'Sense of urgency' helps Metro Schools meet federal standards

Thursday, July 23, 2009 at 1:00am

For the first time in six years, Nashville’s public school district is meeting state and federal academic requirements.

It’s a time for celebration among those who work to improve local public schools, and officials say the results are indicative of changes that have occurred in the last two years. But most agree that with state standards and federal No Child Left Behind requirements due to be ramped up next year, and given the seriousness of several of the academic benchmarks failed in the last year, it’s not a time for resting on laurels.

“We’re going to take about 30 minutes to celebrate, and then we’re going to get back to work,” said Director of Schools Jesse Register. “What we have to realize is that it is just the beginning of a process. It’s a first step. What’s really important is continuously improving student achievement across our district.”

The Tennessee Department of Education announced Wednesday that Metro Nashville Public Schools has fulfilled the requirements of Adequate Yearly Progress. The district has met academic requirements that were failed last year, and averted a set of serious consequences that would have resulted if MNPS had failed.

Metro Schools reached "improving status" during an appeals process. MNPS has met requirements for Safe Harbor under NCLB. This means that though Metro scores did not reach all required benchmarks, sufficient improvement was demonstrated. Metro missed benchmarks for the elementary and upper grades, but showed an improvement in the district dropout rate and at least a 10 percent decline in the number of non-proficient students in each subgroup.

This is the first year MNPS has been eligible for Safe Harbor, state officials say. Though required benchmarks were missed, officials say reaching Safe Harbor is no small accomplishment.

“If you’re climbing a 20-foot ladder, you can’t climb from the bottom to the top in one step,” Register said.

As to what brought about the improvement, most agree that the good results have been more than one year in the making. Board of Education Chair David Fox gave some credit for the change to last year’s state Department of Education restructuring of the district, and to the teachers and principals who have worked through the leadership instability of the last year.

“It really validates the leadership that Chris Henson and the Department of Education were providing last year,” Fox said. “It shows that even during a crazy year, our principals and teachers stay focused on student achievement.”

DOE accountability chief Connie Smith, who has orchestrated many of the changes at MNPS, said the state has worked to foster changes in the layers of infrastructure that support teachers. She pointed to the removal last summer of principals at schools reporting troubled patterns of data for three to five years, and to the restructuring of the central office.

The DOE has also worked, she said, to create a “sense of urgency.” This sense has extended to Nashville school board meetings, she said, where listeners can now hear board members talking about how many kids in different subgroups — including economically disadvantaged, English language learners, and students with disabilities — are passing and failing.

“You never saw this language two years ago. Board members have gotten this sense of urgency,” Smith said. “The state can do so much, but it’s really [about] getting a clarity and a sense of purpose.”

The news for this school year is positive, but officials are already cautioning that public education followers prepare for next year. State standards for all Tennessee students will be ramped up this fall, and officials expect NCLB troubles for schools and districts statewide. DOE Commissioner Tim Webb said he expects to see “implementation dips” as the standards are rolled out, and that the state is working with the U.S. Department of Education to determine whether there will be some flexibility in NCLB requirements to accommodate the new standards.

Erick Huth, president of local teachers’ union the Metro Nashville Education Association (MNEA), said the looming challenge of increased standards makes this summer’s news all the sweeter. The good news provides an opportunity to celebrate and to raise morale.

“If we hadn’t made it this year, next year would have been even harder,” Huth said. “At least now, people have a target in sight.”

Still to be determined is the effect the results will have on local and state politics. Nashville Mayor Karl Dean — as well as other local leaders — have said publicly that they intended to watch these results to get a sense as to whether a change in governance to the school system could be a strategy for improvement. Putting Dean at the head of the school system would require a change in state law, but Dean has stated that he has been preparing to take over if he were asked to do so.

On Wednesday, Dean said in a prepared statement that he’s “pleased” with the “good news,” though challenges still lie ahead. The mayor’s office will look at data pertaining to the positive results and speak with Gov. Phil Bredesen and officials with the state Department of Education to determine next steps, Dean said.

“To me, this is evidence that when a community rallies around its schools, progress can be made,” Dean said. “We still have a long way to go to reach our ultimate goal, which is for all of our students to succeed. And starting this school year standards are going up, meaning our challenge is only going to be greater. Now is not the time to be complacent.”

The school board’s Fox, for his part, said he considers this news to mean that a governance change is off the table.

“It assures that the reform efforts, the rebuilding effort, that Dr. Register is working on will not be interrupted,” Fox said. “It takes the governance change issue off the table, and that’s good for the organization. We need stability. We need to build on the progress that we’re making.”

For complete, school-by-school information released to media by the DOE, click here.