Ten ways Jesse Register affected Metro public schools, for good or ill

By the time anyone reads this, Jesse Register will just be Jesse Register. He won't be the director of Metro Nashville Public Schools. He won't have any say over what happens next on charter schools or pre-K, or need to contribute to the ongoing saga of the Metro school board's dysfunction.

It will be the second time the 68-year-old superintendent has theoretically called it a day. A former Chattanooga schools director, and later a senior adviser for district leadership at Brown University's Annenberg Institute for School Reform, Register emerged from retirement six-and-a-half years ago to run Metro's increasingly diverse school system. That complex organism, a nearly 11,000-employee operation, is responsible for educating 87,000 children across Davidson County.

Whether Register will go into contracting or consulting — or start something of his own — is unknown. The outgoing schools director declines to say what he will do next, other than that he plans to stay in Nashville. For now, he says, he's not done in education but wants to take a break.

As his almost seven years as Nashville's educator-in-chief come to an end, he's had no fewer than five going-away parties in recent weeks. But the true story of Register's controversial reign includes blunders, failures and squabbles as well as advances, successes and turnarounds. He leaves not so much a single narrative bounding from peaks to troughs, but 10 individual legacies of admirable gains and frustrating losses: 

1) Rescued Metro Schools from state takeover

When Register first arrived, the district stood at the edge of state takeover, with its toes over the ledge. It hadn't met federal performance standards in half a decade, and the staff was worn from turnover and a tumultuous culture.

"I am hopeful he is remembered for turning this behemoth of a district in a positive direction," says Anna Shepherd, a school-board member and Register supporter. "I think because that was six-and-a-half years ago, people have forgotten what we were at the point in time. We are not where we need to be, but we are in a much better situation."

Six months after he began, the district met state standards — narrowly escaping a scenario in which the state Department of Education would have replaced Register and done away with board members. Since then, state test scores have risen in every grade, often by double digits. The scores are still low, however, with only roughly half the students in most subjects performing at grade level.

2) Expanded pre-K despite state's foot-dragging

Register turned two schools in North and East Nashville into pre-K centers in 2014, then added a third inside Casa Azafrán in South Nashville. The net effect: 520 new fee-free pre-K seats in the district, generally geared toward low-income kids. In total, the school district will have 3,000 seats countywide come August and more the year after.

This growth comes despite statewide hesitance to spend more money on pre-K. Gov. Bill Haslam had hinted he might be open to state government expanding its program, which would help MNPS fund additional seats. Instead, the governor sat on the issue for years. He seems likely to continue waiting until Vanderbilt University concludes its years-long study on the program's effectiveness.

Register initially waited for the state, then ran out of patience. To his credit, he opted to expand offerings here anyway. MNPS has since won $33 million in federal funds this year for pre-K. Under Register's plan, a universally available pre-K program could be available by 2018, adding around 500 more seats around the county to meet the current waiting list.

3) Apportioned too little too late for English language learners

Having the state's most diverse student population comes with the challenge of teaching children who don't speak English. More than 25,000 students come to Metro schools speaking at least one of 150 languages and dialects, whether as refugees from war-torn areas or as children of families struggling to learn English on their own. The district used to bus these kids — referred to as "English language learners," or ELL students — across town to schools focused on language.

That changed when Register started redirecting them to neighborhood schools to learn alongside their peers. The central office has admittedly struggled to crack the code for how best to reach ELL kids. It wasn't until the past year that the district put its money where its lingua franca was. In his last budget, Register's administration proposed adding $3.4 million to the ELL budget, dwarfing the $100,000 investment the district added to ELL services the year before. The funding will pay for more translation experts and send more money to schools for each ELL student they teach.

The upshot of the slow investment? Even before the new cash, students graduating from the district's ELL program tended to do slightly better than English-speaking counterparts on state tests. That's not saying much, when only something like half those students test at or above grade level.

4) Saw Metro's low-performing schools multiply

MNPS nearly tripled the number of schools on the state's "priority list" of its lowest-performing institutions in 2014. Register has blamed the landslide in part on the unexpected improvement of Memphis schools and the state recalculating which years of test data it would consider.

