Metro Nashville Public Schools Superintendent Adrienne Battle has a homegrown nature that is rare among district leadership.
Battle grew up in Nashville. She graduated from John Overton High School near Brentwood. She went to college after graduation, then came back to Metro Schools. She went from a first-year teacher at Dalewood Middle School to an administrator at Antioch High School.
“I was one of the students sitting in the seats of Metro Nashville Public Schools,” says Battle, as a small batch of tears fall from her eyes. “And so this is a role that I take very seriously.”
Battle was temporarily appointed to the position in 2019. The announcement came after the district’s most recent, highly recruited superintendent left amid tensions with the school board.
Her stint as interim superintendent led to her permanent hiring by the Nashville school board a week after last year’s tornado — in which she received praise after being spotted on the front lines of the aftermath. The hiring made her the first woman to lead the district.
It’s a job she never thought about while growing up as the only girl among her two brothers. She now has two sons of her own.
“I think it definitely has some significance, particularly where we are in the world right now,” says Battle, who also inherited a long list of challenges as part of the position.
Metro Schools has long struggled with underfunding, low test scores, racial disparities in school discipline rates and teacher shortages. This is on top of long-standing technology gaps that were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In June, Battle hired a Metro Schools equity officer to help address these issues. She also voiced her commitment to tackling racial issues after summer protests erupted following the killing of George Floyd.
“We’re a part of a system that has had certain structures and policies and procedures in place, that have not afforded the type of opportunities and equity that we’ve been talking about,” says Battle.
In this week’s video message, Director of Schools Dr. Adrienne Battle affirms our district's commitment to a peaceful and just society and planning for the 2020-21 school year. https://t.co/qyv2BIc5xl
— Metro Schools (@MetroSchools) June 4, 2020
Navigating the pandemic
Battle was put to the test immediately after her hiring. Educating kids through a global pandemic, she says, is the last thing she thought she’d be doing during her first year.
The pandemic closed schools before last year’s spring break. Battle’s initial plan had been to ramp up school cleaning efforts to keep buildings safe. It wasn’t long, however, before she realized that wouldn’t be enough. She says she never predicted that the pandemic would keep kids out of school buildings.
“So a very challenging time, but an easy decision in that we don’t want to get away from doing what’s best for our students,” says Battle. “We wanted them healthy. We wanted them in safe places.”
When assessing Battle’s leadership in her first year, for most people it comes down to navigating the pandemic.
The district was initially slow to roll out a learning plan for students after going remote. It took more than a month to provide an official curriculum. Battle had to first get laptops in the hands of students. She also spent the first weeks supplying meals to students. She cited equity issues, and much of her response was met with grace in the community.
There was a shift in energy, however, when Battle kicked off the 2020-2021 school year virtually.
Before the conversation about virtual and in-person classes, “most people were pretty happy with how she was handling everything,” says school board member Rachel Anne Elrod, who represents South Nashville and Brentwood. “Now it’s fairly 50-50.”
Elrod says Battle was the obvious choice as superintendent for the school district. And while her popularity has remained strong among many teachers, it has dwindled among parents who want the district to provide an in-person learning option for students.
‘It comes with the territory’
Since the start of the school year, Battle’s response to the pandemic has been the main topic of conversation during the public comment period at school board meetings. She’s also been the subject of several school reopening protests.
She’s been accused of not taking the education of students seriously, moving too slowly to address districtwide learning loss, providing an insufficient virtual education to students, and operating without oversight from board members.
For Battle, however, the criticism comes with the territory of being a leader.
“While I might not get every decision right, what my commitment is in collaborating with my team, with the board, and others, is to make well informed decisions,” says Battle. “Understanding that as a leader, they might not always be the most popular.”
Battle is overseen by a fairly supportive board which has been a breathe of fresh air for many in the Metro Schools community. There aren’t many intense, verbal fights like with the previous superintendent. Disagreements are mainly expressed outside of public meetings.
She’s also been credited for her transparency by making herself accessible to school principals and other leaders. Battle also updates board members every Friday and holds weekly private conversations. For some, though, it’s hard to know if Battle’s relationship with the board is part of a honeymoon phase.
The school reopening debate has largely overshadowed Battle’s first year gains. She’s delivered millions of meals to students, expanded student support services, made strides to close technology gaps, made investments in books and other education materials, and created help centers for students struggling to navigate virtual learning platforms.
In her second year, Battle says, she’ll be addressing learning loss and working to make sure all students have equal opportunities.
“Because if I lose sight of the opportunities that exist, and the vision that I know I have around MNPS, and who we are and what we will be, this district doesn’t move forward,” she says.