2018 State of Schools Address


On March 28, Dr. Joseph shared the district's budget priorities, future plans and current successes during his annual State of Schools Address. 

Read the full text for Dr. Joseph's speech below.


Good morning, it’s great to see everyone here today.  I want to thank you for joining us – your presence indicates your support for the work we are doing here within Metro Nashville Public Schools.

Can we give Dr. Jill Pittman, the Overton staff and Overton’s wonderful students a round of applause for hosting us this morning?

Overton High School has amazing students.  I’ve visited this school on numerous occasions this year, and I am always inspired by what I see.  Overton is a wonderful representation of everything that’s great within our district. Within the walls of this school, students who are from 50 countries and who speak 40 languages learn together and learn from each other.

When I started this budget season, I knew I wanted to meet with our students and hear directly from them about what they needed and what they wanted in order to be successful high school students here in Metro Schools.

One of the groups of students I met with was right here at Overton High School.  I sat in awe of those students that day – and I continue to be in awe of them today.  I made a promise to those students that their voices would be uplifted in my budget, and I promised them that, as the adults responsible for helping them reach their goals, we’d do all we could do to fight for them.

Today, we are here to look at the current state of Metro Nashville Public Schools – to celebrate the accomplishments of this past year, and to discuss what we need to make progress toward making Metro Nashville Public Schools the best place in the country to educate all children.

Yesterday, I shared with the Board of Education and our community my request for a 5.1% increase from last year’s budget, representing $44.7 million additional dollars to our operating budget.

I feel strongly that this budget request is both reasonable and logical.  If fully funded, I am certain we will accelerate the work the Board of Education and I have begun as we have worked to execute our strategic plan which has four key areas: Our Students, Our People, Our Community, and Our Organization.  This budget reflects our desire to focus on our students and our people.  It is my hope that in future years, we will be able to gain the resources necessary to fully address all four strategic areas.

While we have made progress in some areas, addressing 91 out of 121 goals in just 18 months – we know there’s much more work to do. We are making progress, and as a community, we should feel good about our momentum.

  • We should feel good about improving the quality of our Pre-K seats working collaboratively with the Mayor’s office and local partners;
  • We should feel good about challenging students to reach new academic heights through our intentional efforts to increase rigor at all tiers of schooling;
  • We have doubled the number of students with plans to take Advanced Placement/International Baccalaureate/and Cambridge exams, and we have expanded our advanced programming in middle schools;
  • We should feel good about our focus on equity, which gave us the will to pay for testing fees for all high school students taking industry certifications. These efforts have resulted in our doubling the number of students expected to take industry certification exams;
  • And, we should feel good about our work in increasing our gifted and talented support in all elementary and middle schools. No longer is gifted instruction something a select number of students receive.  We now search to support the giftedness in all children and we expect more from all of our children.

I am especially proud of the work we’ve done to improve literacy. Our most recent administration of the Measures of Academic Progress in Reading showed that 55.9% of students in grades 2-8 met or exceeded growth targets which makes me optimistic about how our students will perform on this year’s TN Ready exams.

This is the work we committed to this time last year – these are the priorities we outlined and the work we invested in. And while these initiatives have not yet been in place for a full year, we know these strategic investments are going to pay dividends over time in the lives of our students.

We also have additional reasons to celebrate:

  • Last fall, we celebrated announcements of three federal grants, totaling nearly $24 million. These grants will provide professional development to our art educators, support high-quality Pre-K programs and develop five new elementary magnet school programs focused on Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics – or STEAM-  to provide additional opportunity and choice for our students. These magnet schools will each have a unique STEAM-focused curriculum designed to enhance collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking for students.  Our youngest learners will be immersed in programs like entrepreneurship, environmental sciences, integrated technology, biological sciences and environmental engineering.
  • In partnership with Nashville State Community College, we will launch a new Early College program at its main campus – admitting 100 freshmen next school year. Students will ultimately earn an associate’s degree in information technology and a high school diploma in the 2021-2022 school year.  This partnership meets the continued demands for IT workers right here in Nashville.
  • Through partnerships with Vanderbilt Health, Kroger and our Insurance Trust, we celebrated the opening of our first Employee Wellness Center that provides health, fitness and pharmacy services to our employees and retirees and joins our other MNPS employee health clinics in providing services and resources for employees and their families to improve their overall health. I am proud that Metro Schools received the Cigna Workplace Wellness Award recognizing our efforts on behalf of our employees and retirees.
  • The CMA Foundation has provided $11.5 million to fund music education in Music City since 2006, making it one of the largest private, local investors in public education in Nashville. The Foundation’s generous support for music education and its long-time commitment to the city of Nashville has been an essential ingredient to providing students the opportunities that come from having music as part of their education and creating a nationally recognized music education program.
  • Our Academies of Nashville offer 39 Academies in 12 high schools. Through more than 350 business partners, students have access to more than 40 industry certifications and participate in a practical, hands-on approach to learning in fields that interest them. Our schools regularly host visitors from across the globe who travel to Nashville to see our work – in fact, since 2011, we have hosted 4,223 visitors to learn more about the Academies of Nashville. They have come from 325 different communities, 40 states and two countries.
  • We also celebrated with Cicely Woodard, a mathematics teacher at West End Middle School.  She proudly represents all MNPS teachers and teachers in Tennessee as Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year. Dr. Woodard is a 13-year veteran in Metro Schools and has made a lasting impact on her students, her colleagues, this district and this state.
  • Just a few weeks ago, we celebrated LEED gold designation of our new Tusculum Elementary School – a much-needed replacement school that opened its doors last fall. Tusculum is one of only four schools in Tennessee to receive this level of certification that recognizes energy efficiency and conservation in building construction.

