Dear friends,

Last week, I participated in a site visit to the Academies of Nashville, along with Jennifer Grams from NC3T, 20+ participants in our Pathways Innovation Network, and more than 250 other education and community leaders from across the country. In this newsletter, Jennifer highlights some of the lessons that the Nashville folks learned while implementing the pathways model. I’d like to add to her observations, but rather than talk about the journey, I’d like to share some thoughts on what the destination looks like.

The first thing I noticed during our visit to the Academies of Nashville was the students: Specifically, how confident, well-spoken, and positive they were. (I can tell you that, at that age, I could never have spoken with adults as confidently as they did.) Yes, each school did have student ambassadors who were trained and experienced in representing their schools, but it wasn’t just these ambassadors: All of the students I observed were able to talk with guests, their fellow students, and their teachers with ease. In addition, students were clearly engaged with their work, which may be due in part to the project-based learning approach used in these schools. In the rooms we visited, we saw students on their feet working on projects, or sitting in groups and working together. “Stand and deliver” instruction is kept to a minimum here.

The students were excited and outgoing, and so were the adults. Teachers were happy to talk about their work, and enthusiastic about what they were doing; community members were well-represented within the schools as well, working with teachers and students and also happy to discuss their experiences. What was most striking about the visit was how open and honest everyone was: Teachers, administrators, district leaders, and community members were happy to discuss their successes, but they were completely up front in discussing the mistakes they made along the way, and the fact that they weren’t where they wanted to be yet. Their honestly spoke to an environment of trust: Rather than criticize educators for shortcomings, district and community leaders took a collaborative approach to education. While that takes time to develop, the rewards are well worth it.

If you’ve not participated in the Academies of Nashville site visit, I would highly recommend it; as Jennifer Grams notes below, it’s just something that you have to experience for yourself.

Thank you,




By Jennifer Grams

Recently, I had the opportunity to participate on the Academies of Nashville Study Visit. The purpose of the visit was to learn and observe how Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) has transformed its high schools into “wall-to-wall” smaller learning communities, collectively known as the Academies of Nashville.

The Academies have garnered national attention and recognition for  improvements in graduation rates and increased college participation among the district’s nearly 17,000 students. President Obama visited Nashville in January 2014 to highlight the success of the Academies. In his speech at McGavock High School, he encouraged other communities to replicate the Nashville model.

So, how did the Academies of Nashville become a national model for school reform? Based on information shared during the visit and personal observations, there seem to be three essential tenets:

  1. Time

During the visit, MNPS staff and partners emphasized that the current success of the Academies did not happen overnight. Rather, it is a result of sustained efforts over nearly a decade. In fact, they acknowledged that they still have areas for improvement.

  1. Team

Nearly every speaker emphasized the importance of garnering and sustaining support from school, community and business partners. In Nashville, key partners include the Pencil Foundation, Alignment Nashville and the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. The ongoing support from these and many other, varied stakeholders helps to sustain the Academies through changes in school leadership.

  1. Transformation

In Nashville, the leaders stressed the importance of conveying a message that shifting to academies is atransformation (a long-term change), rather than a program (something that can be perceived to go away). From the beginning, they made sure that everyone involved with the initiative was using the same lexicon.

The Nashville team told us that many Study Visit attendees return for follow up visits, and often bring along more colleagues, because it’s difficult to describe the Academies and that you have to “see it to believe it.” It was truly inspiring to visit the Academies, to speak with Nashville students, teachers and administrators and consider the possibilities for other communities across the U.S.