Jay Steele hates the suggestion he's a top-down, heavy-handed administrator. That's not who he is, he says, and that's not how he wants to run Metro Nashville's 150 public schools.
He wants to give principals the freedom to innovate, to take risks. If they fail on occasion, so be it. Principals should be rewarded for trying new things, if it means better student outcomes.
As Steele says, it's not about perfection.
The message is somewhat ironic, coming from a man who projects an image just short of it. His short blond hair is carefully spiked in the front, framing an immaculate face and intense blue eyes. His spot-on cologne wafts behind him as he zips effortlessly among multiple appointments at the district's Bransford Avenue Central Office and local schools. Workers and visitors alike tend to wilt in the harsh lights that line the Central Office's cinderblock hallways, but not Steele. His three-piece suit still looks sharp. He's the best-dressed man in the room — every room.
But it isn't the cut of his creases these days that commands attention.
Steele, 47, is the chief academic officer for Metro Nashville Public Schools, a promotion he took in January when the district's director, Jesse Register, restructured MNPS' organizational flow chart. After Register, it arguably made him the second most powerful official in Metro schools, in charge of K-12 traditional public schools in the district and 5,100 teachers.
The job is a step up from the three years Steele spent overseeing the city's high schools. Those years brought him a divisive reputation. Depending on whom you ask, he and his team are "aggressive," "insanely driven" administrators "willing to shake things up" to invigorate a torpid school system. Or they are "bullies" and "inauthentic," exerting the kind of authoritarian control that many claim is the root of the district's problems.
When Steele looks in the mirror, he doesn't see that guy. He doesn't see the authority figure that his critics say has discouraged MNPS employees from pushing back against him and his office — out of fear of repercussions or that nothing will change. He doesn't see the autocrat that detractors accuse of trying to "people-proof" education through top-down, district-knows-best leadership. His numerous admirers — including high-level district officials, business leaders and some principals — praise him for leading the charge in a central office known for inaction.
Some principals have trouble pointing out a single weakness in him. Look at his linchpin achievement, they say — the "career academies" being implemented at high schools across Nashville — which has helped the city attract national recognition. Teachers, meanwhile, have begun complaining of "initiative fatigue" and say they are suffocating under MNPS' mountain of mandated programs.
As Steele wrestles with his public perception, the top seat in the district could be up for grabs by 2015. Between his tight relationship with the current director of schools and his popularity with the business community, the ambitious academic officer could be first in line for the job. And across the system, he's drawing that kind of deference — and just as much resentment.
For Steele, landing the district job in Nashville was "like coming home" for him. The Kentucky native was a district director in St. Augustine, Fla., an affluent school district where more than 85 percent of students are white, the median household income is $64,000 (34 percent higher than the state average), and the school district population is little more than a third of MNPS' 83,000 students.
Steele thrived there. He made a name for himself developing career academies — targeted courses of study that students could use as launching pads to future careers, such as engineering, health care and finance. His work caught the attention of the National Career Academy Coalition and the Ford Motor Company Fund. It was through those groups that MNPS Director of Schools Jesse Register, then new to the district, met Steele.
Register liked what he saw. With MNPS struggling to develop its own academies in its 12 zoned high schools, he offered Steele a job overseeing those schools. It put Steele in charge of what is now known as the Academies of Nashville and fostering partnerships with the business community and the Nashville Chamber of Commerce.
Steele's identity has become synonymous with the academies, which are now "wall to wall" in the zoned high schools. He talks about them with pride and enthusiasm, and he travels the country — and often the globe, to the tune of some $14,000 in travel costs — to tout their accomplishments or pick up ideas to boost the district's own programs.
Yet from the beginning, some parents and educators have privately wondered whether the program amounts to vocational training that reduces schools to workforce generators. Those concerns went public in 2011 after the high-profile ouster of revered teacher Mary Catherine Bradshaw, the coordinator of the respected International Baccalaureate program at Hillsboro High School.
Bradshaw declined to comment for this article. But at the time, she reportedly questioned whether the district was emphasizing career academies at the expense of liberal arts. After she repeatedly raised concerns about the future of Hillsboro's IB program, Hillsboro principal Terry Shrader asked if she was "committed to my vision for the school." He eventually suggested the Hillsboro veteran might be happier working somewhere else. She'd been at the school 27 years.
