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VOL. 37 | NO. 41 | Friday, October 11, 2013

Nashville power brokers use their clout, cash to revive our public schools, coaxing a high-profile Hillsboro grad home to lead the effort

By Linda Bryant

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Nashville is a city in the national spotlight, increasingly landing on “best of’’ lists that range from economic diversity to entertainment and food to the health care industry.

Yet despite marked improvements in public education, the city hasn’t found its way been onto lists of the nation’s best schools.

The Nashville Public Education Foundation is looking to change that, however, with the goal of offering world-class public education opportunities to all students, regardless of the ZIP code in which they live.

Sounds like a tall order, but Foundation board members say they’re willing to do whatever is needed to put Nashville in the education spotlight. Recently, the 12-year-old non-profit group announced the hiring of Shannon Hunt as its new president.

Byron Trauger, a Nashville attorney and longtime Foundation board member, calls the move to hire Hunt “a bold new change in direction.”

Hunt, a product of Nashville public schools and a graduate of the University of Tennessee, has been a power player on the national and international stage as a managing partner of Cholpak, Leonard, Schechter & Associates, a widely-known Washington, D.C. public affairs firm. She started her career working for Congressman Bob Clement and, later, Phil Bredesen when he was mayor and then governor.

Recently, Hunt, 42, led a large-scale media and public affairs campaign on behalf of former NFL players on concussion issues. Her efforts led to a tentative $765 million settlement with the NFL – one of the largest in pro sports history.

She has also acted as an advisor to the World Bank and to numerous international politicians and corporations. For example, Hunt was a part of the team that took Colombian President Alvaro Uribe from relative obscurity to a landslide victory in 2002. Most recently, she was a senior advisor to Mexico President Enriqué Pena Nieto.

‘We want to move the needle’

Nashville Public Education Foundation, formerly known as the Nashville Alliance for Public Education, was launched in 2003 by Nashville attorney Tom Sherrard and the late business leader Nelson Andrews.

The group was originally envisioned as a funnel for private donations for projects or materials inside the public schools that were not included in the MNPS budget. In addition to helping to fund education programs and such innovations as the Academies of Nashville, the Foundation has raised significant money for select projects from the private sector.

These donations include over $3 million to help build the Martin Professional Development Center, a training hub for the district’s educators at the site of the old Eakin Elementary School building, and more than $7 million in a partnership with the Country Music Association that has funded music labs in Nashville’s public schools, as well as donating thousands of new instruments for music students. The Foundation also helped fund renovations at Julia Green Elementary.

Although proud of its accomplishments, NPEF’s leadership sensed the need for a new direction.

“We began to question whether or not we could become more transformative,” Sherrard says. “We conducted an in-depth self-study that took about 18 months.

“If we were going to stay primarily a funding vehicle, we could turn things over to the Community Foundation (of Middle Tennessee),” he adds. “But we could also change our approach and take a new direction. We could decide to help move the education needle in Nashville in a big way.”

The end result of the board’s soul-searching was the decision for NPEF to aim higher. It meant searching for a game-changing leader to direct the organization’s efforts, someone with the ability to raise more money than NPEF’s current $3 million a year.

“Instead of three million, we want to raise $15 million or even $20 million and more,” Sherrard says.

Hunt was selected from a pool of 30, which was eventually narrowed to three.

“We felt all three could have done a very fine job, but Shannon really stood out because she has proven experience at the highest levels of advocacy. We felt she could really help move the needle here in a big way.

“There are a lot of eyes on Nashville right now,” Sherrard adds. “We have a chance to seize the opportunity to elevate the conversation about education and make big changes.”

Trauger agrees.

“We see now that our broader mission can ultimately lead to change throughout the system,” Trauger says. “We can move away from being a pass-through financial vehicle to being a trusted and neutral organization that facilitates a conversation that leads to significant change. We have a public school system that really has a chance to get it right.”

Can change really happen?

While Metro schools have improved in recent years, there are still major obstacles that keep the system from helping all students.

A recent report co-authored by researchers from Vanderbilt and Lipscomb universities shows less than a third of Metro high schoolers score a 21 or better on the ACT, and just 30 percent of elementary and middle schoolers meet grade level standards for math. About 40 percent meet the standard for reading.

