New Director of Schools Shawn Joseph is ready to exceed expectations
Metro Nashville Public Schools Director Shawn Joseph started the first day of school even earlier than the city’s high school students: he was up at 4 a.m. delivering 10 dozen donuts to bus drivers. His morning continued with greeting students and parents at five schools.
“I was there asking, ‘How can we help?’ I wanted to know if there’s anything that’s needed,” he said.
The 41-year-old, who officially began in the role of superintendent July 1, hopes to be a familiar face to parents, teachers and students across Metro’s 167 schools. Before school kicked off, he and board members held a series of public meetings in July and early August. Joseph is working to gather information from the community on how to accurately set the bar for a district he’s thrilled to be in.
“It’s clear that (Metro) has high hopes and dreams for public education in Nashville. We want to actively work to show our community by constantly working to be better,” he said.
His focus on goals and improvement is evident in the new slogan he’s brought to MNPS: “Exceeding Great Expectations.” But he’s not resting on his own ideas, or those gathered from other education professionals, to set the bar for Nashville. For him, a critical piece of the puzzle is listening to what teachers and parents describe as the district’s greatest needs.
“It’s meant to have us stay focused on paying close attention to what our constituency wants, and we have to adjust our practices to be really clear that we’re focused on our customer satisfaction and student satisfaction,” he said. “We want no questions on whether people are pleased with our efforts.”
His journey to education, and ultimately as the first black director of Metro schools, began when he was in college. The then-aspiring doctor at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania encountered a life-changing situation: Through volunteer work, he met a student who couldn’t read.
“I didn’t understand how in America we could have kids who couldn’t read. So, I switched my major to English education,” he said.
He’s served as a teacher, principal, district administrator, deputy superintendent and superintendent. Most recently, he worked for students in Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland as the head of teaching and learning. Prior to that, he was the superintendent of the Seaford County District in Delaware.
“Many of the opportunities are similar. In Maryland, the school districts were very large. It was managing the achievement of hundreds of schools that helped me understand the complexity and scaling-up work,” Joseph said.
“All of the experiences that I’ve had have helped form me for the work that has to take place in Nashville.”
Joseph faces a multitude of challenges, including retaining teachers, increasing school achievement and filling faculty gaps, but the newcomer’s goals will be impacted by a stark reality in Nashville: an overwhelming amount of the district’s 88,000 students are considered to be living in poverty.
According to the 2015 Education Report Card, 75 percent of Metro students are “economically disadvantaged.” MNPS said that 70 percent of its students in 2015 qualified for free or reduced lunch. (This year Metro will offer free breakfast and lunch to all its students.) Students in poverty are more likely to experience diminished health practices, difficulties learning and retaining information, and distress.
Metro’s Homeless Education Program served 3,000 students experiencing homelessness last year. Under the federal guidelines, homeless students are defined as “children or youths who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.” This can include students living in hotels or those “doubled-up” with other families due to a loss of housing. “These students often face concerns on an adult level,” according to Catherine Knowles, the Homeless Education Program’s supervisor. “They’re having to worry about where they’re going to go when school is out and if their needs will be met when the school day is over,” she said.
Joseph said that he will model his plan to help students experiencing poverty after “Effective Schools,” well-publicized educational research that outlines what it takes to create high-performing, high-poverty schools. For Joseph, that means creating a “rich curriculum” to encourage student engagement, making sure buildings are safe and maximizing the time that students are in the buildings. Supporting and engaging families in a high level of involvement is also among the research’s chief principles.
“We don’t expect parents to tutor in math, but we need them to encourage their students to keep engaged when things get tough,” he said. “We need parents to talk to their children so if they’re having difficulties, they can communicate it to their parents and the parents can advocate for them. I see parents as the first motivator of the child.”
Joseph plans to work with Nashville’s faith-based organizations, nonprofits and community organizations to help get the word out about how parents can support MNPS.
“The biggest support we need from parents is for them to encourage (their children) to come to school and give us their best,” he said.
Joseph also wants to focus on keeping students in the schools where they want to go. Under federal law, students experiencing homelessness can continue attending their school of origin the entire time they are homeless. “We work to have students in a school that is most convenient to them and we work to provide the necessary support,” Joseph said.
As Joseph works to integrate school families and the community into developing his strategic plan, he’s already made strides in community involvement by editing the hiring process. He has hired 29 new principals with the input of parents and staff.
Joseph is excited about the new year, his new role and the friendliness of Nashville’s residents. He has landed here hoping to make a positive impact on a district that has long clamored for change.
“(The community) has a director who is committed to listening to them and working to execute a plan that will bring better results for kids,” he said.
And it should be noted that Nashvillians have already changed him. Originally a New Yorker, Joseph didn’t hear much country music growing up. But the self-described R&B fan has found himself listening to the classic sounds of Music City. “They’re about storytelling, and I love that.”