These awards are nice – and they are indicative of a district where great things are happening.  Last year’s budget, similar to this year’s budget request, focused on our people and our students.  We raised expectations and supports for staff and students, and we are beginning to see the fruits of our labor.  This year, we will continue to focus on our people and our students, but this time, our focus gets to the heart of our need to make strategic investments in the emotional safety and well-being of our staff and students.

First, let’s discuss the needs of our people, a critical component of our strategic plan.  As we talk about the investments that are needed within our school district, none are more important than an investment in our people.    If we do not address the needs of those who work so diligently in our schools every day – our teachers and our staff, there is no way we will achieve any of our goals.  We can have the most thoughtful and intentional Strategic Plan in the world, but none of the work will happen unless staff are inspired to execute it.

Nashville is booming.  We can look at the changing skyline and the cranes over construction sites and know that our city is growing.  It’s a wonderful thing, and it brings vast opportunities for our students.  But this huge growth brings challenges we must address.

We must recognize the economic realities for our employees.  The cost of living in Nashville is increasing as our city grows.  This is impacting not only our students’ families but also our employees. The reality is, in every corner of the city, we are tearing down older housing and replacing them with new homes, which brings higher home costs and higher rents.

For the second year in a row, employee compensation is a primary priority of our budget proposal to ensure that we hire and retain the highest-quality staff – and to ensure that our employees can live on the salaries they make.

  • I am requesting an additional $24,584,700 to provide a 2% across the board raise and step increase for all step eligible employees and to cover the costs associated with increases in insurance premiums and costs of pensions. This represents 55% of my overall ask this year.

I have heard from both the Mayor’s office and the Metro Council that this will be a difficult budget season, and my request takes this into consideration.  We are the largest part of Metro Government, and because we serve 11,000 employees, our employee benefits can be costly.  However, it is costlier to lose great teachers and employees because they cannot live in our city, so if there is a way to increase compensation even more through this process, I would welcome it.  Our teachers and staff deserve competitive compensation.

Compensation is an issue for most employees, but it is especially difficult for some of our support positions – like our para-professionals who work with our special education students and assist classroom teachers in meeting these students’ educational needs.

  • Let’s learn a little bit more about the incredible supports our para-professionals give our students and staff. 
  • Kushana Russell and Michelle Sampson are here with us today and I’d like them to stand at this time and receive our appreciation.

Thank you for what you are doing for our students. I hear your passion and, perhaps more importantly, I hear your struggle and I want to make it better for you and for your families.

We know we have to do right by our students – that’s a given – but we also have to do everything we can do to do right by our employees.

For a typical para-professional, the 11 and a half to 14 and a half dollars an hour average pay means they can’t afford to live in this city.  They are devoted to ensuring some of our highest needs students find success and they provide critical support to the classroom teacher.  Para-educators like Kushana and Michelle are committed to their schools and students and they are deserving of a salary that better reflects the costs of living in a growing and progressive city like Nashville.  That is why this year I am requesting that our para-professional pay be increased by two pay grades – at a cost of $1.3 million additional dollars – beyond the raises I am recommending for all employees.

Pay across the rest of our district must be addressed, too.  Our Human Resources team recently completed an analysis of current district pay scales as compared to other school districts and private industry.