The same report found a growing socioeconomic segregation between schools, with almost three-quarters of Nashville public school students economically disadvantaged. Only 13 of MNPS’s 133 schools are labeled as “low poverty,” a designation which actually means a “low’’ or lesser number of students in the school are considered poor.

Marc Hill, chief policy officer of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, and longtime education activist and advocate in Nashville, says a stronger public education foundation could have an impact.

“The current NPEF has been an important support for Metro Schools, but there’s clearly an opportunity to do much more,” Hill says. “We have some very generous local funders, but we haven’t drawn much interest from national foundations. A strong NPEF can help change that.”

Memphis, Hill points out that, received a $96.6 million grant from the Gates Foundation to improve teacher quality.

“Nashville should be drawing those kinds of partners to our city around a crucial issue, such as teaching talent,” Hill says. “And while there’s been recent academic progress, we are still a long way from where we need to be.

“A more robust foundation should help us pick up the pace of improvement. The key for NPEF will be to ramp up their resources in a collaborative way that is embraced across the community. There are lots of stakeholders across the city who want to be part of the solution.”

Orrin Ingram, president and CEO of Ingram Industries Inc. and vice chairman of Nashville’s Agenda, says the new vision of NPEF is in line with what Nashville’s leaders have envisioned for over 20 years.

Nashville’s Agenda, a consortium of the areas top business, civic and community leaders, was started by the late E. Bronson Ingram in 1992 as a think tank for the city’s future.

“Education was at the very top of our first citywide goal-setting process in 1993,” Ingram says. “The same was true in the follow-up process, called Nashville’s Agenda 2007, in which more than 3,000 people participated. Clearly, school improvement ranks very high for Nashville’s future.

“There are few issues more important than this one,” Ingram adds. “My hope is that with new leadership at the Nashville Public Education Foundation they will be an even greater voice and advocate for the community on education.”

Hunt ‘no gypsy executive director’

Hunt’s old boss, former Gov. Bredesen, knows about the daunting challenges of public education reform and admits system-wide reform often feels elusive.

He has high confidence in Hunt.

“In hiring Shannon, the Foundation has shown a level of boldness and entrepreneurship that is too rare these days,” Bredesen says. “Shannon isn’t a gypsy executive director, moving from one organization to another. She’s not a custodian. She’s a thinker, and more important, a doer. She makes things happen.

“The Foundation, the Nashville school system and Shannon Hunt may be the triple threat that can finally pull off genuine and lasting reform.”

It remains to be seen if NPEF and Hunt can be major players in transforming Metro Nashville Public Schools.

Also unknown is how they might react to a controversy such as 2012’s bitter public debate over Great Hearts Academy, a Phoenix-based network of charter schools that attempted to start a school in Nashville.

Sherrard insists that the foundation is neutral ground, and solutions will be based on collaboration.

“Our organization doesn’t want to get involved in that kind of polarization,” Sherrard says.

Learning from Philadelphia

Nashville might get some ideas from the Philadelphia School Partnership, a non-profit that was founded by business and education leaders in 2010 to catalyze education reform in schools, particularly those with high poverty rates and low-performing academics.

The organization has raised more than $65 million toward a goal of $100 million for its “Great Schools Fund,” which supports the transformation, expansion and startup of high-performing schools.

“The end goal of the fund is to dramatically increase the number of students attending schools that prepare them to succeed in college and life,” says Kristen Forbriger, communications director at PSP.

“We measure progress against a set of key student outcomes that indicate schools are on the path to delivering on this end goal – including graduation rates, college matriculation, and proficiency rates.

“Within 10 years, PSP expects the schools in the fund portfolio, which serves 35,000 students, to be roughly on par with schools from surrounding suburbs and outperforming Pennsylvania averages on key with these student outcomes.”

Like Nashville, Philadelphia is trying to leapfrog over polarizing issues.

“For years, our founders individually supported schools and educational programs in specific sectors, including district, charter, and Catholic,” Forbriger says. “While their investments lead to pockets of promising results, they grew frustrated at the lack of scalable citywide change.

“Together, they created PSP with a shared mission of creating and expanding great schools of all types across Philadelphia,” Forbriger adds. “Specifically, PSP set a citywide goal of replacing the lowest performing schools – collectively serving 50,000 students – with higher quality schools by 2016-17.”

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