Nashville schools’ stakes are high for new academics chief

Mar 4, 2013 by

From his Bransford Avenue office, Jay Steele hears the skeptics — those who question his model for high school instruction and his ability to turn around a struggling school district, and his boss for not scouring the nation to fill the position he now holds.

“I’m not shielded to any of that information or that criticism,” Steele said in an interview with The Tennessean one month after moving into his newly created position overseeing the curriculum at Metro Nashville Public Schools.

The noise would be hard to miss.

On the day in January that Steele was promoted to Metro’s chief academic officer as part of a reorganization of the district’s central office, some Metro Council members had already taken aim.

A letter from the council’s Education Committee to Director of Schools Jesse Register pointed to “modest and spotty” improvement in the high schools. And it called for new hires to come from outside the district, not via shuffling within — both not-so-subtle slaps at Steele, who had served as the district’s associate superintendent of high schools for three-plus years.

“What improvements have they made over his tenure?” Councilman Anthony Davis said, doubting that they add up to elevating Steele to the district’s top academic position.

Said Councilwoman Emily Evans: “Doing what you’ve always done with the same people you’ve always done it with isn’t likely to yield any different results than what you’ve always gotten.”

Steele, 47, is quick to defend his track record, however. When reminded of the district’s low 18.4 average ACT score — unlike most states, all Tennessee high school students are required to take the test — he fired back, noting improvements in reading and math proficiency marks and bumps in value-added ACT scores on a per-student basis. Those gains, in fact, outpace the state, he said.

“Anyone can pick any pieces of data and take that data to fit their agenda,” Steele said. “When someone is looking at the high schools and saying that they’re struggling, I don’t know what data they would be looking at.”

Though acknowledging there is room for improvement, Steele turned to other metrics he believes represent progress: a four-year graduation rate that exceeds the national average and more national merit scholars than the year before.

“Discipline incidents is at its all-time lowest, and attendance is at its all-time highest,” he said.

A pivotal time for Metro Schools

Steele, a self-described “transformational leader with a servant’s philosophy,” has emerged at the center of Register’s attempt to turn around the results and perception of a historically struggling school system. It comes at a pivotal time.

Register is moving in on year five of what he said would be a five- to seven- year turnaround job when he took command of Nashville’s public schools in early 2009. Stakeholders are getting antsy for results.

Mayor Karl Dean has sharpened his critique of the status quo — “We are failing our children,” he has said — as he pushes for the growth of charter schools. Nashville’s charter enthusiasts are making a similar pitch, creating constant comparisons between the performance of traditional schools and publicly financed, privately operated charters.

A December report from British-based consulting firm Tribal Group, which spurred Steele’s new gig and other central office shake­ups, framed the issue in simple, urgent terms: “Outcomes are too low and are not happening fast enough.”

For Steele, whose use of education buzz words borders on encyclopedic, the road to Nashville came after he was initially contacted by officials of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. They discovered him in St. Augustine, Fla., where he was known for his implementation of career academies. In 2009, the connection led to a new job overseeing Nashville’s high schools.

Since his arrival, Steele has advanced The Academies of Nashville, the chamber-backed model of instruction in Nashville’s high schools, which ties classroom instruction to career-based or other themes in an effort to make schoolwork more relevant. The approach, which includes 211 businesses that partner with the district, has critics who question the program’s rigor. Some also suggest the program is geared equally to seeding the workforce.

Steele rejects these assertions.

“The academy model is only a structure,” he said. “The real story is what’s happening inside the structure, where teachers are working together to create highly effective teams.”

New plans on tap

Steele’s new job came as Register also announced the creation of a new network of lead principals, who have assumed new leadership roles and autonomy. The idea is to transfer more decision-making from the central office to schools. In addition to adding Steele to his executive team, Register named Susan Thompson chief human capital officer.

In his new role, Steele said the alignment of K-12 curriculum and personalization for students top his plans. The former includes a new K-12 literacy plan and aligning assessments and textbooks grade to grade. He’s also eyeing the implementation of a new learning technology plan to maximize the use of tools beyond worksheets and textbooks.

“The kids who come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds — a lot of those students don’t have Internet access at home,” Steele said. “We at the school district want to work with the city to eliminate that barrier.”

Also in the works is a new Advanced Academic and Talents office, he said, which will serve as an umbrella over the district’s most demanding options: the Encore program for gifted students, Advanced Placement courses and International Baccalaureate. He also plans to expand Metro’s STEM, or science technology engineering and math offerings.

Firmly in Steele’s corner, of course, is the one who hired him. Register said, “He is exceptionally good at developing a vision and bringing people together to work toward the vision.”

Nashville schools’ stakes are high for new academics chief | The Tennessean |

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