Sharon Gentry describes herself as a “Constructive Malcontent,” a person who gets antsy when she sees opportunities for things to be better — in any arena. As Metro School Board chair, education is a natural draw for her. Not only does she love the education process, she has been engaged in it for a long, long time. While she hasn’t bought into the idea that “education is the great equalizer,” it certainly expands the portfolio of options available to individuals. As she so eloquently says, “Learning should be fun and meaningful; engaging and challenging. This is the experience that will light the fire in a child and develop a lifelong learner.” Today, we’re thrilled to introduce you to Sharon Gentry as our FACE of Nashville.
Are you originally from Nashville?
Nope. I was born and raised in New Orleans. My parents are still there, and I would go back once a month if I could. But check this out — here’s the Nashville connection: I grew up in an area called Gert Town and attended Danneel Elementary, the neighborhood school that was literally across the street from the apartment building where we lived. Audrey Patterson, the first African-American woman to win an Olympic medal, was born in New Orleans, grew up in Gert Town, attended Danneel Elementary School and earned a scholarship to Tennessee State University. Bam!
As chair of the Metro School Board, can you share with our readers your priorities for 2016?
- First and foremost is identifying and hiring a director of schools — no small task. Our interim director, Mr. Chris Henson, has been a stabilizing factor for the district; we are very lucky to have him. But the guidance our principals and teachers need to ensure continued growth is missing — and we need to fill that void.
- Getting the board united around some common goals. The district has its strategic plan — that’s operational and not the board’s space. But we need to clearly articulate, as a single body, the goals that we are going to push on to support that plan. I have always said that this board is probably the most diverse, in terms of skills and experiences, that I’ve seen over my nearly eight years in office. There will always be topics that we do not agree on. I believe if we can establish a foundation built on common goals, and begin every conversation from the vantage point of not what I as an individual think is good or bad but what we all know is best for children, amazing things will happen. That, coupled with an innovative, transformational leader for our district, is the only thing that will allow us to see progress at the rate we need in order to benefit our students.
- Building the capacity to be “multifocused.” There are myriad factors that impact the success of the district, many of which are external and beyond the control of the board and central office. However, that doesn’t change the job that we have to do and our responsibility of providing a quality education for all students. So as we know that federal- and state-mandated testing is a burden on students and teachers alike, we still have to find a way to support them to success while advocating for a change in the requirements. While charter schools have a fiscal impact on the district, they are an option that our parents are choosing for our students. There are things that need to change at the state level that would make the relationship much more amenable, but we should treat them as the partners we need them to be in educating our kids. And I could list several other external factors that we did not create, nor do we own changing. And through all of them, we must provide the best educational opportunity possible for 85,000 kids.
Oh, and getting re-elected!
A tremendous amount was learned from the previous search for the director of Metro Schools. With the formation of the Search Advisory Committee, can you share with our readers how the current search process will result in a better outcome?
The Search Advisory Committee is a diverse group of individuals who represent the stakeholders in the education process — that’s a bonus right there. They have already conducted an online survey that has gotten nearly three times the number of responses as the one conducted during the previous search. Leveraging the talent and support of the Nashville Public Education Foundation has been invaluable. The diversity of the group, along with partnering with NPEF and the Mayor’s office, will say to potential candidates that we have a city that is invested in the success of public education in Nashville. Our goal this time around is to not just gather resumes.
The SAC will also help identify urban school districts that have the same opportunities as Nashville that are experiencing success! That will tell us where we need to look for our next leader. Additionally, this group will review MNPS’ compensation package as compared to comparable districts and bring recommendations back to the board. Having input from such a diverse group that shares our passion for public education will definitely put us on a better path. We know that today there are people working tirelessly for children, in districts that greatly reflect the diversity, challenges and opportunities that we face every day here in MNPS. These individuals have come up with creative ways to leverage that diversity, those challenges and opportunities in order to see great gains in the development of successful students. They are supported by, and have the confidence of, their city, its leaders and their board. Those are the individuals we are after.
Is there a common misconception that most Nashvillians have about Nashville’s public schools?
I love talking to people who start sentences with, “Why don’t you all just … ” That word “just” tells me that the person believes there are simple solutions to the problems we face. Many people believe that every school should be a magnet or function like a charter. Or that a student is a student and don’t understand why there are discrepancies among different groups. When given the opportunity, I like to remind people that we serve 85,000 students. Roughly 75 percent of those students are living at or below the poverty line. Nearly 3,000 of those students are classified as “homeless.” And every societal issue that you know impacts children in those circumstances walks into our schools every day. A teacher isn’t guaranteed a classroom full of alert, eager and happy children, with supportive and engaged parents, who can’t wait for the next learning experience. However, this is exactly what our teachers strive to create. Each day. For each child. Nashville continues to be in the spotlight as a city on the move.
What is a valuable piece of advice you have been given?
“Grow where you’re planted.”
Is there an event coming up that you are looking forward to attending?
My daughter’s 16th birthday party!!!! If there’s a Prince concert coming before then, I’d like to change my answer. (I hope it’s not the same day as her party … )
Is there a recent meal at a local restaurant that has wowed you?
This is a totally unfair question. Being from New Orleans, I am ridiculously critical. However, the last I’m-stuffed-and-should-stop-but-can’t meal that I had was at The Vine.
If you could change one thing about Nashville, what would it be?
More restaurants and entertainment venues in North Nashville
What books are currently on your bedside table?
Does on my iPad count? And the Place Was Shaken, by John Franklin; Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut (in an attempt to work my way through Time Magazine’s All-Time 100 Novels); and Never Have Your Dog Stuffed, by Alan Alda.
Do you have any irrational fears?
Getting lost, like, can’t be found kind of lost, and losing my teeth … all of them, at once.
What are three things you can’t live without, excluding God, family and friends?
Music!!!!! Red Wine. Netflix.
Thank you, Sharon, for sharing some of your ideas and passions with our readers today. And thank you to Ashley Hylbert for today’s gorgeous photos. Visit ashleyhylbert.com to see more of her great work.
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