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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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

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”