Hunt: Nashville at center of education reform

Friday, October 11, 2013, Vol. 37, No. 41
By Linda Bryant


Shannon Hunt, who attended John Trotwood Moore Middle School, Hillsboro High School and the University of Tennessee, is a longtime public education supporter and comes from a family of public school advocates.

Her mother and grandmother were teachers. Her father, Keel Hunt, was the point person for the Better Schools Programs for Gov. Lamar Alexander.

“It’s safe to say education has been the subject of dinner table conversation my whole life,” Hunt says.

The managing partner of Cholpak, Leonard, Schechter & Associates, a widely-known Washington, D.C. public affairs firm, has been hired as president of the Nashville Public Education Foundation, a group formed originally to raise funds for public education in Nashville.

The Nashville Ledger recently spoke with Hunt from her Washington, DC office as she prepared to move back to Nashville after a15-year absence except for a year working for Gov. Bredesen.

Q: You have a record of working with high-level issues and projects on an international basis. Why did you decide to move back to Nashville and take the job at the Nashville Public Education Foundation?

A: “When the opportunity arose to come back and do something significant to improve the public schools in my hometown, it was too great an opportunity to pass up. I’ve had the benefit of playing on a national and international stage. That has been great fun. But with the Foundation and the work ahead of us, I can be part of something I hope will become a model for others around the country, but for the express benefit of the city I love. I’m a parent who wants the very best schools for my child. I’m the granddaughter and niece of public school teachers and therefore know how challenging the job of schooling our city’s children can be. And I am myself a product of Metro public schools. I don’t think I’d be where I am today if it hadn’t been for my public school education. These experiences make me very eager to do something to help improve Nashville’s schools. Indeed, Nashville is at a critical moment and being looked at by many as a model and a test for the nation on education reform. I’m thrilled to be part of that extraordinary effort.

Q: Can you share some goals and dreams for the Foundation?

A: “I didn’t take this job because I thought I could make some incremental improvements. I took it because I thought we could do something bold and transformational. I don’t want to tweak on the edges.

“It’s going to involve bold thinking and a much higher level of funding.

“I see this as a reboot moment. It isn’t about just a little more of the same. I see the Nashville Public Education Foundation as taking a much higher and more visible role – not only in participating in the conversation about education and education reform, but in convening and leading the conversation.

“I think the first step in that process is through talking to people all over the country who are involved in the most innovative and interesting approaches to education reform.

“I want to talk to the education researchers and to people from all different parts of the Nashville community to find out about their concerns and issues.

“I would hope we would be able to collaborate very strongly with the mayor’s office, the school system and many others to make sure we are making the most efficient use of public dollars. We are also going to need to marshal community forces to help raise money that might otherwise not be available. We can do something that other cities haven’t yet succeeded at; I’m sure of it.’’

Q: What about Nashville stands out when it comes to schools and education reform?

A: “I think we have an alignment of stars in Nashville right now, and with all the right players. They are engaged, interested, aware and ready to do more for education reform.

“You have political leadership at the city and state who want to make significant headway. You have a reasonably-sized school system where you can get something done, and then prove that it can then be scaled up in larger urban settings. You have a very, very engaged and interested community who is chomping at the bit to make a real impact. I’ve spent the last several weeks speaking to a number of people all over the country who are intimately involved in education reform.

“Almost everybody I talked to said, “All eyes are on Nashville.” They believe Nashville has the unique combination of ingredients to succeed in education reform where many others have not.

“You have a lot of political capital tied up in the issue of education in Nashville and in the state. You have a mayor and a governor – both different parties – who are very committed to trying to do something on the education front.

“While people may want different things to happen, I don’t think many would argue that there hasn’t been significant progress under Dr. [Jesse] Register.

“I think you have in him someone who wants to improve the performance of the schools. You have institutional players who are willing and want to look at new and different ways to address the problem.’’

Q: What is your leadership style?

A: “I’m a community builder and a team builder by definition. The fastest and most long lasting way to make change is to get everybody to get on the same bus and drive in the same direction. Otherwise we are each pursuing individual approaches, and those may or may not all convene in one destination.’’

Q: What stands out for you about NPEF?

A: “The Foundation has a very strong board. I will start with a group of people that that has been associated with the top leadership of the community since its beginning.

“It is such a strong asset. In talking to many others in the community (about the Foundation) I’ve sensed a desire and enthusiasm about having an organization like the Nashville Public Education Foundation step up to be an even stronger voice in the reform debate.’’

Q: What does ‘transformational’ change look like?

A: “Every child in Nashville deserves and should have access to a great education regardless of what ZIP code they come from and regardless of their family circumstances.

“Great education is defined by a classroom with absolute teaching excellence, which is borne out in high performing students. To get there requires a school system that is innovation seeking and performance oriented.

“I want to be careful of words that carry baggage with them, and ‘performance’ is one of them. I’m not talking about testing kids to death. We need some objective ways to measure performance, but there are also a lot of subjective ways that are important.

“When I’m talking about is higher performing students in the schools. I’m talking about students who come out knowing more than when they came in. They are ready to be active citizens and step into the next aspect of their lives – be it college or a job.’’

Q: Do you have strong opinions on high-profile education reform topics such as charter schools?

A: "The Foundation is Switzerland when it comes to all the different ways of making school reform happen, including charter schools.

“To do something transformational you have to – by default – have the view that nothing is mandated to be on the table or off the table. All ideas should be equal in the effort to really turn the school system around and make it a vastly better place than it has been today. Charter schools have played an important role in school reform in most parts of the country, but they are just one of many ways to improve our school system.

“I think we should resist the challenge to make the discussion all about the tactics and not about the strategy. If the debate is only about one thing then we are missing the real opportunity to do something much bigger and more meaningful. I think charter schools are an important part of the discussion. They should not be the only discussion.

“There’s going to be more than one way to greatness. Let’s make sure that every school in Nashville offers access to a great education. One school shouldn’t be better than another simply because it has more active parents. I care about making every school great, however we reach that goal.’’

Q: Where are you going to look for ideas, inspiration and national funding sources?

A: “Good ideas come from everyone – teachers, administrators and labor unions. Plus, we are sitting in Nashville where we have a plethora of higher education resources and experts at our fingertips. Of course, we need to engage with others around the country who are leading national school reform efforts.

“We ought to be talking to groups like the Gates Foundation. There are a lot of people to talk to. It seems like there’s an overwhelming need for more funding for public schools. How do you deal with the idea that there never seems to be enough to go around when it comes to public schools?

“Well, you also have to remember it’s not about just pouring money at problems. We’re also talking about bringing to bear the best research, ideas and innovation and collectively developing a strategic plan.

“The key is having a clear blueprint that enables corporate and philanthropic leaders in our community to say – ‘OK, I’m going to help own this particular piece of education.’ ’’

“The blueprint won’t be of my making. It will be based on a community conversation about what’s possible. I want to come out of that process with a clear blueprint and priorities that everybody can get behind.

“Then we’ll go find the pieces we need to fine to make that happen.’’