Tennessee

Nashville schools director hails high expectations, diversity in final address

PHOTO: G. Tatter
Nashville Schools Director Jesse Register, who delivered his final State of the Schools address Wednesday, speaks to educators and community members last August.

In his final State of the Schools address, outgoing Nashville Director Jesse Register on Wednesday urged community and education leaders “to believe that every child can learn,” including students who live in poverty, struggle with disabilities or are learning to speak English as a second language.

“We want to provide an excellent education for every student – regardless of their backgrounds, their race, their family or the school they attend. Our students deserve no less,” Register told students, educators and civic leaders gathered at Overton High School.

Register, 68, who is retiring from his job in June, used the platform as a farewell speech and challenged the community to avoid divisive debate and work together in behalf all students.

He chronicled his work in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools since 2009, when he took the helm of a district in disarray, plagued by low student achievement, financial mismanagement, and the flight of affluent students to private and suburban schools.

The district had failed to keep pace with its changing student population, he said. So many schools had failed to meet adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act that the federal government designated the school system as being in need of “restructuring.”

“There was systemic acceptance that ‘some kids’ just won’t do as well as others,” Register recalled. “. . . It’s a mentality that we still combat today in many places. It’s not borne out of maliciousness – quite the opposite. It often comes from a place of compassion and empathy, from principals and teachers who think: ‘How can this student who is dealing with so much in life be expected to learn like other kids?'”

Register cited support from Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and then-Gov. Phil Bredesen’s public education reforms that brought a federal Race to the Top grant to Tennessee — about $40 million of which went to Nashville public schools – as crucial to overcoming this mentality.

His arrival in Nashville also coincided with the onset of far-reaching state education reforms that included implementing the Common Core State Standards; creation of the state’s school turnaround program known as the Achievement School District; and significant expansion of Tennessee’s charter school sector, resulting in Nashville having the second most charter schools in the state. Growth of charters continues to incite contention among members of the Nashville Board of Education, in which Register often has found himself in the middle.

As schools director, he oversaw a number of local reforms, including the restructuring of high schools into career-oriented academies — a reform lauded by President Barack Obama during a visit to Nashville in January of 2014 — and the expansion of pre-kindergarten programs.

He highlighted changes in special education programming, emphasis on differentiated instruction, and an embracing of racial and socioeconomic diversity in Nashville schools.

Jesse Register
Jesse Register

“Many of you may not realize this. Our school system has no majority group in its student population. Our racial and ethnic groups are all less than 50 percent of our total district enrollment. As a district, we are the picture of diversity,” said Register, adding that its demographics make Nashville unique.

“We’re one of the relatively few school systems in the nation pursuing integrated education voluntarily. We are not legally required to do so. We choose to do so. . . . There are those who believe that diversity and quality are not compatible, but we are proving this to be wrong!”

Register said Nashville’s integrated schools are achieved by staying flexible instead of pursuing rigid percentages or quotas. “Our definition of diversity not only considers racial and ethnic diversity, but also income, language and disability,” he said.

Although the growth of Nashville’s charter sector is one of the most high-profile developments during his tenure, Register uttered the word “charter” only once in his speech, when discussing the takeover of an elementary school in East Nashville by KIPP, a national charter management organization. He did, however, allude to debates about accountability and public school finances that charters that have helped to spur, adding that while debate is healthy, it also can be divisive and put the school system in a “dangerous place.”

You can read his full remarks here.

Contact Grace Tatter at gtatter@chalkbeat.org.

Follow us on Twitter: @GraceTatter, @chalkbeattn.

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School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede