We had the great opportunity to interview Dr. Jesse Register, the Director of Schools for Metro Nashville Public Schools. We hope you enjoy the interview.
1) Is MNPS moving towards school-based budgeting and budgetary control? If so, what’s the timeline? What elements of the budget will schools be free to spend as they wish? What elements will be outside a school’s purview?
Yes. We currently have 15 schools in a pilot program for school-based budgeting. We expect to have 50-60 schools in the program next school year, with a goal of going district-wide by 2015-16.
Schools in our pilot group get an average of around $6,300 per student on their school budgets. The rest of the per-pupil money goes to central services like transportation, food, human capital, textbooks, building services, etc. Of that $6,300, principals have direct control over 92%. Those numbers are expected to go up every year.
We’ve also seen a big, big increase in the amount of Title I money going directly to schools – rising from 49% two years ago to 85% today.
And of course we are looking at a weighted student funding formula that would funnel resources to schools more equitably, based on the kinds of students they serve. That could mean different levels of funding for English learners, exceptional education, gifted or others who might need more dedicated resources.
2) Is MNPS moving towards school-based hiring? Same questions as above — how fast, what are the parameters, etc.?
As you know, the entire Human Capital department was completely restructured. We’re looking at them as a strategy and support system more than a group that does hiring and firing.
So principals select and interview their own candidates right now. That’s district-wide. They assess the needs for teachers in their schools, select candidates from the available pool, interview them and recommend them for hire.
I say “recommend them for hire” because Human Capital needs to run background checks and actually process the hire, but principals are selecting teachers for their schools based on their specific needs.
That means we are greatly reducing the number of forced transfers. In fact, we hope to eliminate them entirely. That means principals can hire teachers, but they also have to deal with their problems and weaknesses. We don’t want inadequate performers just transferred from school to school.
The autonomy principals have also comes with accountability, and that includes staffing.
3) Will we see any more movement/changes to the salary structure?
We have a strategic compensation committee that is working on developing recommendations that link part of teacher compensation to performance. We expect those recommendations to be ready in before winter break. Our goal is to implement this plan for the 2014-15 school year. We expect to reward high-performing teachers while also continuing to pay teachers for additional education from quality programs – if it contributes to their work.
4) Given the lengthy waitlists for schools like Hume-Fogg, Meigs, and MLK, why hasn’t MNPS opened more academic magnet schools? Understanding that other non-academic magnets (such as Rose Park, East Lit and Nashville School of the Arts) exist, why has MNPS not moved to meet that demand?
A quarter of our students attend a school by choice rather than by geography. That’s an important statistic for people to understand because it represents the diversity of attractive programs in our district, not just academic magnet schools.
Yes, the academic magnets have terrific track records and reputations. We are extremely proud of Hume-Fogg, MLK, Meigs and all of their feeder schools. But our thematic magnets and improving zoned schools can offer strong, challenging academics that meet every student’s needs.
The question we must face in Nashville is this: do we want to take our highest achieving students out of neighborhood schools and separate them into just a few academic magnets? I believe that is counterproductive. Instead let’s build the capacity in our zoned schools to challenge the high achievers while also serving the broad spectrum of all our students.
We want to improve the quality of all our schools, and we are making progress in doing that. Academically talented students can get a great education at any of our schools. If you look at our high schools, you see that in action. We have advanced academic tracks in each of our zoned high schools: Cambridge, International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement, STEM courses, Vanderbilt Scientists in the Classroom and more. No matter where you live in Nashville, you can attend a school that challenges you and gives you the education you deserve.
5) Is MNPS planning implementation of a comprehensive new teacher induction program that includes dedicated mentors?
We are in discussions for that right now, but it is very early in the process. It will all come down to funding.
There is a lot of research touting the positive impact of high-quality teacher mentors on student achievement. This year we are finishing up a three-year mentor-training program with Trevecca where teachers are moved into high-priority schools to act as teacher mentors. This will be a great pool of talent to pull from to get our mentor program started if it takes off.
6) Memphis is moving forward with additional Pre-K classrooms despite a stop in state dollars for expansion. Will MNPS move ahead with a Pre-K expansion plan?
I believe strongly in universal pre-K. I intend to pursue increased funding at the state and local levels. It is long-term the best strategy for eliminating achievement gaps between disadvantaged children and those who are not.
7) How would you describe the relationship between MNPS and the TNDOE? Commissioner Huffman?
It’s well known at this point that we don’t always see eye-to-eye.
However, we both recognize the absolute necessity of having a professional working relationship that supports improving student achievement at the local level and state level. It’s important that we have an honest dialogue in those areas where we may disagree.
8) What would you like to see as the state’s top education priority?
This is a difficult question because there are so many top priorities, as far as I’m concerned: recruiting and retaining great teachers, developing great school leaders, implementing common core, adequately preparing for PARCC testing.
But if I had to zero in one just one, it has to be funding universal pre-K. We serve a very large population of economically disadvantaged children, many of them also English learners. They must be given a jump-start on kindergarten so they are ready to start school. We generally have about 1,500-2,000 applications for pre-K every year that we can’t accommodate.
9) Dr. Register, you were quoted in the Tennessean that the district was not able to give step increases because of the rising cost of charters. Do you believe the district is reaching a tipping point in regard to charter school costs?
We need to have a conversation about the fiscal impact of charter schools. The Board of Education has already begun the budget planning process for 2014-15 because the members are concerned about the fiscal effect of charter schools on the district as a whole. Funding follows students, but fixed costs do not. The district continues to experience enrollment growth overall, so we have the same infrastructure and some increases in variable costs for teachers, transportation and other budget items, but when the transfer to charter schools is taken into account, our funding was flat this year and may even be reduced next year.
At the same time, we are moving ahead with the RFP for additional charter schools. Going forward, we might ask charter school applicants to meet specific needs. For example, a charter school in southeast Nashville could help address the tremendous growth in that area.
10) I recently toured Cameron College Prep. It was very fascinating to see a charter school slowly take over a zoned school grade by grade. Is the district looking to replicate this in other zoned schools?
We are also doing this at Brick Church Middle/Brick Church College Prep, though that is through the Achievement School District. Without our partnership with LEAD Academy through the Office of Innovation, Cameron might have also been in the ASD. We do not have any other charter school conversions on the table now.
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