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How Greg Hutchings liberated one Nashville school from districtwide dysfunction



In all the ways in which a school system can fail, Nashville's has.

Five years of falling short on test scores has brought partial state control. Last summer came an unprecedented rejiggering of the organizational food chain along with a purge of 60 principals and administrators. Mayor Karl Dean has spent the past year watching from the sidelines, waiting for the governor's green-light to bulldoze the school board and grab the crown.

Former chief Pedro Garcia arrived as a savior. When he left, the well had been so thoroughly poisoned it took a year-and-a-half to find a replacement. It's hard to attract top talent when job security is equivalent to an assembly-line worker in a Saturn plant.

These days, teachers and parents speak in cryptic metaphors. The most popular image is the rudderless ship, speeding toward a rocky shore.

But while the boat may be headed for trouble, a handful of crew have come under the direction of a promising young captain.

West End Middle School, which rests in the shaded tranquility of Elmington Park, is being heralded as a model for how a school should function within a system marred by dysfunction.

At the helm is the man most credit for its ascendance: first-time principal Greg Hutchings. He's quite possibly the most promising and ambitious educator ever seen in Nashville. And he's certainly the hardest to keep up with.

If it's Monday at 8:45 a.m., and Greg Hutchings is only just now making his way to the second floor, you best be ready to take the stairs two at a time.

The 32-year-old principal is four days away from completing the second of two heralded years at West End. Wearing a soft gray pinstripe, he attacks the steps with the ease of a former 110-meter hurdler.

"C'mon now," he says, bounding past a mural of Martin Luther King. "We've got to hurry up."

When he reaches the top, Hutchings quick-strides his way into a hall filled with students milling about and teachers doing their best to corral them. Then he proceeds to violate every rule of the man who purports to be in a hurry.

Before the first bell Hutchings has a routine: Make an appearance in every classroom.

"I want them to see me," he says, "to know I'm there."

It's not the easiest task. But it's made even harder because Hutchings can't let a single kid, teacher or parent pass without saying hello or bestowing upon them some virtue.

"This is the greatest woman you're ever going to meet," he says while introducing a parent.

"This man is like my brother," he says before hugging a science teacher.

"I want you to meet my queen," he says while holding the hand of the librarian.

Each teacher and parent responds in kind. Some add a warning for the visitor trailing their leader: "Hope you've got your roller skates on," they say with a conspiratorial grin.

Hutchings makes time for all while also maintaining a sixth sense about exactly how long each conversation should last.

A young teacher in pressed hair and cream matte pumps materializes in her doorway. She wants to know what to do with some extra textbooks.

Hutchings backs up as he's giving his answer, with the teacher matching him step for step, creating the momentary visual of a hankie-waving suitor, running down the platform as the train pulls out of the station.

Hutchings' day began at 5 a.m., as it does four days a week when he jogs before work. By the time he's back in his office, ready to take the mic for morning announcements, he's probably logged another mile.

He looks down at the schedule printed out by his secretary, also known as his "work wife." The day looks suspiciously open, with white gaps broad as his thumb staring back.

"You just watch," he says, flashing a megawatt smile. "It'll get filled."

If anyone was born to do a job, Hutchings was born to do this. After his parents divorced when he was 7, says mom Shari Thomas, a financial analyst at Freddie Mac, Greg's grandma told him that he was now the man of the house. He took the advice to heart: The next day, "the man" arrived at his second-grade classroom carrying a red nylon briefcase.

"He used to dress real conservative," says Shari. "Most kids wear jeans and sweatshirts. Greg made me buy him oxford shirts, khakis and loafers."

He got his first job at an Alexandria, Va., Chick-fil-A without saying a word. The manager was so thoroughly blown away he hired him on the spot; no 15-year-old had ever worn a tie to interview for a gig slinging waffle fries.

The prom king and student body president was a man on a mission. A "C" student bored in class, he tried to convince his advisor that he needed the challenge of the honors program to stay engaged. When she balked, he wrote a letter to his principal and circulated a petition. Seven hundred signatures later, Hutchings got his wish.

"That's Greg," says best friend Vantross Medina-White. "He'd walk into a room knowing no one and within 10 minutes they'd all know who he was. He always told me he was going to be famous one day."

Hutchings bounced around in college, attending nearly every public school in Virginia before getting his bachelor's at Old Dominion.

Doctor and lawyer were the preferred destinations of his youth. But the first time he stepped in front of a class as a middle-school science teacher, his fate was sealed.

"It was a rush," he says. "I thought 'Wow, I'm responsible for making America.' "

His first year he took on as much work as possible, signing up for every conference, club and committee while earning his master's.

"I was like a sponge for preparation," he says. "People say 'Oh you're so busy now.' But this is normal. I was this busy as a first-year teacher."

It's a pants-on-fire approach that's guided him no matter where he's gone.

"Everything he does, he's looking ahead to the next step," says wife Cheryl, an accountant. "When he worked in admissions his goal was to be the admissions director. When he became a teacher his goal was to be a principal."