Pushing out a teacher of Bradshaw's stature provoked a major controversy, just weeks before students sat down for yearly state exams. Bradshaw's many past and present students rose up in outrage, as did parents and teachers. Little more than a year into his tenure, Steele found himself publicly accused of engineering her exit.
Today, Bradshaw teaches at LEAD Public Schools, a charter school operation. The incident remains a dark spot in Steele's history. When he's asked about it today, a solid eight seconds passes before he utters a sound. He clearly doesn't want to talk about it. Some of it he can't talk about, except to say it was a difficult time for everyone involved.
"I learned a lot doing that," he replies, after much hesitation. "I learned trust. I learned to trust the principal that made the right decision. I learned to trust my boss who was supportive." He pauses again.
"I supported my principal," he adds, "and that builds trust with all principals."
Understandably, though, a lot of MNPS teachers don't share that trust. If the district could get rid of Mary Catherine Bradshaw — a former Metro Teacher of the Year with deep roots in the school — no one is safe, teachers tell the Scene.
Of the more than two dozen teachers interviewed for this story, representing schools from North and East Nashville to Green Hills, none would go on the record, citing fear of reprisal. But they say they sense an "us vs. them" mentality polarizing the district, a disconnect between bureaucrats in the Central Office and teachers in the trenches.
Those concerns flared at a town hall meeting for teachers Sept. 16 at West End Middle School, where Register recapped the district's top projects and goals. As the list went on, teachers began to grow restless. Slowly, one by one, they started to voice their concerns. Their plates are full, they said, with all the new initiatives piled atop an unrealistic workload. We're overwhelmed, someone chimed in.
"My question is, what are you going to do about it?" a young teacher projected from the back, to applause.
One teacher produced a typewritten list of all the initiatives to date, amending it by pen as the meeting went on. She listed dozens of tasks in all: new reading assessments; read a 200-page document on how to teach reading; send home letters after five unexcused absences; project-based learning; data conferences with students; interventions; a focus calendar — and meetings. Lots and lots of meetings.
In response, Register, who had called the meeting, told teachers they should push back. Fine, teachers said — but when principals say their hands are tied, where are they supposed to push?
Steele wasn't at this meeting, nor was his name ever mentioned. While initiatives come from a variety of sources, however, from Washington, D.C., officials down to the district, most pass through Steele's office.
Register, a staunch Steele supporter, says he himself takes responsibility for teachers' issues with the district. Steele admits his office needs to do a better job removing what doesn't make sense anymore.
"Just because we've always done it doesn't mean that we need to keep doing it," he says. "My plate is overloaded, too."
But it's a new MNPS initiative rather than an old one that's causing the latest flap. It's the policy change barring teachers from issuing grades lower than 50 on any assignment or test. This plan — introduced in middle schools and now spread to the rest of the district, per Steele's office — is meeting heightened resistance as parents, school board members and teachers balk at giving half credit to students who refuse to turn in work.
When he defended the new policy to the school board, Steele was quick to say it originated with a series of principals, as if anticipating the criticism commonly bestowed on him and the district. "This is not a top-down initiative," he explained. "I was not even in the room when this was done."
But principals aren't exactly at the bottom in that structure, says Stephen Henry, president of the Metro Nashville Education Association. According to Henry, the MNEA generally has a good relationship with Steele, but the district and Steele's office need better communication. He says most teachers didn't learn of the policy shift until they reported to school this year.
"When you're making wholesale changes and you know the motivation for why those changes are being made, you understand them better," Henry says. "But when there's no communication or no attempt to bring people along, you have a controversy."
Communication is a "failure" the entire school district needs to work on, according to school board member Will Pinkston, an education consultant and former political strategist.
"It's about communication with the public, the media, other policy makers who are part of these discussions, the council, the mayor, the legislators," Pinkston says. "Communication across the district needs to be improved, and that's everybody's responsibility, including Dr. Steele's."
The school district's main hub has a long reputation as an isolated, top-down operation. It wasn't until an outside consultant, Tribal Group, assessed the inner workings of the Central Office last year that district leaders began to acknowledge and attempt to dissolve its oppressive management and "culture of fear." (See "Lesson Learned?" Sept. 5.) Steele himself says he felt that heavy hand when he arrived.
