For almost half of her 22-year career, Dr. Susan Kessler has served as executive principal of Nashville's Hunters Lane High School — a post that hasn't come without challenges. The 1,700-student inner-city school has about an 86% poverty level, and when Kessler arrived in 2008, it was facing corrective action status under No Child Left Behind. Without changes, it faced takeover.
Among the immediate actions she took: Creating a free bookstore run by the school's marketing class, where students could get pencils, paper, folders, poster board, folders, index cards, colored pencils and magic markers; adopting a "no excuses" approach under the slogan "It's not about what we teach, it's about what they learn" and adjusting a disciplinary approach that didn't punish everyone for the actions of a few.
"One of the quotes that we use that's so funny that one of the kids said in the beginning when we were first there is, 'This school, before you got here, wasn’t even safe for us bad kids,'" she says. "It was kind of run like, 'They couldn't handle pep rallies.' That’s what they told me. And I brought all of those back immediately."
Now, students not meeting disciplinary criteria for pep rallies spend that time doing ACT prep work instead, she says.
Since adopting a blended learning hybrid model, the school has, as of 2014, become the most improved regular-zoned high school in the district, with test scores rising by 21% from 2011 to 2014. Kessler has also been invited to testify before Congress during the development of the Every Student Succeeds Act, written "The Principal's Survival Guide" and served as a featured expert on Steve Harvey's daytime talk show.
Hunters Lane recently faced a district testing and grading controversy. However, a district and state investigation into the matter ultimately found that Kessler had not violated the district's policy around testing and students in credit recovery, Dr. Aimee Wyatt, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools' executive officer for high schools, told Education Dive. In fact, the situation ultimately led to a strengthening of that policy to avoid further confusion.
We recently caught up with Kessler to discuss her thoughts on the final Every Student Succeeds Act, teaching and leading in high-poverty schools, addressing discipline and the school-to-prison pipeline.
EDUCATION DIVE: With funding issues in a number of states, how do you fund initiatives like the free bookstore you mentioned?
SUSAN KESSLER: We fund it using our Title I funds. We are a Title I school. And things cost less than you'd think they would. For 1,700 students, I spend about $8,000 a year of my Title I money on those school supplies, and it allows everyone to go and get everything usually at least twice. You wanna get the money closest to kids. That's where we're sometimes backwards — we spend our money at the top instead of the reverse paradigm. When you put the money closest to kids, you find that, in a lot of ways, things are very inexpensive. I spend about $1,000 a year on batteries for graphing calculators. That seems like a lot, I guess, but I've got a lot of graphing calculators. I've invested a lot of money in technology so we have laptop carts that teachers use and iPad carts that teachers use, and then we have ones that kids can take home — that kind of stuff. I don't think it's a funding issue, that there weren't enough funds, I think it's about looking at funding from how it can actually impact students. When you redo it that way, you end up having enough money to do the things you need to do.
What was it like testifying before the Senate during the ESSA's development process?
KESSLER: That was actually — I think it's going to be one of the highlights of my career. That was a really great opportunity. Part of how I got selected was because of the blended learning initiative as an innovation. When we got there, pretty much all we talked about was testing — which is unfortunate, but that's what ends up happening. But it was really very powerful. Here you have all of these people you see on TV, these senators, and you're at the table with them, and they've brought in some experts from around the country. To be able to advise on national policy — that was great fun, and it was an incredibly meaningful experience for me. I was honored to be able to do that.
Is there anything about the law that you're looking forward to, or perhaps apprehensive about?
KESSLER: We're still too hung up on testing. One of the things I said is that I think testing has a place, but I think we're not doing a good job nationally in measuring all of the things that testing doesn't measure. And just because you can test something doesn't mean you should. What you could do is be measuring schools by the average height of the students, right? Or the average weight or the average shoe size. That would be something we could measure, we could average, and we could make decisions based on that. That doesn't mean it's relevant. If my students have smaller or larger feet than the students 100 miles away, does that make me a better school or a worse school? We do that with these tests that are only a one-time snapshot of student performance, and there's clearly not apples-to-apples comparison.
We have a food pantry program at my school that's called "Pack With Love," because when I first got to the school eight years ago, our local food bank stopped doing the backpacks at eighth grade. They've since changed that, but at the time, we did it ourselves. I have 51 children who do not eat from when they leave me Friday at lunch until Monday morning at breakfast. We did the backpack program, giving them a backpack full of food, every Friday afternoon. Those children who are living in circumstances that are that scarcity-based, they have very different needs from the children who may have access to all sorts of resources and travel and parents who have more money than they even need. Think of the difference for a family that's having to juggle between paying one utility or another compared to the family that's able to save money for college.
