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Dr. Register calls on Nashville to come together with a unified voice during his final State of the Schools Address

State of the Schools 4-11-15 0020 Today Dr. Jesse Register looked back at the journey Metro Schools has taken since 2009 and spoke of challenges that still lie ahead as he delivered his final State of the Schools Address for Metro Schools. The speech summed up his time as Director of Schools – both the successes and the shortcomings – as he prepares for retirement from the district this June.

Before a crowd of educators, students and civic leaders at Overton High School, he commended the Nashville community for its unified support of public education but also challenged them to avoid divisive debate and continue working together for improved opportunities and outcomes for all students.

“I am proud to say that the experiences our students are having today are much different than they were a little over six years ago,” Dr. Register said, noting gains in academic achievement across all subject areas and the district’s rising graduation rate. “With all of that said, we have to recognize that we’re still not where we want to be. We want to provide an excellent education for every student, regardless of their background, their race, their family or the school they attend. Our students deserve no less.”

The speech kept students at the center, and Dr. Register was even flanked by 30 students who serve as ambassadors for their high schools. Hitting a theme he would return to at the end of the speech, Dr. Register pointed to the potential in Nashville to create a world-class urban school system for its students and the community support it will take to make that happen.

“It’s taken all of us working together toward common goals,” he said. “We need to build on the progress that’s been made, and push aggressively in the areas where we still need to improve.”

Read the entire State of the Schools Address

The speech recapped the state of Metro Schools over a period of six years, beginning in a time before Dr. Register came to Nashville. He described the district as being in the first stages of state takeover and plagued by a culture of low expectations for students.

“There was a bright side, though,” he said. “When I moved here, the Nashville community was already fully aware of its school system’s challenges and was unified in demanding better for its young people.”

Calling it a “journey of transformation,” Dr. Register outlined the district’s reform efforts over the last six years, beginning with the strategic plan he developed with great community support when he first came to Metro Schools. Called MNPS Achieves, it focused on nine areas of need – such as disadvantaged students, high school reform and district operations – and developed strategies to address them all.

Read the companion publication, Metro Schools' Journey.

That journey was accelerated by $40 million in Race to the Top funding, awarded to Tennessee in 2010, that allowed the district’s five-year strategic plan to be completed in just three years. From there, Dr. Register, the Board of Education and other district and community leaders developed a new strategic plan to build on the successes of MNPS Achieves and Race to the Top, called Education 2018: Excellence for Every Student. This new strategic plan encompasses many of the major initiatives and practices underway today.

“[Education 2018] calls for greater school autonomy, redefining central office as a support system for schools and – most importantly – a focus on personalized learning,” Dr. Register said. “Personalized learning is the key to serving our diverse student population.”

In summarizing this plan, Dr. Register highlighted some of the pieces falling into place this year: a move to student-based budgeting for greater school flexibility, a focus on diversity across the district, personalized instruction through technology and a holistic approach to education that gives equal weight to academic, social and emotional development.

“This is a whole-child approach to education where we recognize that preparing for success in life requires more than meeting high academic standards,” he said. “We want to help students develop the social skills needed to manage emotions and build relationships. … We’re national leaders in this effort.”

One of the areas to receive the most attention – and clearly one of his proudest achievements – is the ongoing expansion and improvement of prekindergarten in Metro Schools. After a local investment of $5 million to add more than 300 new pre-K seats, Nashville won a federal grant for $8.3 million to develop and expand high-quality pre-K with the possibility of a total $33 million over four years.

“We know when students enter kindergarten ready to learn, they’re more likely to be successful not only in kindergarten but throughout their education. It’s smarter to invest early than to remediate later,” Dr. Register said.

Saying, “the progress we’re making as a school district is undeniable, but our work is far from done,” Dr. Register also spoke of the district’s challenges, including the number of priority schools identified by the state. Metro Schools in the bottom 5 percent for performance statewide has increased during his tenure, a development he called “unacceptable” and one that will require “hard decisions and hard work.”

“We can’t be afraid to make tough decisions if it means better outcomes for our students, and we’ve made some hard decisions already,” he said.

[youtube=] Watch the entire event.

He pointed to the decision to convert Kirkpatrick Elementary into a KIPP charter school and the work underway by the East Nashville Advisory Committee as the kind of collaborative work that will drive further achievement in Metro Schools. He also noted the poor performance of Metro students on the ACT, with the majority of graduates failing to meet the college readiness benchmark score of 21.

“In a school district going through transformational reform, like Nashville, test scores are always the last thing to change,” he said. “But we can’t afford to sit back and wait for the reform measures already made to take full effect. Our students can’t afford for us to wait. We have to keep pushing.”

With that, Dr. Register looked ahead at what faces Metro Schools after he leaves. He encouraged an optimistic outlook, saying the district is well-positioned to see accelerated academic achievement, and called on the greater Nashville community to come together once again with a unified voice. He cautioned against divisive debate and urged everyone to keep students at the center of all discussions.

“When the debate becomes about adults and not kids, we’re in a dangerous place,” he said. “Nashville is a world-class city. The appeal and success of Nashville right now are undeniable. And there’s one key ingredient that made it all possible: optimism.

“People have invested their time, energy and money into a vision for what Nashville could be. That same passion exists around education in this city. We’ve seen it. We’ve benefitted from it. Now is the time to harness an optimistic vision for Metro Nashville Public Schools. And it’s up to you and all of us in this room and others across the city to see that vision come to be.”