  • We know we are competitive right out of the gate for an entry-level teaching position, but we fall behind competitive rates the longer an employee works for Metro Schools.
  • The study also reveals that while our salaries are competitive with surrounding Tennessee counties, we are less competitive with districts within a 450-mile radius; and our certificated, administrative and support pay scales all need adjustments to ensure we are competitive both in attracting and keeping employees.

To address the findings of that analysis would require a 4.5-percent increase in our pay scales at an estimated cost of $25.4 million in salary alone.

We are making the right moves to address this critical need.

Last year, employees received a 3-percent cost of living increase and those who were eligible also received a step increase.  Over the course of these past two years, if our budget is approved, staff will have received – at a minimum – a 5 percent raise over two years and individuals who are eligible for steps would have received much more.

Salaries are the single most expensive part of our budget so we know improving them is a long-term endeavor that will take multiple years and commitments from the Mayor’s Office and Metro Council.

I met with the Metro Council last week, and I delivered the report to Education Committee Chair David Rosenberg and Budget Chair Tanaka Vercher.  I know they will work with us and the Mayor’s office to discuss a strategic way to improve our employees’ salaries over the coming years.

In addition, this budget requests monies to hire 4 additional recruiters to support our efforts to attract and retain great employees and to provide dramatically better service to our schools.

Now, let’s talk about our students and their needs.

The great American educator and founder of Tuskegee University, Booker T. Washington, once said, “If you can’t read, it’s going to be hard to realize your dreams.”  We have declared war on illiteracy in our district. Too many of our children are not reading on grade level and this is a challenge this city has wrestled with for more than two decades.

Our students are fortunate to have dedicated and exceptional teachers who are raising expectations and improving their skills to help them succeed.  Let’s take a look at the work of two of our literacy specialists, from Gra-Mar MS and Goodlettsville MS, and see how they are helping us to transform literacy practices within our schools. 


Erin and Anita, you are models of excellence within MNPS.  Thank you for supporting our teachers and helping them to become expert literacy practitioners.  Can you both please stand and be recognized on behalf of the entire Nashville community for the work you are doing for our children?

Last year, we made significant, strategic investments in both resources and staff to fight this injustice.

  • We’ve invested $18.5 million dollars from our operating budget and from additional grant dollars in work at every level of our organization: in our classrooms – in our schools – in our central office capacity.
  • And for the first time in our city’s history, an unprecedented community-wide plan has been created. This plan, the Blueprint for Early Childhood Success, aims to prevent any child from falling through the cracks.

Our goal is clear: We will double the number of students reading on grade level by third grade by 2025.  We know early childhood literacy is paramount to long-term literacy success, and this community-wide effort shows it’s not just Metro Nashville Public Schools committed to righting this injustice – it’s the entire Nashville community.

Recently, Ron Fairchild, senior consultant for the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, reviewed our plan, visited Nashville and shared that our plan is a model for the nation.  Now, we must execute on our plan.  The Public Education Foundation has raised $1.2 million in private dollars to support this effort, and it hopes to raise another $1.2 million dollars to fully execute on year one plans.

As you can see, Metro Nashville schools are on the move, and as we move into this new year, we must continue to make strategic investments to move faster.

Another strategic investment we are proposing in this budget is dramatically increasing the amount of money we are sending directly to schools.  We know that our children bring whatever is happening in their lives into the classroom with them.  We know many of our students are economically disadvantaged and that we do not receive full funding from the state for all of these students due to how the state allocates funds through the direct certification program.

Under Direct Certification, only 47% of our students are economically disadvantaged.  Because the state does not count undocumented students in its calculation, and because some families who are eligible do not apply, we know this number is low and is not an accurate measure of overall poverty.  As a result, the District must bear more of the cost of addressing the effects of local poverty.  In addition, we serve nearly 11,000 students with special education services and have 17,600 English Language Learners.  These are realities that have a huge impact on student achievement and our budgets.

Our student-based budgeting model for funding schools provides schools the discretion to create budgets that best meet the unique needs of their students.  I believe that no one knows a school better than the principal, staff and parents in that school and no one can better determine what programs, supports and staffing will best serve its students.

I am proud to say we have increased the amount of money going directly to schools each year since introducing student-based budgeting three years ago.  The increased funding for next school year represents the largest increase in per-pupil funding yet, a 7.4 percent increase over the current year.  $14.8 million has been added to the SBB Pool of Resources over the past two years.  This year, we shared budgets with all school communities to help communities see how their per-pupil costs have increased or decreased.

