each score. The girls, meanwhile, are a slightly more serious bunch as they avidly assemble electronic puzzles that come to shape as they figure out fractions.

Things are no different in other classrooms. Fifth and sixth grade students, nearly all of who are African American and come from low-income households, talk about Martin Luther King Jr., detailing the highlights of his life and what led to his untimely death. Then when it’s time to practice their writing, they silently clutch their pencils and think before they begin. At the end of the class, the kids empty out slowly and quietly, lining up in single file on the edge of a long hall without a prompt from any teacher.

The quality of a school is difficult to measure, if easy to sense, and perhaps you can say the same thing about an entire district. Although there are plenty of troubling characteristics about Nashville’s public school system, not the least of which is that its lagging test scores have placed it under the partial control of the state, perhaps its greatest failing is that places like LEAD Academy are the anomalies. Now, in the wake of schools director Pedro Garcia’s resignation, there are scattered cries for imaginative reform, and new Mayor Karl Dean is open to just about any idea—no matter how bold, unusual or even practical.

“What I think is so exciting about Nashville right now is that everybody wants to be involved in improving our schools,” Dean tells the Scene. “There may be disagreements about educational philosophies, about what the right answer is to any particular issue, but at this point we need to be open. Every option should be on the table.”

All signs indicate he means it. Whether Dean delivers the kind of real reforms the school system needs is an open question for the untested politico, but for now he’s acting with more urgency than he showed during most of his laconic mayoral campaign. Over the last 10 days, Dean’s public calendar has included visiting eight schools, hosting a graduation summit, talking with Garcia’s old senior staff and having conversations with a half-dozen education junkies, from Vanderbilt professor Jim Guthrie to former school board member Kathleen Harkey. He’s also meeting, once again, with all nine current board members.

So far, Dean’s public statements are telling only because of his repeated promise to consider an array of ideas. But in many of his private talks so far, Dean’s made it clear that he will lean heavily on the board to select a different kind of school director. There’s almost no chance the mayor will allow the board to pluck a middle-aged No. 2 from a large school district—the kind of plodding, earnest candidate whose idea of reform is to add a charter school or two every five years. Instead, Dean has told a number of people inside and outside the mayor’s office that he wants the board to look seriously at a candidate who came of age outside the dysfunctional arena of public education. That could be a corporate executive, the head of a nonprofit or a political official. Just so long as the board doesn’t pick from the same bench used by every other lagging urban district.

Dean tells the Scene that the system does not face a “crisis” but “a time of great opportunity.” He must also think that John Edwards’ presidential campaign remains viable. Last summer, the state placed Metro schools under “corrective action,” a clinical designation for districts that continually fail to meet federal No Child Left Behind benchmarks. The district’s high schools are in particularly bad shape, meeting almost none of the law’s proficiency standards. To take one example, nearly 40 percent of the district’s African American students score below minimum benchmarks in math. And although the district’s 70 percent graduation rate marks a major improvement from when Garcia arrived in town, it’s still 20 points lower than the state goal.

Perhaps an even more fundamental problem facing the district is the flight of the middle class. Ten years ago, 42 percent of the district’s students qualified for the federal free and reduced lunch program, which is available only to economically disadvantaged kids. Now nearly 65 percent of Nashville public school students qualify. Under Garcia particularly, middle-class families spurned the district in part because of the director’s apathy toward advance placement classes, charter schools and the arts.

It’s against this gloomy backdrop that school board member David Fox offered to retire himself—and his colleagues—from the school board. Last week, in a speech before the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, Fox called for Dean to take control of the school system, disband the board and appoint a new and more qualified body in its place. The mayor would first need the approval of Gov. Phil Bredesen, if not state lawmakers, but Fox thinks the tumultuous condition of the district warrants such a measure. The freshman board member, whose day job includes researching hedge fund managers, says the district needs a new board stocked with people who have turned around large, troubled institutions.

“I’m not saying we have nine unfit people,” says Fox, who, despite his protestation, is saying we have nine unfit people. “I’m saying this is the most important institution in town, and we need to have the most experienced people for the job.”

Frustrated after a difficult 18 months on the job, Fox thinks that it’s time to act decisively and reshape how the entire school system is governed. “There is a huge urgency now driven by No Child Left Behind, the dropout rate and the ongoing exodus of the middle class who can take with them the commitment to fund the schools at the level they need to be funded,” he says. “We need to bat a thousand here.”

Just two days after Fox announced his proposal, Dean told him in a private meeting he wasn’t ready to disband the school board. But the mayor has made it clear in his many conversations that he won’t shelve Fox’s idea just yet. On Dean’s nightstand is a book called The Education Mayor: Improving America’s Schools, which outlines the advantages of what Fox is proposing—a mayor-run school system.

For now, though, what Dean seems to want is to exert his influence over the district as much as possible, without formally taking control. It’s a smart move—the political equivalent of dating an unpredictable, alluring woman without making a firm commitment. Besides, for a newly elected mayor who sends his own kids to private school, Dean probably couldn’t disband a publicly elected board without generating some sort of backlash, particularly from its black members.

So how exactly does Dean plan to make his presence felt? There are a few ways, including itemizing the school board’s next budget, pushing for more charter schools and, of course, allowing for more choice in the system. Another intriguing idea Dean has tossed around is leaning on the school board to pick a co-interim superintendent.

Right now Chris Henson, the district’s well-regarded chief financial officer, is serving as interim director even though he hasn’t relinquished any of his current responsibilities. It might be another 15 months before the district taps a new chief. Until then, the mayor wants the board to consider an outsider to help Henson run the day-to-day operations of the district. That person—in a year-plus period—would have more than enough time to lay the groundwork on a series of reform measures that a permanent director can later implement.

Some chamber types would like Marty Dickens, the former president of AT&T Tennessee to fill this role. Dickens, one of Garcia’s most loyal supporters, tells the Scene he doesn’t think he’s suited for the position. Still, he says people have talked to him about the director job and, unless we’re misreading him, he seems at least partially intrigued at the thought of taking an office on Bransford Avenue.

A few people have pitched Dean on a number of other candidates. They range from raving lunatics like former Metro Council member Carolyn Baldwin Tucker to middling choices like former congressman and mayoral candidate Bob Clement. Other gossip tags former Mayor Bill Purcell as a possible candidate, a rather inspired selection—at least on a temporary basis. But by all accounts, Purcell is happy in his new job as dean of urban studies at TSU.

Among the many educational workhorses Dean and his staff have met with is Jeremy Kane, the 28-year-old founder of LEAD Academy. Dean would like the district to add more charter schools like Lead, even though they’re anathema to the local teachers’ union. Yet more than halfway into its first year, it’s clear LEAD can teach the district a thing or two.

School often runs six days a week and nearly 10 hours a day Monday through Friday. When LEAD hosts dinners for families, at least 250 people attend. Teachers, while paid a little more than the district average, are available by phone until 9 every evening and the school’s mostly low-income parents are every bit as active as their peers at MBA and USN.

Kane will be the first to say he doesn’t have all the answers, but the Stanford grad and loyal Democrat says that in Nashville, if not across the country, the time has come to reconsider the staple features of public education—from obstructionist teachers’ unions to big, central bureaucracies that run a district without passion or precision. To both Kane and Dean, the best way to improve public education is to, well, think about it first and don’t merely tinker around the edges.

“I like where we’re at right now,” Kane says. “You had a controversial school leader depart, a school board that’s younger and newer to the board and a younger mayor and a new council. If ever there were a time to sit back and investigate what’s going on elsewhere and start having an interesting public debate, I think that time is now.”

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