From the Director: Where We Fit In—If We Do

Can there be a public purpose to private schools?
by Vince Durnan, director

Reading the headlines about Metro Nashville Public Schools' governance, leadership, rank and file sentiments, and urgent needs on many fronts gets harder by the day. It would be difficult to find a topic that generates more consensus on its importance or more conflict on the best way forward than public education. So here’s the question for USN—should we observe from a distance, in our lane, or find ways to contribute something positive? More generally, can there be, as is suggested by some in our sector, a public purpose to private schools?
Framing the question that way offers an entry into a prickly topic. You’ve probably noticed that people friendly to schools like USN call them "independent," and not just because there’s no religious or other network affiliation in play. “Private” sounds more exclusive and pejorative, less connected to the core societal responsibility to provide education for all young people. Deep in our roots, in USN’s DNA, was and is a commitment to do something of wider value for our field and for our profession. Our founders aspired to broader relevance. A look at our archives makes that clear.
In our city’s current school landscape, it’s hard to know where to start and how to be relevant. Media firestorms divide well-intentioned people into deeply divided factions. Resource challenges force Sophie’s choices about helping students and teachers and programs, about helping for the moment and helping for the long haul. The growth and change at the core of Nashville’s emerging identity make planning even harder.
I’m convinced that one purpose we serve is providing an example of what it takes to fund and support an excellent K-12 education. Every chance I get to say it, my comment is that if someone could do what we do for $10,000 or so (roughly the MNPS rate) per student, by all means, come take my job. We grind on every spending decision here and still, we charge more than twice that Metro figure, as you saw at reenrollment time. And I promise you we take none of that for granted. But priorities take shape in those decisions—windows on what we value.
One other example we can offer comes from the way we make decisions. On display of late in the city is the seemingly inherently contentious nature of the Metro Board of Education, bickering, squabbling, and struggling in front of a live audience and preserved for posterity on Channel 3. The debate about an elected vs. appointed group to govern public schools goes way back. The pros and cons haven't changed from before this 1980s New York Times piece to the same debate in Chicago just last year.
Studying our history, one can find an inflection point in those same early 1980s when Gertrude Caldwell, then our president of a board elected directly by parents and subject to interminable late-night battles over our next steps, led a change in bylaws to create a self-perpetuating process of nomination, confirmation, and term limits. Thanks, by the way, to those who submitted names (theirs or others) for consideration recently for this essential annual process. For what it’s worth, my own longevity here surely has been made possible by the stability and common spirit engendered by that system. What that means for MNPS, where serving more than a few years in leadership stands as uncommon, even countercultural, I’ll leave for others to consider.
Closer to the actual practice of teaching and learning, our place in the conversation is more visible. Look at our partnership, now several years old, with LEAD Academy at Cameron or with Carter Lawrence even closer down that same street, especially through the Horizons summer program. Look at the Educators' Cooperative getting so much well-deserved attention, founded and hosted here from its start a few years ago, with a great conference coming just this Saturday. The catalog of examples extends well beyond the scope of this column. And I was honored to say yes on our behalf when the mayor asked last month about serving on a task force to help some of the city’s schools facing the most worrisome assessment results.
USN can be a platform from which we engage with the wider educational world, locally and nationally. Make no mistake, we stand to gain as much (or more) than we give, and it’s invigorating to do that which might be deemed outside the mission, beyond the reach, or frankly incompatible with the interests of other tuition-funded schools. We surely don’t have all the answers, but we benefit by helping colleagues to identify and engage in the right questions.
To cut to what stands as the core question for me, would education for every child in Nashville be incrementally better or incrementally less good if USN were to vanish as an option for families? My guess is that you may have reflected in some way on that same thought—we’re not, after all, brought together primarily by our quest for clubbiness from what I can glean. And we want to do something extraordinary, with humility and purpose. Many people here, by their actions, manifest a belief that it’s worth the effort to try. And that, as the saying goes, has made all the difference.
Grateful for the chance to be in this mix,
P.S. Let this ramble not close without a word of praise for Steve Gorman, P'19, P'21, the best friend Music Night ever had. What a gift he gave us last Saturday in the Auditorium with his A-list friends and genius setlist. The other A-listers were the incomparable K-12 Situation, led by high standards-keeping faculty colleague Joe Getsi. I defy any school anywhere to match that lineup. It was the very best kind of USN night, made possible by an abundance in generosity of spirit.
    • Director Vince Durnan on stage during Music Night 2019.

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