We began discussing equity in our budgeting this school year.  Equity, to me, simply means understanding what schools need and engaging in conversations to ensure that schools have what they need to meet the needs of their children.  In a school system as diverse at MNPS, we need to make sure that the needs of our gifted students, special education students, English Language Learners, affluent students and economically disadvantaged children are met.  So often, we only focus on those students whose parents speak loudest to us.  But a great school system listens closely to those voices that may not always be heard, while continuing to work with all.  Under the current proposal, the majority of schools have increased spending power to provide more resources to their schools.

  • Under this budget proposal, schools will receive nearly $5.2 million more dollars to meet the needs of special education students and an additional $2 million for English Learners. These dollars will help schools provide additional supports and services to our neediest students.
  • In his final public sermon titled “Remaining Awake Through A Great Revolution” given at the National Cathedral in Washington DC, Dr. King reminded us of a parable of a man who did not prosper because he did not see the poor. The rich man, otherwise known as Di-vees, was said to have the finest clothes and lived the good life.  And there was a man by the name of Lazarus who was a poor man, but not only was he poor, he was sick.  Lazarus managed to get to the gate of Dives every day, wanting just to have the crumbs that would fall from the table.  And Dives did nothing about it.  And the parable ends saying, and I will paraphrase, “Dives did not prosper and there was a fixed gulf now between Lazarus and Dives”.

I share this story because right here in Nashville, one of the up-and-coming cities in our nation, we have challenges that need our attention.  Now more than ever, we must be able to truly understand our full school system’s needs and try to better utilize precious resources to support all of our children in all of our schools. And like the Dives, we can do something about it.

We recognize that if the social-emotional needs of our children are not met, and if our students continue to be suspended at high rates, we may perpetuate the school to prison pipeline and this is unacceptable.  As such, we are proposing to dramatically enhance the infrastructure of our social-emotional learning work by staffing a quadrant support structure to train more than 3, 000 teachers annually on an SEL model.

We know our schools are safer when we can train the adults within our buildings to know their students and help students understand their own triggers and ways to de-escalate their emotions.  Nashville is seen as a national model in working to support social-emotional learning and we have a number of schools doing exceptional work in this area.  Few schools are doing this work better than Fall-Hamilton Enhanced Option School under the leadership of Mr. Mathew Portell.  Let’s take a closer look. 


Frederick Douglass said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”  Mr. Portell, thank you for being committed to building strong children at Fall-Hamilton with your amazing staff.  Can we show Mathew and his staff some love for his efforts?

In addition, to building out the infrastructure for stronger Social-Emotional Learning practices, I am proposing 15 College and Career Counselors to our high schools.  My conversations with hundreds of high school students led me to understand how critical these positions are for our students.  Let me introduce you to a college and career counselor who is making a difference at Pearl Cohn High School. 


Connie and Asia are here with us today.  Could you please stand?  I know everyone in this room wishes Asia all the best at Belmont.

Connie, and counselors like her across the district, are making a difference for countless students like Asia and helping them to navigate the college application process.

It was one thing I heard consistently across the board when I met with students – we need more help with preparing for college. The Nashville Public Education Foundation and the Tennessee College Access and Success Network released a report on college access and completion rates for our graduates just a few weeks ago.  Their study showed that 24 percent of our graduates earned a college degree within six years of graduation.  At a time when an estimated 60 percent of jobs require at least a bachelor’s degree, that number is just not high enough.

The final SEL investment I am proposing is to build upon our nationally recognized Community Achieves work.  We know the community schools model is successful and – most importantly – impactful for our students and their families. During this next year, we will invest and expand these efforts:

  • Community Achieves will continue to support the 18 current schools implementing the full-service model
  • We are expanding the scope of Community Achieves to focus on elementary chronic absenteeism.  This will be done in partnership with Communities in Schools, one of our district partners that is providing similar supports in 18 additional schools, to provide case management and support for chronically absent students in our elementary schools that have the highest rates of truancy and chronic absenteeism.
  • We will continue to work with Alignment Nashville to explore ways to address health disparities and chronic health conditions among our students.
  • Lastly, we are adopting new national community school standards that align to the district’s Key Performance Indicators and the goals we have set for the Community Achieves program.

Another priority investment last year that will continue in this budget is the implementation of STEAM in our middle school curriculum.  In Nashville, approximately one-third of all new jobs are in a STEAM field. I first announced our intention to transform all of our middle schools to STEAM middle schools during last year’s State of Schools address.

At that time, I said I hoped this interdisciplinary instructional would inspire our students, challenge our students and motivate our students, all while helping them develop their own self-confidence by realizing the unique talents they will one day bring to the workforce.

Today, I want to show you what that work looks like where it matters most – in our classrooms.


