In his final State of the Schools address, outgoing Nashville Director Jesse Register on Wednesday urged community and education leaders “to believe that every child can learn,” including students who live in poverty, struggle with disabilities or are learning to speak English as a second language.

“We want to provide an excellent education for every student – regardless of their backgrounds, their race, their family or the school they attend. Our students deserve no less,” Register told students, educators and civic leaders gathered at Overton High School.

Register, 68, who is retiring from his job in June, used the platform as a farewell speech and challenged the community to avoid divisive debate and work together in behalf all students.

He chronicled his work in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools since 2009, when he took the helm of a district in disarray, plagued by low student achievement, financial mismanagement, and the flight of affluent students to private and suburban schools.

The district had failed to keep pace with its changing student population, he said. So many schools had failed to meet adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act that the federal government designated the school system as being in need of “restructuring.”

“There was systemic acceptance that ‘some kids’ just won’t do as well as others,” Register recalled. “. . . It’s a mentality that we still combat today in many places. It’s not borne out of maliciousness – quite the opposite. It often comes from a place of compassion and empathy, from principals and teachers who think: ‘How can this student who is dealing with so much in life be expected to learn like other kids?'”

Register cited support from Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and then-Gov. Phil Bredesen’s public education reforms that brought a federal Race to the Top grant to Tennessee — about $40 million of which went to Nashville public schools – as crucial to overcoming this mentality.

His arrival in Nashville also coincided with the onset of far-reaching state education reforms that included implementing the Common Core State Standards; creation of the state’s school turnaround program known as the Achievement School District; and significant expansion of Tennessee’s charter school sector, resulting in Nashville having the second most charter schools in the state. Growth of charters continues to incite contention among members of the Nashville Board of Education, in which Register often has found himself in the middle.

As schools director, he oversaw a number of local reforms, including the restructuring of high schools into career-oriented academies — a reform lauded by President Barack Obama during a visit to Nashville in January of 2014 — and the expansion of pre-kindergarten programs.

He highlighted changes in special education programming, emphasis on differentiated instruction, and an embracing of racial and socioeconomic diversity in Nashville schools.

Jesse Register
Jesse Register

“Many of you may not realize this. Our school system has no majority group in its student population. Our racial and ethnic groups are all less than 50 percent of our total district enrollment. As a district, we are the picture of diversity,” said Register, adding that its demographics make Nashville unique.

“We’re one of the relatively few school systems in the nation pursuing integrated education voluntarily. We are not legally required to do so. We choose to do so. . . . There are those who believe that diversity and quality are not compatible, but we are proving this to be wrong!”

Register said Nashville’s integrated schools are achieved by staying flexible instead of pursuing rigid percentages or quotas. “Our definition of diversity not only considers racial and ethnic diversity, but also income, language and disability,” he said.

Although the growth of Nashville’s charter sector is one of the most high-profile developments during his tenure, Register uttered the word “charter” only once in his speech, when discussing the takeover of an elementary school in East Nashville by KIPP, a national charter management organization. He did, however, allude to debates about accountability and public school finances that charters that have helped to spur, adding that while debate is healthy, it also can be divisive and put the school system in a “dangerous place.”

You can read his full remarks here.

Contact Grace Tatter at gtatter@chalkbeat.org.

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