Imagine telling your intended at the altar that you need two weeks to figure out if you can do better. If not, you’ll be back to settle for him. If so, you hope you can still be friends.
That’s the school board — one hell of an ungracious, cold-footed partner.
And that’s pretty much the posture it took last week, when it deferred for two weeks deciding whether Nashville’s highly regarded LEAD Academy charter school should be commissioned to help the district overhaul the failing, 635-student Cameron Middle School.
After a several-months-long process and district agreement with state officials — who are looking carefully over the shoulders of districts with chronically underperforming schools — to retread Cameron, elected officials and community members recently recommended LEAD over two other organizations for the significant task. But the nine-member
school board behaved almost as if it were hearing its proposal for the first time.
For seven years now, the Metro schools monopoly has failed the students at Cameron Middle School, which is serving a large immigrant population. And when education officials approached some of the most respected and innovative institutions to help them fix it, they all declined.
Instead, with the encouragement of state officials, the city invited proposals for helping reform the school — and they attracted three. Not exactly a torrent, but that’s because it’s an incredibly difficult job few are equipped, or inclined, to take on. One of those willing organizations is LEAD, which operates a north Nashville school with extended hours and an intensely focused staff serving some of the city’s poorest kids.
This homegrown charter school has three years of demonstrated results — not just in test scores, but in parent participation, teacher satisfaction, attendance, safety, etc. — and has the support of Cameron teachers, parents and alumni association members.
In fact, the only people who seem to be against it are on the school board. To hear some of its members last Tuesday night — all but two of whom have never even darkened the door at LEAD — you’d never know how the school has dramatically changed the lives of more than 200 children, whose previous academic trajectories were pointing nowhere but down.
They criticized the school as not being innovative enough (it uses methods that have been shared by some of most inventive educators in the country), not serving up impressive enough test scores (they’re better than Cameron’s), even for being one of only three entities willing to take the Cameron challenge (huh?), as if that’s a legitimate mark against it.
School board member Mark North, one of the two most anti-charter voices on the board, repeated it again in an interview with The City Paper. “We went out looking for partners, and we didn’t get a lot of takers.”
“I’m not so opposed that I won’t consider an outside party, but I want to be sure I have the confidence that the outside party is going to have significantly better results,” he said.
Where North and others are misguided is in assuming that anything short of turning the status quo on its head eventually will deliver different results. It won’t.
And it’s not like the school board is being asked to peel off a dozen schools from its complete control. We’re talking about doing something dramatically different with just one of 139 Metro schools (0.7 of the district) in the name of making sure more kids aren’t left behind.
Asked whether he’s ever visited LEAD to see how the school operates, North said, “No, I have not been to LEAD.”
Get back to us when you have.
In the meantime, consider the words of school board chairman David Fox, on how Nashville’s education officials should channel the most successful investor of
“As I’ve been looking at the plan for several weeks now, and looking at the constellation of people involved, I’ve been thinking of a comment that Warren Buffet says,” Fox said at the board’s meeting last week.
“I think the real trick in being an effective — in this case, school board member — is not to try to be a genius myself, but to go about associating with geniuses who are already doing a good job, and just stay out of their way."
Garrigan is a Nashville writer and former editor of the Nashville Scene.