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Nashville can be ‘it’ for education

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on January 17, 2013)

The New York Times last week dubbed Nashville the nation’s new “it” city, citing economic and jobs data, TV exposure, the music business, food, tourism and health care — not to mention a huge new convention center — as reasons for Nashville’s current appeal. A few voices suggested that we still have a ways to go to meet the needs of Nashville’s less fortunate residents and many of our city’s students.

It got me to thinking: What would an “it” city look like if you were considering only education? I raised the question with some colleagues and got some interesting replies.

First and foremost, they emphasized safe environments with caring teachers. Great teachers care for all of their students as individuals, including students with special needs or gifted students with exceptional talent. They focus on students’ strengths more than their deficits.

They instill values of effort, perseverance and achievement and allow for students to learn at a pace and manner that is right for them, even as they set high expectations. They believe in learning for learning’s sake and seek to foster critical thinking. Students are assessed on their mastery of core concepts and cognitive skills, not just rote learning. Teachers also are culturally sensitive and appreciative of diversity.

An “it” education city would attend to the entire education continuum, from early childhood through higher education, for children with developmental disabilities to those with special talents. It would nurture those who think differently. To start, the city would work to meet the developmental needs of its most vulnerable children through quality preschool and outreach programs. Strong family-school collaborations also are central to K-12 success. For families that need support, parent resource centers, onsite translation, family-teacher conferences and steady communication and engagement would establish a pathway toward further education or meaningful work.

Some colleagues saw a disconnect between Nashville’s efforts to lure tourists or businesses and its efforts to improve the education system.

Nashville’s education infrastructure, including buildings, technology and transportation (including transportation to magnet schools), should be front and center as the city plans its future. Moreover, we should think of education broadly, including the many public spaces in which learning takes place informally, and the many organizations in which students should have leadership opportunities.

Several Peabody researchers are working with the Nashville Public Library and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum to develop programs that allow learners to take their investigations out into communities they can walk or bike. Others are working with Head Start centers.

The leaders of an “it” school system would understand that there is no excellence without equity and that parents should have choices. They will not be satisfied with a system that leaves families clamoring to get their children into a few highly regarded schools. School leaders would have autonomy and accountability, and district leaders would work to ensure quality at scale, so that all schools could become schools of choice by parents.

Nashville, in fact, is already working to do much of what I’ve mentioned. Should we succeed, there will be no shortage of people wanting to call Nashville home.

Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her column on education appears every other Thursday in The Tennessean Local section.