Hutchings moved to Richmond, Va., to become an assistant principal and pursue his doctorate at William & Mary. Then he "stepped out on faith," blindly sending his résumé to Nashville after reading the city had been named Kiplinger's top town for young professionals.

Within two weeks he had a job as an assistant principal at Martin Luther King Jr. magnet school. With a 6-month-old daughter and no family in Tennessee, Cheryl was none too pleased with the prospects. But this was her husband's dream.

"And I knew he wasn't going to be happy until he got his way."

Being an urban principal is like presiding over a Balkan state in civil war, the attacks coming from multiple fronts with each faction speaking a different tongue. "You've got to be able to work with the angry parent, the disgruntled teacher and the sobbing student," says Cameron Phillips, co-president of West End's parent teacher student organization.

Worse, a principal must operate under crushing volumes of rules that even the Kremlin would find excessive. And in the halls of bureaucracy, freelancing is unappreciated. So they default to the comfort of archetypes to deal with the nightmare.

There's the Ph. D., whose moves are predicated by a mountain of theory. There's Rule Boy, whose answer to everything can be found in district decrees governing lunch room behavior to dress codes. Then there's the tyrannical hard-ass, the tough-love commander on a mission (think Morgan Freeman in Lean on Me).

Yet Hutchings pulls pages from each script. It's how, in his first year, West End was able to become the top middle school in all of Nashville. And how he won the title of Middle Tennessee's middle school principal of the year.

"Mr. Hutchings can do it all because he immediately sets you at ease," says Phillips. "It doesn't matter if he's talking to a 9-year-old or an 85-year-old grandfather. He effortlessly moves back and forth between all types and all age levels."

Hutchings presents his doctoral thesis in December. But he's got no problem air-balling a three-pointer at the eighth-grade picnic, while suffering the razzing of giggling teenagers.

And when an "f" bomb detonates on the court, Hutchings assumes a wide stance and calls over the offender, diffusing further lapses in decorum with a reminder that that sort of language is very "un-West-End-like."

It is this responsiveness that explains his success.

The cliché of the good principal is that their door is always open. This is actually true of Hutchings. What makes him different is how rarely he can be found sitting within.

"The first thing everyone notices about Greg is his energy," says Lloyd Hannon, president of Eakin Elementary's parent teacher organization.

Like a triage nurse in the ER, Hutchings is always patching wounds. Treating minor cuts before infection sets in.

Parents get weekly automated messages, even during the summer. Every email is answered within 24 hours. And for those who need more time, Hutchings created Chat 'n' Chew, a monthly breakfast where any question is fair game.

"He's by far the best principal I've ever been exposed to," says Beth Aplin, a West End parent and special ed teacher at White's Creek High School. "He's the real thing is what he is."

Renita Cobb has been teaching at West End for 31 years. The building's Grand Dame has an Eartha Kitt coo and a deep admiration for her new boss.

"He opens the school to parents. He doesn't try to hide things. He's always the same with people," she says. "He inspires me to be a better teacher. I see the genuineness in him. I can't explain it. He's just so...faithful."

Cobb says Hutchings is always willing to stick his neck out for his teachers. And his practice of popping into classrooms three to four times a week is "simply unheard of."

But if anyone gets the most benefit of Hutchings leadership, it's West End students.

"At private school, I had principals that were very serious but they never wore Hawaiian shirts or came into my class every day and said good morning," says eighth-grader Mia Rollins. "It'd be great if all principals were like that."

When report cards come out, every kid, all 453 of them, gets a personal note from Hutchings. A Keep up the good work if grades are good or a What happened if they've slipped.

"Even if your parents don't remember, he does," says Rollins. "He's kind of like everyone's parent."

Like a great party host, Hutchings knows everyone and how they all relate to each other. Meaning he can pull strings in the tangled web of community to exploit connections that might help the school.

"Greg is by far the best, most responsive principal I've ever dealt with," says Roger Taylor, a research scientist at Vanderbilt.

Taylor met the principal through a colleague who'd chaperoned Hutchings and a handful of other educators on a trip to China. (Hutching's take: "We're falling behind them. And the worst part is we don't know it yet.")

Taylor says Metro schools have always been wary of allowing researchers inside their doors. It's an odd aversion. Professors need test subjects. Students need new ways to learn. It should be a win-win. But schools are reluctant, despite the fact that the city boasts a half-dozen colleges, including Vanderbilt's graduate education program, recently ranked No. 1 in the country.

For example: Taylor's most recent project is a computer program called Betty's Brain. In it, students act as Betty's teacher, using a system of trial and error to find the best way to help her retain information—in the process learning how best to teach themselves new material.

When looking for subjects, Taylor contacted two principals. The first confirmed his worst suspicions about Metro. Despite two emails he never heard back. The second shattered them; Hutchings got back to him that same day.

Today, the computer bank in West End's library doubles as a research lab. Once Taylor and his team get the kinks worked out, Hutchings and the school will be rewarded with free copies of Betty's Brain.

It's part of a comprehensive, if informal, plan whereby Hutchings has put the Open for Business sign outside the school, leading to an influx of student-teachers-turned-tutors and professors-turned-lecturers. The more the merrier.

