The success of this weekend’s first big gathering of Project RESET—Reimagining Education Starts with Everyone at the Table—was a dramatic win for the Nashville Public Education Foundation and its dynamic, new CEO, Shannon Hunt. When it comes to public education, Shannon’s passion runs deep. She graduated from public school, her daughter currently attends one and she grew up in a family of public school educators. Shannon’s mission is to gather all of the competing voices and ideas now swirling around the subject of public education in Nashville and have them all sit down at the same table to find common ground. And based on our time with her, if anyone can do it, she can.
Where did you grow up and what brought you to Nashville?
I was born in Atlanta, but grew up in Nashville. We moved here when I was 5. Both of my parents were lifelong Nashvillians. In fact, my grandmother was the first woman to be elected to the Metro Council.
You returned from Washington, D.C., to take the position as president and CEO of the Nashville Public Education Foundation. What appealed to you about the position?
I’ve been lucky to have some amazing opportunities in the political and public affairs arena. But as a young mother, I started realizing that, as much fun as it was advising foreign heads of state and Fortune 500 execs, I wanted to do something that had more personal meaning for me. When the Foundation opportunity presented itself, I jumped. I am a proud graduate of public schools, a public school parent and I grew up in a family full of public school educators. There is no issue I feel more personally passionate about.
Can you explain how your past position as communications director to Gov. Phil Bredesen has helped you in your current job?
I learned more from Phil Bredesen than anyone else I’ve ever worked with. He taught me two things: First, “Go bold or go home.” He is uninterested in worrying about the small stuff or playing it safe just to avoid conflict. Second, he was disarmingly honest. He could move people by just sitting across the table from them and telling it like it is. Whether it was ending the school desegregation lawsuit, negotiating to bring professional sports to Nashville or overhauling TennCare, he had an innate ability to strip away politics and game playing to just have honest conversations. It’s difficult to be angry when there’s honest dialogue.
Project RESET seeks to bring the community together to discuss public education, create initiatives for change, set standards for improvement and rally the city to support schools and raise funds. Why is this important for Nashville to embrace?
If there were ever a time for the city to come together on an issue, it is now on education. Nashville is topping the charts in almost every way. People are falling all over themselves to come here. But show me a U.S. city that has been able to sustain that level of success without strong public schools. As we turn the page to a new chapter with the election of a new mayor and selection of a new superintendent of schools, we have the chance to do something big on education. But there’s equal risk that a failure to get our act together could set our city back more than a decade. I, for one, am not willing to let that happen.
Our hope is that RESET will convince folks to put down their weapons, have less fighting among adults and a lot more fighting for kids, and most importantly, converge public and private resources behind doing what’s needed to ensure a strong educational backbone for the city.
What is the biggest misconception that Nashvillians have about our public school system?
The biggest fallacy is that if you’re a supporter of public schools, you think the schools are great and we just need better marketing and cheerleading. Or, if you say we must do considerably better, that must mean you are anti-public education or anti-teacher or whatever else. Neither view is accurate. My daughter goes to an amazing school. She is getting an education that is head and shoulders better than private school options. And her school is absolutely not the only great school.
But it is also true that nearly 60 percent of our kids are enrolled in some of the lowest-performing schools in our state. And in too many parts of town, upwards of 85 percent of the kids attend one of these schools. That is just plain wrong, and we have to fix it.
There are many amazing schools, and some of the best teachers in the state are teaching in them. But we also must do a far better job with the schools that aren’t up to par. It’s not an either/or proposition.
There is lots of “buzz” on Nashville right now. From where you sit, how can growth in the city positively impact our schools?
We are unique in how our creative class impacts our city in so many ways. Progressive thinkers are here and moving here en masse. Approaching our issues with new and innovative thought will help us maintain that growth. Change is always hard to sell to the broader public, but when it was their own idea, success is a lot easier.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
“Don’t mistake kindness for weakness.” I don’t think you have to be the loudest or meanest to be strong. People who rule by fear have always struck me as lacking in confidence.
What upcoming event are you most looking forward to?
I didn’t get tickets for any of the Jason Isbell shows at the Ryman before they sold out, but I am hoping I can score some between now and October.
Favorite thing to do on a Saturday night?
I am a total homebody. I’m most happy curled up on the couch watching a movie or sitting on my screened porch with a glass of wine.
What’s your favorite local restaurant?
What books are you currently reading?
I just bought The Wright Brothers by David McCullough.
Do you have any personality quirks or irrational fears?
I can be fairly intense and definitely have a fine Irish temper. And then, of course, there’s the whole afraid-of-the-dark thing. Yes, I’m 44 and despise the pitch black!
Name three things you can’t live without, excluding faith, family and friends.
Music, red wine and travel to new and exotic places
To learn more about the work Shannon is doing and the Nashville Public Education Foundation, visit nashvillepef.org.
Thank you to Ashley Hylbert for today’s beautiful photos. See more of her work at ashleyhylbert.com.