I believe – and the video we just watched together shows – our STEAM work is already having a major impact in our middle schools.

Our students are finding their voices – through a rigorous approach that challenges them to think critically, to think creatively, to communicate with one another and to collaborate with their peers.

This year, 18 schools have laid the groundwork for a transformative shift in our middle school classrooms and we’re committed to getting this right for our students.

We know we can’t do this without our teachers and administrators – and this year we’ve supported them in ways we never have before with intensive professional development.

  • This year alone, our teachers have completed more than 11,000 hours of STEAM professional development, including specific arts-integration professional development. Their commitment to innovation has been transformative in our classrooms.
  • We’ve also invested in technology and advanced academics to ensure our students have access to rigorous instruction that will prepare them for their futures.
    • Every Phase I STEAM school now has a two-to-one technology ratio. This means our students have access to learn and interact with the technology they’ll experience in high school.
    • We reintroduced honors English in all middle schools – and next year we plan to reintroduce honors math and science for all students in grades five through eight. By providing these advanced opportunities, we are offering the challenge our students need to move toward their greatest potential.
  • And our community partners have stepped up to ensure our students have meaningful curriculum-career connections and opportunities in STEAM industries. Students can’t be what they can’t see – and our community partners across the city are helping our students see and shape their futures.
    • For example, at Croft Middle School, we expanded our partnership with the Nashville Zoo to create a new virtual zoo concept for students, and I.T. Creswell Middle School is using interdisciplinary approaches to teach students about construction and design.

And community partners are helping our schools reach their fullest potential. As recently as last week, Dell Technologies announced four of our phase two and phase three schools will each receive a grant, up to $2,500 dollars to help enhance their STEAM curriculum.

We’re also focused on leveraging community assets with our partners at PENCIL and through Alignment Nashville. And we have an advisory council – one that represents 20 different organizations from every sector of this city – helping us lead this transformative work.

We believe what we’re doing in the classroom won’t just impact our schools –it will impact the entire Nashville community.

Our students will graduate Metro Nashville Public Schools and head to whatever is next for them – be it college or a career – with a great understanding of how they can impact their cities and how their unique skill set can be applied across many industries.

As we move forward, I want to say our schools and our district are so fortunate to have such tremendous support from our entire community.  We have incredible community partners who are active throughout the district – people who are engaged in all areas to help us in our work. This is work we cannot do alone.   I want to specifically recognize our partners at Alignment Nashville, PENCIL Foundation, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, the Nashville Public Education Foundation and United Way for their commitment to public education and for helping us as we work to meet the goals we have set.

I also want to recognize all the hundreds of community partners who work directly with schools and students daily – partners who work with our Academies of Nashville, who volunteer in literacy initiatives and who serve in countless other ways.  If you are a community partner, please stand so we can share our appreciation.

Finally, I want to acknowledge the School Board.  There is a reason we are having this State of School at Overton High School beyond Overton being an amazing school.  Dr. JoAnn Brannon has served this community in many different capacities.  They include 34 years in the roles of teacher, consultant, assistant principal and principal in more than 21 Metro schools. She’s served as a school board member for the past 12 years with grace and excellence.  She has championed the needs of children, not just in this cluster of schools, but for the entire school district.  This will be her last state of schools as a school board member, and I think she deserves a standing ovation for such exemplary service.

Dr. Brannon understands that the job of a school board member is not to be a critic of the system.  The job is to be a champion for the system.  School board members have an amazing platform to help parents, politicians, and the business community understand the unique needs of our city.

We all know change is difficult. It takes courage to make decisions that may be right but may not be popular.  It takes courage to try something new. This board has worked together to create a vision and a mission for this district, to create a bold and intentional Strategic Plan that serves as the foundation and lighthouse for our work, and to hold the district accountable for ensuring our work is addressing the needs of all students.

We continue to have many challenges and we will always have much work to do, but our school district has much to celebrate and a reason for sincere optimism.

To conclude, Langston Hughes once shared:

There is a dream in the land
With its back against the wall
By muddled names and strange
Sometimes the dream is called.
There are those who claim
This dream for theirs alone—
A sin for which we know
They must atone.
Unless shared in common
Like sunlight and like air,
The dream will die for lack
Of substance anywhere.
The dream knows no frontier or tongue,
The dream, no class or race.
The dream cannot be kept secure
In any one locked place.
This dream today embattled,
With its back against the wall—
To save the dream for one
It must be saved for all.

Our efforts will ensure that the 86,000 beautiful children that we have within our school district can dream big, and this budget will help our children’s dreams move one step closer to becoming reality.