The mood at Bransford Avenue hasn’t always been so positive.
A public school system in a city dominated by expensive private academies, Metro Nashville Public Schools has long been an easy target. Critics have dubbed the central office incompetent and disorganized; comprehensive high schools, too large, chaotic and even dangerous; teachers, ineffective and unqualified. Perhaps most damaging of all, the school system until recently had been categorized as failing –– both statutorily under the federal No Child Left Behind law and in the perception of many Nashvillians. Consistently under fire, the district’s morale had been historically low.
But after years of well-documented negativity, newfound optimism seems to have taken root at MNPS. The buoyancy of mood has coincided with the leadership of schools director Jesse Register, now fully one year into the job.
“There was a real community sense of wanting to see the school system improve on a positive trend,” Register concluded after spending his first several weeks holding community meetings at various schools across the city. “Now, a year later, I’m beginning to sense people think there’s a real hope that’s happening. It’s not a quick turnaround. It’s not like flipping a light switch, but I really think we’re beginning to change a culture.”
Register, who has a doctorate in education from Duke University, is a generally calm man with an unpretentious leadership style that is gaining traction throughout the district. And while the story is incomplete –– no one truly knows whether a full turnaround is in store –– stakeholders across the board believe the impetus is there.
“He’s the best CEO I’ve ever met,” said school board chair David Fox, who added there’s been a “thawing of the ice” in recent months in terms of understanding the new executive’s plan. “Dr. Register has been very intent on making sure that everyone in the central office understands their role in making the classrooms more effective. He sticks to message. Rarely does an issue come up without Jesse saying what this issue has to do with improving classroom instruction.”
Tony Majors, Glencliff High School’s principal, meets with Register on a monthly basis. He said Register has brought guidance during a difficult period. “In working with the schools, Dr. Register seems to support school principals being able to make decisions that are in the best interest of their schools,” he said. “He doesn’t stick to a cookie-cutter approach.”
Even Mayor Karl Dean –– who until last summer seemed poised for a takeover of the system –– had high praise for Register.
“He’s done very well,” Dean said. “He’s a good communicator. He’s very direct. When he makes a proposal or makes a suggestion, you understand exactly where he’s coming from.”
Living by himself in a condo on West End Avenue as his wife continues her career in Chattanooga, Register tends to lead full days, with meetings for breakfast, lunch, dinner and often dessert. The North Carolina native speaks deliberately, his words flavored with a lilting Southern accent.
He said his goal is to visit more schools –– so far he said he’s walked through 95 of the 139.
That the 63-year-old, mild-mannered Register would become a change agent in Nashville seemed unlikely. When the school board announced three finalists for the director of schools job last year, the choices were largely seen as underwhelming and disappointing. One candidate was too inexperienced, having managed a school district far smaller than Metro’s. Another seemed overbearing. Register –– recommended by Connie Smith, Tennessee’s schools accountability czar –– appeared to be the only viable option.
At the time, critics noted that Register, who was superintendent at Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga for a decade, hadn’t worked in a public school system in two years. Some viewed him as too old and considered him retired, although he had been working as a senior advisor for the prestigious Annenberg Institute at Brown University. Still, skeptics argued, he didn’t fit the profile of rising education reformers like Michelle Rhee, the celebrated Washington, D.C., schools chancellor.
While his annual salary of $250,000 matches the earnings of superintendents in some of the nation’s largest cities, critics wondered whether the amount was warranted.
Register noticed the doubters.
“There were several of them quoted in the paper,” he said with a laugh. “You don’t necessarily ignore it, but you don’t let it be the reason for action. What’s important for me is to be very intentional and be very focused about the reform that we need to bring about in the district.”
Even the most cynical would admit Register walked into a turbulent situation. The school district had lacked a full-time leader for more than a year, following the 2008 dismissal of Pedro Garcia, a superintendent who ruffled feathers, created adversaries and put a face to the district’s problems. On top of that, the last year ushered in a new student assignment plan, resulting in a lawsuit centered on charges of re-segregation. Moreover, Register took the job even though MNPS found itself in “corrective action” under federal law –– one more year of failing to reach achievement benchmarks would have enabled a state takeover of the system, with Dean waiting in the wings to lead. (The district has since reached benchmarks, putting the anticipated takeover on the backburner for now.)
“You put all that together, and it creates an instability,” Register said. “And so the tightrope for me has been to push a reform agenda that we have to do –– we have to improve the performance of our young people –– but we also have to create a sense of stability in the organization. I think that’s been one of the greatest challenges, but I think we’re addressing both sides of that tightrope.”
Those who work inside the system remember Garcia as authoritative and grandstanding, always willing to throw the media a provocative quote. Register, meanwhile, is a “workhorse, not a show horse,” as Fox put it. He recalled a story about a longtime lower-level employee at the central office who had never spoken to a superintendent until Register made his way to that wing of the building. These days, Register stops by all the time.
That kind of simple friendliness, as well as the willingness to listen, seem to have helped smooth the relationship with the nine-member school board, especially compared with Garcia, who was known to frequently wrangle with the body.