Normally these projects might get bogged down by administrative red tape. But because he's proven himself more than capable, Hutchings has a green light from the city.

"It's crazy that we have all these resources surrounding us that never get used," says Hutchings. "I want this building to be like a learning center for prospective teachers."

The sum of Hutchings' tireless effort: West End is now a destination. A public, non-magnet, educational stepping stone that parents seek out, rather than steer their kids around.

"I have parents calling me every day asking 'Do you think we're gonna get in to West End?' " says Roxie Ross, former principal of Eakin Elementary, which acts as a feeder.

Ross says that while West End had solid foundations when Hutchings arrived, he's provided the "icing on the cake." And with it, a record number of Eakin parents who've kept their kids on the path provided by Metro, including those who could afford to move their kids to private school.

"In Nashville, having straddled the public and private sphere, most people go through this agonizing process when their children are in preschool trying to get them into a private school," says Eakin parent teacher organization president Hannon.

After she and her husband visited Harpeth Hall, an all-girls private school, friends called to congratulate them on their choice.

"When we told them we decided not to even apply they were shocked," she says.

Hutchings says he understands that many parents in the West End zone have the option of sending their kids to private school. That's why he jumped at the chance to tour Harpeth Hall. He wanted to understand what parents see when they visit. He came away knowing the full scale of his disadvantage.

"There's no comparison," he says. "All the bells and whistles make it hard to compete."

But he also got reassurance from an unlikely source.

"The lady giving the tour said she had parents deciding between her school and ours," he says. "She looked at me like 'What are you doing over there?' "

It could be that recession trumps admiration in parents' increasing turns toward West End. But one, Tracie Robinson, doesn't worry about such distinctions. She believes the community has found a leader. The next step is keeping him in Nashville.

"Mr. Hutchings came in here to a bunch of dead flowers and breathed life back into them," she says. "If we don't keep people like him, Metro's in trouble. There'll be no saving us."

Saving a school system is not a one-man job. To that effect, Hutchings has taken on, and been granted, responsibilities above his pay grade.

He's been given the go-ahead to lead professional development at West End. Keeping teachers certified and up-to-date is normally handled by the school system at-large, to less-than-stellar effect. Hutchings' grab for the reins is an unusual amount of can-do for a system that's loathe to foster initiative.

It's one part of the effort to squeeze as much out of Hutchings as possible. Because the downside of getting a prodigy is understanding how rarely they come along. And how hard they are to duplicate.

You're precocious if you play the piano at Carnegie Hall before your feet can reach the pedals. Or if you make the NBA before you can legally drink. Less celebrated, though not necessarily less frequent, are those whose ambitions push them further and faster in a less conspicuous arena.

Hutchings is his own kind of whiz kid. Ultimately, that's bad news for Nashville.

"Everything I've done up until now has been preparation for this point," he says. "But I still have goals."

Those include becoming the first black superintendent in his hometown of Alexandria. Followed by a slightly higher post.

"I'm saying, when I'm in a nursing home, I'm going to turn on the TV and see Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Secretary of Education," says Teacher of the Year Renita Cobb.

But while some have already resigned themselves to Hutchings' fate as an educational superstar destined for greater heights, others aren't so quick to let go.

"He says he's going to be up in Washington, but I don't want to hear that," says Dr. Sharon Chaney, head of Metro's International Baccalaureate program.

It's a testament to Hutchings' popularity that parents and staff's most frequent complaint has nothing to do with what he's done. It's about how long he's promised he'd stay in Nashville.

Parents claim he guaranteed them five years. Hutchings says that's the high end; he could be gone in as little as three, meaning one more year. Either way some, like parent Cameron Phillips, are already planning for a future without him.

"If all else fails, we'll just have to clone him," she says.

At just after 3 p.m., Hutchings strides into J.T. Moore Middle School for a meeting. Three women greet him by yelling out "the best principal in Nashville!" When he makes a brief trip into an assistant's office, the man makes a lighthearted attempt to convince Hutchings to leave West End for Moore.

"I swear I did not pay these people," Hutchings says with a laugh.

Promising a busy day despite what looked like a relatively empty schedule, Hutchings has stayed true to his word.

A couple of impromptu meetings with parents of kids in trouble. A seventh-grade awards ceremony that'd somehow been overlooked. A million-and-one tiny interactions between students, parents and teachers, all of them unaccounted for in the antiseptic confines of a spreadsheet.

"Told you we'd get it filled," he says.

Mere minutes into one meeting, an overheated library and the soft drone of a floor fan conspire against Hutchings. He yawns, betraying the first sign of exhaustion from a work day that started before daybreak and won't be over until long after others have pulled out of the company parking lot.

It's a perfect time to find out if he can keep up this pace. Parents worry about burnout. Teachers worry he's pushing himself so hard his star will soon burn too bright for Nashville.

"Really? They say that?" he asks.

They do. But if anyone still has any doubts, Hutchings has one question for them.

"Don't they know it's not work if you love what you do?"

Email, or call 615-844-9410.

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