Making a new play in North America, a United Kingdom-based education consulting firm is poised to play a leading role in Metro Nashville Public Schools’ reinvigorated effort to turn around several of the city’s lowest-performing schools.
Without fanfare or press, the school board last month agreed to hire Tribal Group Inc. — a British education support services company — to a 5-year, $6.3 million contract to bring attention to 33 schools deemed high-priority for failing federal education standards. Tribal Group’s funding is coming from federal grants.
“This is our first major project in the states,” said David Crossley, Tribal Group’s strategic leader for the Metro partnership.
Though they were in Nashville last week to get the ball rolling on the collaboration, Crossley and others will return in September for the long haul. The group plans to install one full-time project director, one data analyst and three associates in Nashville. Besides some smaller-scale work in Boston, most of the organization’s school-review services have been concentrated overseas in hundreds of schools in England, Australia and various Middle Eastern nations.
“We see it as a groundbreaking approach to school improvement, to take schools from where they are to where they might be,” Crossley said. “It’s based on the premise that almost anything you want to do in terms of improving schools, some school somewhere is doing it.”
One of Tribal’s functions in Metro is to help design the district’s new “Office of Innovation,” which will oversee a new zone of approximately 10 failing schools. Through the new cluster, targeted reform measures and additional resources are to be aimed at the schools, which could otherwise be taken over by the state.
“This will be a new initiative for America,” said Alan Coverstone, Metro director of charter and magnet schools.
Coverstone, who has been working with Tribal representatives, said 20 companies placed bids on a request for proposals in search of organizations to support the district’s school-turnaround efforts. All were subject to a comprehensive review, he said.
“This group is unique in its approach to school improvement, because it doesn’t bring a set of programs or a specific set of interventions,” Coverstone said. “They operate on the assumption that the things that are being done across the district probably represent most of the things you need to do to run good schools. The trick is to make sure that they’re happening everywhere.”
Tribal’s work will begin with an assessment of some of the district’s most troubled schools, he said. That includes reaching out to students, families, faculty and other stakeholders. From there, Tribal is expected to use data and the assessment to help craft a plan of action. They’ll then begin networking with other public schools to share best practices.
“We’re not a program,” Crossley said. “We’re a philosophy and an approach, and a style of school improvement that accentuates the positives and builds from where schools are.”
Crossley said the group uses a computer system called “The Navigator,” which allows all stakeholders at a particular school to weigh in on what the school is doing right and wrong. The computer program incorporates a four-stage model, he said, that begins by building a “knowledge base” of where a school stands today. After contributions from those in a school, the computer formulates a picture of what the school can become.
“Most of what we do is build local capacity,” Crossley said. “We’re not people who come in with backpacks full of programs. We don’t bring lots of people. It’s about working with local people to make a difference, using the international knowledge base we have.”
Schools within Metro’s new low-performing zone are to be revealed later this summer with the release of federal No Child Left Behind achievement results. But already, Director of Schools Jesse Register has said Napier Elementary School, Apollo Middle School and Glencliff High School will be part of the new zone.
Register told The City Paper to expect a “tailor-made plan for each school,” not a one-size-fits-all model. Accordingly, Tribal Group will play a key role in determining those approaches.
“It’s basically using the British inspection process that’s been so successfully used in Great Britain to turn around low-performing schools,” Register said. “It’s proven to be very successful over the years in turnaround strategies there.”
School board member Ed Kindall, whose district includes both Glencliff and Napier, has been on the board 27 years. He can’t recall ever outsourcing a schools turnaround, although he doesn’t pan the approach.
“If they have a proven track record of being able to help, it would be fine,” Kindall said. “But I just don’t know what their track record is.”
Kindall said the new zone for low-performing schools is a good idea if innovations to improve math scores result. But he pointed out that some major hurdles exist at schools like Glencliff and Napier — language barriers and poverty, for example. A lack of parental involvement is also a problem, he said.
“I think they really need to focus on getting the parents in a posture where they can help the kids academically,” Kindall said. “Because you’re dealing with a lot of parents who didn’t get a real good education themselves.”