“He’s played an important role in keeping the board unified,” Fox said. “All of his major initiatives come with some dialogue with the board. To put that in contrast to Dr. Garcia’s strategic plan a few years ago –– when he just told the board how it was going to be done –– Jesse always gets board buy-in.”
The approach has also improved the relationship with the local teachers union, traditionally a thorn in the side of district leadership. Metro Nashville Education Association President Erick Huth said Register listens to teachers and tries to make the district’s employees feel heard.
“In general, the relationship that we have with him is far superior to what we had with Dr. Garcia,” Huth said. “Garcia had a style that was very autocratic. … There wasn’t much collaboration that took place in schools or anywhere in the district.”
Register began his tenure by turning to a number of outside consultants, organizations and people, ranging from the Southern Strategy Group, a lobbying outfit, to statistician William Sanders, known as a master of value-added data, a conceit wherein students are marked against their own past performance rather than compared with other students. There has also been Gloria Frazier, a private consultant, who is leading the implementation of Register’s reform agenda, dubbed “MNPS Achieves.”
“It was a strategy that I developed,” Register said of his frequent use of consultants. “I knew we needed to build internal leadership capacity inside the district. I’ve been around for a long time, and I know a lot of good people.”
The consulting group CSS International, Inc. is in the process of rebuilding the district’s business practices, having produced 102 recommendations that target everything from contracting, purchasing and procurement to distribution and warehousing polices. Register also restructured the central office itself, opting last summer to move 310 academic “coaches” from there into the district’s 139 schools, which he admits “made a lot of people uneasy.”
“We don’t need to have a big central office where all the curriculum specialists and instructional specialists are here,” said Register. “Our idea was to push that expertise into the schools.”
An obvious influence on Register’s approach is the Benwood Initiative, a celebrated Chattanooga program many believe helped turn around low-income urban schools. Elements of the initiative, he said, can be found in the district’s efforts to help disadvantaged youth and the reorganization of the central office, among other things.
A top priority for Register is to reform the district’s high schools, a process that began when he tapped Jay Steele –– known for his work in building career academies in St. Augustine, Fla. –– as the new associate superintendent for high schools. The idea is to continue building Small Learning Communities inside Metro’s high schools, a model that breaks up grades into separate career- and academic-based groups.
“We’re graduating kids with full diplomas who may not have graduated before,” Register said. “We want to continue to look at that model and tailor-make high school for the needs of the students.”
Ask Register what he’s most proud of, though, and he’ll note the changed approach to educating special-needs children, who make up 12 percent of the district’s 76,492 students.
“We are transforming a culture from one where those children oftentimes are isolated or segregated into a very inclusive strategy for educating children with special needs,” he said. Gains have been made in the professional development of special-needs teachers, he added.
One of the most daunting tasks for MNPS is to meet the needs of students for whom English is a second language, a group that educators call English Language Learners. With Metro’s increasing diversity, one-third of Tennessee’s ELL population found at MNPS. “We must be really good at educating English Language Learners if we’re going to be successful,” Register said, adding that the district has turned to experts from George Washington University to evaluate the district’s ELL program, with recommendations expected in the spring.
With the help of federal grants, Register also wants to open six new magnet schools by next year, with the goal of moving more students into areas of specialization. The schools would be lottery-based and organized by academic theme.
And though it’s not explicitly part of his reform agenda, Register –– on the heels of a new state law that allows up to 20 charter schools in Davidson County –– is seen as friendlier to the government-funded, privately run schools than previous district leaders. That partnership is underscored by Register’s creation of a position devoted entirely to charter school operations.
“[Register has] brought a level of optimism and excellence,” said Randy Dowell, president of KIPP Academy in East Nashville. “There’s a spirit of collaboration, which has been growing over time, but especially over the last year. The communication is great at this point between charters and the district.”
Anchoring much of the overall agenda, of course, is the need for high-quality teachers. Register said he is exploring the current pay structure for Metro teachers. He’s discussed it with Dean, an advocate for paying teachers in lower-performing schools higher salaries to help attract better teachers. Politically, any change would require buy-in from the teachers union.
“The bottom line is, we have to be very aggressive in recruiting and keeping the very best teachers that we can,” Register said. “What I want for our students and schools is the very best teachers we can hire. I want to have a competitive advantage. If the work is harder, we need to pay more.”
Longtime educators have taken notice of Register’s reform strides. Francie Hunt, director of Stand for Children in Nashville, an advocacy group that worked with Register in Chattanooga, said he’s still in the early stages of reform, and that the time for change will come soon.
“The sense I get is that once he identifies those needs, he’s willing to go out there and remove the obstacles that need to be removed to solve the problems to move the system forward,” Hunt said.
With the city’s eyes looking Register’s way, he joked that he only feels overwhelmed “once or twice a week.”
“It’s just trying to keep my arms around it all to keep things moving in the same direction,” he said. “I know that it’s a highly visible job, but I don’t feel like I’m on a pedestal. I’d rather dig in and do the work.”
Register, who has two and a half years left on his contract, signed on for the job after making it clear he believes a district turnaround requires five years.
“I made a commitment to finish the contract, and it feels like we’ll be making good progress, and if we are, and the board wants me to stay, I’ll consider staying longer. It’s a cause for me. It’s the profession I’ve always wanted to do.”