"We have to break down those silos," Steele says, and adds that his team has done that. "But it does take time to earn people's trust and also to develop leaders who are comfortable with that type of autonomy."
But teachers tell the Scene the district should heed its own directives. MNPS expects teachers to apply different techniques to meet different needs, they say — and yet the district's own initiatives favor a one-size-fits-all approach that ignores special needs, socioeconomic burdens, educational disabilities, language barriers and other challenges. They argue directives that work in one school may be illogical in others.
As a result, teachers across the district appear torn between abandoning the many new initiatives and committing to them. A lot of Steele's ideas are good, teachers say. But overwhelmingly, they say the district acts like a yo-yo dieter chasing nutrition fads. Whenever the district tries one, then opts shortly thereafter to pick up another — for example, flipping back and forth on the district calendar — progress stalls.
Other critics say Steele may believe he's giving power to the local level, but the way the district is run creates a system where it doesn't matter if MNPS has great teachers or leaders. So long as people follow the district's program and direction, everything will be OK.
"When you try to people-proof public education, then everyone is dispensable," says Natasha Kamrani, head of Democrats for Education Reform, a pro-charter school political action committee that while fairly quiet, hopes to play a part in future school board elections. "At its best, this leads to a culture of fear and intimidation. At its worst, unempowered principals and teachers are incapable of addressing the unique needs of their student body."
Whatever one thinks of Steele, there is no question of his standing within the district. At every school, one MNPS staffer jokes, there's typically a parking spot reserved for Jay Steele. On this September day, he's visiting Ross Elementary School in East Nashville, a school he's never visited before. All but one-sixth of its students are African-American, almost all are economically disadvantaged, and about half are scoring on grade level.
Once he's inside, new principal Ronald Wooding guides him through the school's wings. They swing through the cafeteria, where Steele awkwardly leans across the short table to make small talk with a kid eating chicken nuggets.
"I want to connect with these kids," Steele says. Another life ago, he was a band teacher before climbing the ranks into school management. "I feel best when I'm with the kids," he says, "and I see the experiences that they're getting."
What he sees on his rounds is often need and poverty. At the almost equally economically disadvantaged Pearl Cohn High School, one boy asks Steele how much his Louis Vuitton tie cost.
"Let me tell you, it's not real," Steele whispers, before adding almost apologetically that he bought the knockoff tie in the Philippines. "It cost me $3, but no one needs to know that," he says — then undoes it and hands it to the boy.
"I know that some of our kids don't have much in their lives, and if my $3 tie can bring him joy, then I'll gladly give it to him," he says.
But Steele isn't visiting schools to talk with students about their lunch or wardrobe. During his visit to Ross Elementary, he's talking to the principal about resources. In a cramped conference room off the main entrance to the school, Steele talks while his staffer types notes on an iPad. Across the table, the overwhelmed new principal jots his own notes in a floppy spiral notebook.
Throughout the district, teachers say principals are reluctant to push back — against the Central Office, against Steele, against his leadership staff — lest their lives get more difficult. Some teachers tell the Scene that their principals caution them to play ball with the Central Office, unless they want to find themselves on the outs with what detractors call "Team Jay." Asked about this reluctance, Steele insists he is open to discussion.
"Can I say that all 150 principals in the district have that collaboration trust? No, I can't say that," Steele says. "If they feel that fear — which I hate that they feel that, if they do feel that — I have been very honest with them and transparent with them. Bring it forward. Let's discuss it, because your success is my success.
"We are all working toward the strategic vision for this district, not 'Jay's Vision,' he continued. "There's no 'Jay's Team or 'Not Jay's Team.' "
Of the dozen high school principals Steele has worked with most, only three returned the Scene's calls for comment. All three are big fans of their boss, and few had anything other than praise for Steele, his office and his management.
"Jay gives a directive, an expectation," said Robin Wall, principal at McGavock High School and a "lead principal" advising principals at other schools. "He provides opportunity for improvement. ... If there are things that you're not improving, that's not a good situation for anybody involved."
