Director of Schools Jesse Register has been in office almost six months now. He’s laid the groundwork for system-wide changes to take place in the coming year, but one of his biggest fully implemented moves to date has been a restructuring of the district’s central office.
Most of the central office is being “fresh-started,” which means all employees in several large district departments — including officials in curriculum and instruction, human resources, finance, operations and student services — must reapply for their jobs.
Sure, the changes Register has made at the top tiers of Metro Nashville Public Schools have been limited. Most of the district’s highest-level leaders — many of whom have been in place since the administration of former Director of Schools Pedro Garcia — are staying where they are.
Some of those individuals were appointed to their positions last summer in a Tennessee Department of Education reorganization, and Register has said he wants to give them time to grow into their jobs and demonstrate their abilities.
Obviously, the reorganization is still in motion. Except for two seats.
Register made some early moves, putting in place a few new faces, and putting them close to him.
Register has promoted Linda DePriest, formerly executive director of special education, to an assistant superintendent position that oversees hot-button departments including English language learning, special education and federal funding.
He’s also brought on board Fred Carr, a long-time colleague from Register’s work in Chattanooga’s Hamilton County Schools. Carr, like DePriest, fills a new position created by Register. Carr’s role is assistant to the superintendent, a job that involves working closely with Register to cover as much ground as possible.
For parents and watchers of Metro schools, many of the faces in Register’s top team of department heads — referred to as the cabinet by Garcia, a term that has been discarded by Register – are familiar. Carr and DePriest, however, represent uncharted waters, and their appointments could shed light on the kinds of decisions Register will make in the future.
There’s a sign over DePriest’s desk. It reads, “It Is What It Is.”
That seems an appropriate maxim for an administrator of a large urban school district, signaling recognition of work in an imperfect world. DePriest received the sign as a gift; she utters the phrase so often, she said, that a co-worker purchased the sign.
“You take what you have, and then you try to work with it, rather than think you can just change something altogether,” DePriest said.
DePriest is an experienced veteran of Nashville’s special education programming. Her mother was one of MNPS’s very first drivers of vehicles for special education students, and DePriest started her career as a special education teacher before eventually joining the administration.
She retired two years ago after 30 years of work at MNPS, but was recruited back MNPS last summer by Tennessee Department of Education accountability chief Connie Smith. In the midst of a state reorganization of parts of the district, DePriest was hired by state and MNPS officials as head of special education — a department with operations that many parents and advocates would have described as imperfect, to say the least.
In the last year, parents and advocates say DePriest has brought about big changes. She’s taken concrete steps toward more widespread inclusion of children with disabilities in general education settings, and is said to have opened lines of communication and trust that have deteriorated in the last few years.
More changes for DePriest came about in the last few months. Register has restructured the district’s organizational chart, and though most of his changes to the district’s very top tiers of management appear to immediately deviate only slightly from the DOE’s reorganization, one of the biggest moves he made involves a new position and promotion for DePriest.
DePriest has been named assistant superintendent for instructional support, which puts her at the head of several hot-button MNPS departments. Reporting to DePriest are the district’s executive directors of federal programs, English Language Learning, special education, and accountability.
A new executive director of special education — now dubbed the Department of Exceptional Education, and restructured to encompass special education as well as services for gifted and talented kids — has been appointed to DePriest’s old job.
Carr says he has the ability to do more than one thing at once.
He doesn’t just mean, say, walking and chewing gum at the same time. Carr has simultaneously cultivated expertise in public school administration and emergency medicine, fields that he says share a few commonalities. He’s worked as a state-certified EMT, a street medic, a volunteer firefighter and an official storm-spotter. In the 1980s, he co-authored Tennessee’s first vehicle extrication course.
Carr is even licensed to drive school buses — he earned that certification while principal of a high-poverty elementary school in Chattanooga, as there weren’t many other options for transporting kids for field trips. Carr comes from a family of educators, and worked for 10 years as an elementary school teacher before beginning to work in administration.
Such multi-tasking will likely be useful in his role here at MNPS, as assistant to Register.
Carr and Register have a long history of work together. Carr served very briefly — for about five months — as superintendent of Chattanooga City Schools, just before a merger took place that left Register at the helm of two newly joined systems combined to create Hamilton County Schools.
He retired in 2006, when Register retired. At that time, he had logged 31 years in Chattanooga’s public schools. He’s worked since then as a contract employee for the Tennessee Department of Education, assigned to Robertson County when that district reached corrective action under federal No Child Left Behind laws.
Carr says he got a call about the Nashville job from Register just after Register was hired as director here. The two make a good team, Carr said. As assistant to the superintendent, Carr says he will play a close role in implementing goals set by Register, pulling together and facilitating teams of people who can turn visions into reality.
Carr has also attended meetings and work groups Register can’t be present at, and is able to both listen for information Register needs and to sometimes communicate Register’s plans.
“That support role is one that’s very comfortable for me. I’m a strong leader, but I’m not a visionary leader. I can’t take a blank sheet of paper and create something very well. That’s not my strength,” Carr said. “It is Dr. Register’s strength. He can connect pieces together that you couldn’t connect together to create successful initiatives. What I can do is take those pieces that he identifies, that need to be a part of a plan, and turn it into something solid that functions.”