As newly-hired Metro Schools superintendent Shawn Joseph relocates his family from Prince George’s County, Maryland, he faces a familiar struggle — where to send the kids. He’s the first director of schools in more than a decade to bring school-age children — Ava and Isaiah.
Shopping for a school, Joseph says he scrutinizes the facilities as soon as he arrives. Is the grass cut? Is he greeted at the door? How are children behaving? What’s hanging on the walls?
“I do a wall-walk, just looking on the walls to see what’s up to see if I can see evidence of quality,” he says in an interview with WPLN.
The Josephs steered away from Nashville’s many private schools, even if the superintendent’s $285,000 salary would make that possible. But within the district, there’s still a lot of “choice.” That’s actually been
a focus in recent years. School zones
don’t mean what they used to. There are magnets, enhanced option schools, arts academies, and — the most divisive at the moment — privately-run charters. Some focus on computer programing or science and math.
But Joseph kept it simple. He says he’d rather not make it public where his kids will attend, but he enrolled them as close to home as possible.
“I sent my kid to the local neighborhood school, the one he can just hop and the bus and go to,” he says. “That’s just how I’ve done it. If they had a particular interest, and there was a charter option, I would have explored it.”
Asked if the district has gone overboard on choice and whether it has been a disservice, Joseph says, “yes, to some degree.”
He says he’s heard the same things in Nashville as he heard in the other districts he’s worked in in Maryland and Delaware.
“People felt like you couldn’t get a good education unless your kid was in some kind of magnet school or some type of specialized program,” he says.
Coming in as an outsider, Joseph says he suspects Metro Schools started creating specialty schools as a way to draw middle class families back into the system because “so many people have checked out.”
“We’re feeding the notion that we’ve got to give you something special for you to consider us,” Joseph says. “I think what we have to do is put the excellence on neighborhood schools on display and let people see the quality you can get in your public school and get beyond this superficial notion of name.”
On The Charter Divide
Charter schools seem to be driving much of the naming race. In recent years, Metro Schools even
rebranded most of its middle schools as “middle preps” — a moniker used widely in the charter world.
“In Tennessee, we have a very narrow conversation about charter schools,” Joseph says. “There is this reformer notion, and there is this non-reformer notion. And I think if we really want excellence in Nashville, there’s a third option that we need to explore and that’s right up the middle where we’re not paying attention to where children are educated. We’re really focusing on quality for all.
Joseph says he thinks “choice is a great thing.” But he also says parents should expect a “quality option” in every neighborhood.
“If we’re going to move this city forward, we’re going to have to quit being extreme,” he says. “I’ve never seen any extremist be successful. It won’t happen in Nashville. It hasn’t happened anywhere nationally,” he says, referencing places like New Orleans and Washington D.C., which have become mostly charter.
Joseph says he intends to “getting back to the basics” by investing in pre-K, reading by third grade, high quality teachers and principles and pushing the strongest students, which — in turn — he expects will push the entire district.
“I’m not coming to invest in a bunch of fads that are going to get us short term growth and then we get out of here and move on to the next big thing,” he says. “We’re going to take the long game on this.”