Aside from being direct, Steele is willing to turn ideas into reality, says Terry Shrader, the Hillsboro principal who weathered the Bradshaw storm with him. "He had a vision of high school reform in Metro Nashville Public Schools when he came here, and he's put that vision into action," Shrader says. "That's his strength, is having a vision and be able to put legs to that vision."
And weaknesses? "Well, I'm not going to say that publicly," Shrader says. "He's my boss, you know."
During his nearly four-year tenure overseeing the district's 24 high schools, however, 14 of them have turned over principals. Two schools have switched principals twice, including Antioch and Maplewood. Pearl Cohn has had three in the past five years.
"I really struggle with the decision when I do have to remove a principal," Steele says, mentioning sleepless nights, heart palpitations and stress.
But some principals have thrived under his tenure, moving from the schools to the Central Office. Those in his tight inner circle include Aimee Wyatt, former principal at Antioch High School, and Michelle Wilcox, who followed Steele to Nashville from his last school district in Florida. Regarded as Steele's muscle, the two now serve as direct bosses to MNPS high school principals, while helping to enforce directives coming from Steele's department. Attempts to reach the two women were not successful.
"I'm not scared to make changes in leadership because I think the leader sets the tone, the foundation and the whole vision of the school," Steele says. "We're all replaceable. We're all on annual contracts, including myself. And if we can't make changes that are going to benefit student achievement, then I guess I'm not scared to make those changes."
No one would dispute that change is needed in Metro's public schools. Some people are happy with their MNPS experience and happy with the improvements they're seeing in their schools, says Jeff Yarbro, a local attorney and state Senate candidate who chairs the district's Transformational Leadership Group for high schools.
But Yarbro acknowledges that others are frustrated. They figure if they don't win a lottery to get their student into a highly coveted school, they have to move to Williamson County or find a private school. The latest initiative from Steele's office attacks that problem in part by renaming middle schools as "prep" schools, rebranding institutions that some 10 percent of Metro students transfer out of.
"One of the things that sets Jay apart is his willingness to pull triggers. And while I don't agree with every decision he makes, it's much better to be disappointed by action than frustrated by inaction," Yarbro says.
Steele's job shouldn't be easy, says Marc Hill, a former education policy adviser for former Mayor Bill Purcell who began tracking MNPS daily since 1999 as director of education policy for the Nashville Chamber.
"In the Central Office it's very easy to take the path of least resistance, when in reality it's a job that that should require difficult decisions every day," Hill says. "Jay's been able to make some of those decisions. He's aggressive and he moves quickly, and that has not been the culture of Bransford Avenue."
As for Steele's boss, the clock on Register's six-year contract is ticking. Should he decide to leave the post in 2015, the school board will have to decide who will be the next superintendent, in what is arguably the most important decision for Nashville in the coming decade.
It's too early to begin talking about the next district leader, Register says, adding he hasn't decided whether he'll ask the board to re-up his contract. But it's a mistake to start pointing out "an intended successor," he says, "because all of the sudden, that person gets a big target on his or her back.
"Part of that target on Jay is that he is effectively supporting the transformation that we're all after in this school system."
Continuity will matter when the school does get to that point, Register says. "We're changing but we're not changing fast enough," he explains. "We're pushing reform and transformation about as hard as an organization can take it, and we're trying to do it smartly. But it's amazing how many people resist that change."
His goal, under the district's newly approved strategic plan, is to be the highest performing urban school district by 2018 — a goal some school board members say is aggressive.
Asked whether he wants to be the next director of schools, Steele sighs. His job is already tough, and hard decisions, critical politicians and media depictions have him "just beaten down."
"I think that depends on these next two years," he says. "Yes, I would like to be the leader of the highest performing urban district in the country, but again, my work now is focused on these next two years, actually five years, of bringing the district up to its highest performing in history. That's my focus. Whether that's the leader, whether that's the chief academic officer or assistant superintendent for high schools. It's all the same."
It's been a long day, and it's not over yet. Steele has a quiet private meeting before heading out for the night to check out a neighborhood concert.
He loves music. Maybe it brings back his days teaching band class, or his youth as a drum major. That's where he says he learned a lot about being a leader of diverse people, he says.
But in a marching band, everyone has their orders. They have their part to play, they march a certain way, and they follow a leader's directions. And when they're successful, no one steps out of line.