Those experiences for those people are so different, and it impacts everything. It impacts the choice of food that you have. It impacts how often you go to the doctor and how sick you need to be before you go. For me, personally, I have health insurance. I have three children of my own. I'm at the pediatrician all the time with my kids. My co-pay is only $20. Think if I had no health insurance — if I knew that every time I went to see a provider, it's $135. And what if they tell me it's a virus, which they tell me that probably 35% of the time? And then it's like, "Oh my gosh, I just spent $135 and didn't even get the kid any better? I just have to wait?" So of course, you would wait until they're much sicker.
It's all of those kinds of things. It's about having access to books at home. It's about being able to go to different events, like the circus, and all of those things that are so widely enriching in children's lives. It's about the fact that your parents are able to be home and they're not working two or three jobs. I think that's a real source of misunderstanding. People think that families in poverty aren't working, where it's my experience that families in poverty are often working more hours than middle class families are. It's those barriers. Whenever we talk about testing, it aligns with the money, and it always will. Sometimes what's getting measured isn't what we taught them in 11th grade, it's what we taught them in fourth grade. If in fourth grade, you were couch-surfing because of some sort of terrible situation within the family, it was probably harder for you to concentrate, for you to remember the value of certain Supreme Court rulings. Whereas the kid who just had your typical kid challenges may have learned the material. You can't do apples-to-apples comparisons, because kids aren't apples. That's the thing a lifetime of working with children has taught me. All kids have challenges.
What kind of success have you seen since taking the reins at Hunters Lane?
KESSLER: For the class of 2015, we got almost 75% of those kids accepted into the college of their choice, earning almost $5 million of scholarships. That's huge. In Tennessee, only 38% of the kids who graduate high school go on to college. Then there's the staying in college. It's tough, and the challenges are really significant.
In similar schools nationwide, the school-to-prison pipeline has been a particular concern. How do you address discipline in order to mitigate that?
KESSLER: Number 1, it's separating behavior from child. And what we find is that a lot of kids from lower-income homes tend to be treated more harshly in terms of discipline. That's just a national trend. What we have worked very hard on — What I saw when I first got to this school, is lots of group penalties, group punishments — "You all can't handle pep rallies, so we won't have pep rallies." Things like that are very discouraging to lots of people. If I know that if one person comes late to this session, the session's canceled, I'm not going to get up and go, because there's too many opportunities for people to mess up in the world. By recognizing and having kids see that, 'No, I'm going to be personally held accountable,' and that it's about behavior.
There's a lot of talking about what could you have done differently, how can we do this the next time. What we personally do in the process of doing our discipline is we look at growth. When we see that someone has actually had a response that shows there's been an improvement in behavior modification, the choices that they've made, etc., we spend time focusing on that. But part of it is also making sure that there is a recognition and understanding that a school is a place where everyone shows respect for one another, that there's not finger-pointing. Sometimes as adults, we can push kids to do things that get them in trouble, and that's not something that we tolerate at all at our school. We're the adults, and so if a kid's making a bad decision — you know, the louder a kid gets, the quieter I get. [in soft tone] 'Please stop yelling at me. I'm trying to help you.' That kind of thing, as opposed to the whole old school idea of [in gruff tone] 'You may not like me, but you're going to respect me.' I don't think those methods work now. I don't think they worked then.
I graduated high school in the 1980s, and back when I was in school, you could leave children behind. You just said, 'Don't come back here,' and they didn't and no one checked. People talk a lot about the deterioration of today's youth and 'kids today.' Kids today are not worse than they have been. Kids are the same kids that they were in 1985. It's just the challenges that they have and the accountability that schools have has made it that we can't just throw them away, and that's a good thing for society. Because what we do to children, they do to society. We've reduced our suspension rate by almost 70% since I first got there. I know I cannot teach a child who is not there, and I cannot teach a child who thinks I don't want them there. The underlying message [is] 'I'm not good enough for this place.' We want school to be a place where you are good.
Regarding the News Channel 5 investigation of controversy around alleged testing issues and grade changes in the district, what advice would you give to other principals in similar situations?
KESSLER: I would add that it's not uncommon for leaders to find themselves engaged in controversy occasionally. I won't go along and get along if I think something is wrong. I will say what I think, because that's a responsibility of a principal. I measure my decisions based on how I want my own three children treated, and if it's wrong for them, it's wrong for my kids at school. Now that might be inconvenient, but that's not what this job is about. I won MNPS High School Principal of the Year in May 2015 even though some people may think I advocate too much.
We must be the voice for students, teachers and for education to our peers, our superiors, our school board members and our community. If a principal finds herself debating between doing what's right and keeping the peace, then that principal is allowing children to be hurt by that cowardice. That's not me. We teach kids not to be bullies, but in all sorts of industries, people are bullied by adults in the workplace. That allows evil to persist and wrong to continue, and that's not the world we want to live in. I'm willing to take the perception of being a 'big mouth,' although I prefer the term 'articulate,' if it results in better things for kids. That's what we should demand from all of our leaders as a society, not just our principals.
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