Located in the Madison community, Neely’s Bend Middle is a school with one of the most unique histories in Nashville. After years of chronic underperformance, Neely’s Bend Middle, a part of Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS), was selected by the state of Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD) for an innovative turnaround partnership in 2015.
The ASD partnered with LEAD Public Schools to transform the school, with the ultimate goal of exiting priority school status. LEAD’s partnership with Neely’s Bend initially began by transitioning a new grade level to LEAD each year, and by 2017-18, LEAD was operating all four grades at the school.
Creating a Culture of Support for Staff
The LEAD team implemented a number of strategies to turn around student performance at Neely’s Bend, but one of the most important steps was creating a culture built around teacher development and support.
“Systemizing what coaching looked like at Neely’s Bend was really important,” said Meghan Stowe, who served as the school’s principal from 2020 through 2022. “We made sure that we were clear on our expectations with teachers when it came to lesson planning and outlined how to conduct instructional coaching in a cycle.”
The school’s current principal, Dominique Smith, is a prime example of Neely’s Bend’s commitment to developing leaders from within the school. She first joined the school in 2017 as a math teacher and went on to hold the roles of instructional manager, director of instruction, assistant principal of instruction, and became principal of the school in 2022.
In addition to establishing a strong system for instructional coaching, the school leadership team also put an emphasis on staff satisfaction to ensure staff members felt valued. The school continues to see returns on this investment, with more than 85% of teachers returning for the 2023-24 school year.
Adapting to Student Needs
Another shift LEAD made at Neely’s Bend was letting student needs drive decision-making for the school. Instead of treating social-emotional learning as an ancillary approach, the school made it a core component of its model through initiatives like CREW and student-led conferences. The school leadership team also made curriculum shifts in ELA and math to better fit the needs of Neely’s Bend students.
Leadership has also played a key role in the school’s transformation. Since 2017, Neely’s Bend has maintained continuity in leadership with three principals buying into the same vision for the school and continuing to implement that vision during their tenure. Normally a shift in the principalship brings change and disruption, but at Neely’s Bend, it’s been a smooth transition with continuation of the same plan.
“The key difference in how we can operate schools versus MNPS is we have power to lead at the school level,” said Tait Danhausen, who served as principal at Neely’s Bend from 2017 to 2020. “Our CEO empowered me, Meghan [Stowe], and then Dominique [Smith] to lead from the front and make the staffing changes we felt were necessary. We had the ability to pick curriculum we felt was applicable to our students, and we also had the ability to staff at the management level much more robustly.”
Making Course Corrections
To transform a historically underperforming school, there is not a “one size fits all” solution. It’s vital to understand the unique needs of the community you serve and determine how to best utilize the team you have to meet those needs. And many times, that means recognizing when the school is not heading in the right direction and quickly responding to get things back on track.
“It’s important to acknowledge that the reason we were successful is because we were able to identify the fact that we weren’t headed in the right direction,” said Danhausen.
Unlike a traditional school district, the public charter school environment provides school leaders with the ability to be more agile so they can make course corrections midstream.
“We were never afraid to say, ‘It’s not working and we need to make a change,’” said Danhausen. “We will make changes immediately when we see that we’re not being as successful as we know we can be with kids.”
Because of the vision set forth by LEAD, Neely’s Bend made history in 2022 by being the first state charter school in Nashville to exit both the priority school list and the ASD. Today, the school is part of the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission’s portfolio of schools and continues its focus of providing a high-quality education to students in the Madison community.