Memphians often complain that the state’s largest city is treated like an “ugly stepchild” by much of the rest of Tennessee, especially when it comes to public education.
But on Thursday, one of Memphis’ top school leaders got the opportunity to tell Nashville’s elected school officials what Memphis is doing right on education — and to offer a couple of suggestions about what Nashville could learn from its sister city to the West.
The first of six candidates to be interviewed for the job of director of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, Brad Leon placed a laser focus on issues related to equity and school turnarounds. He cited models for increasing high-quality school options across demographics in Memphis, which has taken the lead in Tennessee on prioritizing education equity.
Leon also called out the Nashville district about its lack of diversity among staff.
As strategy and innovation chief of Shelby County Schools, Leon has helped draw national attention to the state’s largest public school district through its prized school turnaround effort, the Innovation Zone. Nashville board members recently visited a Memphis iZone school, Ford Road Elementary, for inspiration on how to improve outcomes at their district’s own struggling schools.
Leon said that one of the biggest factors in test score gains within the iZone has come from within the district rather than from reforms mandated by the state. He highlighted a culture of collaboration among iZone administrators and promoted the work of Sharon Griffin, the regional superintendent who directly oversees the iZone. He said her leadership and the autonomy she extends to principals and teachers set the iZone apart from other turnaround models — and give the initiative the level of success that Nashville hopes could be replicated in its own low-performing schools.
“Dr. Sharon Griffin and others have been amazing leaders, and together we have really pushed the needle,” he said. “It’s the people, and it’s the culture, and it’s our amazing teachers and principals.”
As chief of Nashville schools, Leon said he would increase the focus on equity in opportunities for disadvantaged student groups. He said that although equity is already a priority in the Nashville district, he wants to see it highlighted in the district’s strategic plan and accountability system.
“In researching for this position, there are a lot of concerns about equity,” he said. “Whether it be access to AP courses, or differences in suspension rates, if as a system … that’s something we care about, and I think we should, then it needs to be a prominent component of whatever strategic plan we put together.”
When asked how he would address the high rate of suspensions for black students in Nashville, Leon said changing the culture of the district is key. He commended the staff of Shelby County Schools for being well-acquainted with the challenges faced by the city’s predominantly African-American student population.
“When I look and more than 70 percent of your kids are of color, and more than 70 percent of your staff is white, it makes me wonder if (Nashville has) the culture of inclusivity that it really needs,” said Leon, the only white member of Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s cabinet in Memphis.
When asked about how he would work with the Nashville school board, Leon said he would emulate Hopson’s model of collaborating and communicating frequently with the Shelby County Board of Education.
Leon also talked about Shelby County’s budget challenges — an issue Nashville hasn’t dealt with on the same scale. He said the No. 1 reason for Memphis’ dire financial straits is the loss of students to charter schools and the state-run Achievement School District, followed by the high number of under-enrolled schools and Memphis’ overall declining population. The latter is not a concern in Nashville, one of the nation’s fastest growing cities.
Leon, 38, began his education career as a Teach For America recruit and went on to become the first regional executive director of TFA in Memphis. Since 2013, he has served on Hopson’s cabinet in Shelby County Schools, where he also oversees district-authorized charter schools, online education and data research.
The Nashville school board is expected to pare down its list of candidates on Friday and conduct second-round interviews with finalists next week.