What cannot be disputed, though, is that these schools had dismal test scores. At Kirkpatrick Elementary School, the lowest of the low, fewer than 15 percent of students tested at grade level last year. Best case? Neely's Bend Middle had fewer than 1 in 4 kids at grade level. Many schools lack parental involvement and have staggering numbers of children moving in and out of schools throughout the year. The public won't know whether any of those dozen schools have improved for at least a month after Register is gone, although he sounds assured they have.

5) Kicked a hornet's nest with unions

"In just the last two years, Dr. Register has sent more Nashvillians to the unemployment line than just about anyone else," says Doug Collier, president of the State Employees International Union, railing against the district for taking Register's advice and outsourcing the jobs of some 700 school custodians. In 2010, 600 of those workers were hired by the new company at lower pay.

Register also let a "memoranda of understanding" expire regarding a labor negotiations policy with the SEIU and United Steelworkers. The ensuing series of lawsuits is still tied up in court. Register has had no interest in settling these, and still doesn't. Nevertheless, the school board has ordered his administration to pursue talks while it awaits the results of an appeal. Any settlement will come down to the interim superintendent or the new director.

6) Presided over notable school-board dysfunction

Of Register's more dubious distinctions, among the most striking were his political battles — notably with the school board. They got along just dandy for the first half of his tenure, but things took a turn in 2012 with the denial of Great Hearts, a proposed charter school for more affluent West Nashville. That spurred a showdown with the state that cost the district $3.4 million and tension with the mayor's office.

Then came his run-in with the school board, specifically with Will Pinkston, the ex-Bredesen neckbreaker turned pugnacious charter skeptic, an early ally who ultimately called Register's office out for shoddy public communication. That drumbeat swelled in 2014, driven by cries from charter critics that the superintendent, outwardly no fan of the privately operated, publicly funded schools, had pulled a turncoat switcheroo and suddenly embraced them.

7) Allowed charter-school growth to balloon

There was a time Register and his staff treated charters as red-headed stepchildren the district refused to recognize as its own. Despite spats with the state over their proliferation, though, more kept coming. Register "flip-flopped remarkably along the way," says Pinkston, Register's harshest critic, calling him "pro-charter when politically expedient." When he started, four charter schools were in operation. This year, the district will be home to 30.

It must be said that several top the list of the highest performing schools not just in the district, but in the state. But now there are so many that the board is at loggerheads over approving more, debating the strain they put on traditional schools. Some blame Register for not having a better plan to afford them financially going forward.

8) Erased zeros from student grades

Teachers have complained of initiative fatigue for years. But the issue came to a boiling point in 2013 when they told Register the state and district were throwing them too many programs to juggle without time or resources. Particularly reviled was the district's move to ban teachers from assigning students zeros on tests or assignments. The initiative, which bans any grade lower than 50 percent, came from his academics department.

Critics attacked the plan, saying it merely passed lazy or low-performing students through the system like kidney stones, calling into question the integrity of student grades. Register, who supports the program, argues it's the job of schools and teachers to find ways to motivate and educate all students — even those looking to skate by.   

9) Handed more power to principals, future leaders

Long before Register arrived, teachers and staffers complained that "a culture of fear" stymied progress and entrenched stifling bureaucracy at MNPS. The same conclusion emerged from a study by Tribal Group, a British consultant hired to examine the area's weakest schools and the district's organization. As an antidote, it recommended more principal flexibility and autonomy, including budgeting capabilities that will go districtwide this fall.

Register says he worked to change the district's fear-clogged culture, partly by decentralizing the central office. Under his leadership, MNPS has made gains by focusing on principal leadership and creating a pipeline for other growth opportunities. The district has added new layers of school and administration leaders, essential middlemen to create more of a bridge from the schools to district headquarters.

10) Testing ... testing ...  

One persistent argument about Metro schools revolves around their quality. While district officials claim it's an issue of perception, test scores still show that nearly half of students score below grade level in reading and math. One in 3 Davidson County children goes to a school other than their zoned one, opting for private school, a magnet or a school outside their neighborhood.

Though the scores are much better than when Register arrived, MNPS largely lagged the state last year with few exceptions. Major successes came from narrowing the gap between students from poor families, those of color, those who speak minimal English or have special disabilities. Register considers that a win. What this year's test scores will look like is still unknown, however — and won't be revealed for months after Register's office is cleaned out.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com

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