A Best-Selling Author Called Maplewood’s Jarred Amato The Truth and We Agree

Jarred Amato is no stranger to this blog-space. I first learned of the Maplewood High School teacher through Twitter and noticed the work he was producing outside the classroom. At the time of my introduction, Mr. Amato was collecting books to outfit book bins in book deserts for the community to access through his organization Project LIT Community. Soon after, I learned about the monthly book club open to the community and held at the school during school hours to ensure student attendance.

Since then I have attended two book club meetings where students and community members break off into groups for discussion that ultimately, transforms into teams for the contest portion of the meeting. The books chosen for the book club are stories and characters students at Maplewood might find relatable. Mr. Amato, a white teacher from Boston, believes his students should see themselves in books. And this is why national organizations like the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), Penguin Random House, and best-selling authors love him.

Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with the deeply passionate teacher prior to an early-morning meeting — standing in the cold. He remarked that he was a little tired from staying up late working on a grant that would allow him to purchase more books, but his excitement about Project Lit Community masked any hint of exhaustion. Mr. Amato is no stranger to these applications or the resulting awards as his ask is simple – more books, please.

The man is serious about getting relevant books into the hands of his students and others like them and “relevant” is the million-dollar word. During our conversation, he referred to a quote by best-selling author Jason Reynolds who told the Washington Post, “The Teacher was like, Read this book about this man chasing a whale,’ and I’m like, bruh…I don’t know if I can connect to a man chasing a whale when I’ve never seen a whale.” Mr. Reynolds did not read a book until he was seventeen years old.

Mr. Amato refuses to be that teacher and is determined students have access to relevant books and the earlier in their learning the better. In his mind, Project LIT Community is as important as state-mandated curriculum. With the support of his administrative leadership and some serious time-management skills, Mr. Amato provides students opportunities to see themselves and take a few books home in the process.

Penguin Random House Teacher of the Year

This passion-turned-LIT movement sparked a flame spreading to middle schools around Nashville, a few more schools throughout Tennessee, and to an additional TWENTY states. So, it’s no surprise to learn that Jarred Amato was recently named Penguin Random House’s 2017 Teacher of the Year at the NCTE annual convention. Oh, and that comes with a $10,000 check that he will use to purchase –more books.

And the accolades don’t stop there. New York Times best-selling author Kwame Alexander had a little something to offer:

Yep, Kwame Alexander, the 2015 Newbery Medal recipient (highest distinction for children’s books) for The Crossover called Mr. Amato – The Truth.

I couldn’t agree more.

But What Does the School District Think?

During a time when 75 percent or more of any group of students (pick one) in our school district does not read at grade level, I would expect to see top-level administration clamoring to get to teachers like Mr. Amato to replicate this work in an authentic attempt to flip the script. I asked Mr. Amato if the district has expressed interest in his work, hesitant to respond (because, you know, trust), he opted instead to share his appreciation for the support of his principal and assistant principal. Message received. I’m puzzled by the lack of district-level support.

We are fortunate to have Mr. Amato and we need to act like it.

Congratulations, Jarred Amato! If you don’t hear it from anyone else, thank you for recognizing the importance of culturally-affirming books and finding a way to get them into the hands and homes of students. You are the truth.

Nashville’s Charters Sidestep Chatter and Run Up the Score

My grandmother would always say, “I can show you better than I can tell you.” It was a mantra she lived by, which meant, in practical terms, that if someone crossed her, she might not say much, but you could bet your bottom dollar swift and decisive action was sure to follow.

I think the charter school leaders and parents might be taking a page from my grandmother’s playbook.

For a while, I’ve watched in frustration as, Nashville school board members and privileged “pro-public school” parents have executed all-out attacks on public charter schools in our city. I’ve seen effective and passionate charter leaders of color ousted, and good schools get their petitions to recharter denied.

All along I was even more frustrated by the fact the those under siege almost never raised a voice in protest. They wouldn’t fight back!

It wasn’t until I got to know Mia Howard that I started to realize what might be going on. It was Howard, the founder and executive director at Intrepid charter schools, that pulled the little chain on the light bulb in my brain and made me realize that charter leaders and supporters might be taking a page out of my grandmother’s playbook.

Last July, the Nashville Scene published a story celebrating the silence of charter backers after a series of “losses.” Angry, I tweeted “my guess is that the charter backers are quiet because they are SCARED AS S%$! And the media only exacerbates their fears. Sponsors it.” Howard, wasting no time, replied, “Not scared. Some of us are just here to educate children at the highest level. Disrupting inequity by design takes focus. No distractions.”

In other words, “I can show you better than I can tell you.”

While I was angry-tweeting about fearful charter supporters, Mia Howard’s Intrepid Schools were in the throes of flipping the narrative for Hispanic and Black students which make up the majority of their enrollment. Script-flipping statistics like: “Intrepid scholars placed #5 in the district for ELA achievement in grades 6-8.” Further, Black students placed #4 in the district for ELA in the same grades.

Compare that to the district-wide average: only 17 percent of minority students are reading in grade level.

And then there’s Math: 100% of black and brown students scored On-Track or Mastered in Algebra I and ELL students were #1 in Math achievement for grades 6-8. Anyone would be hard-pressed to ignore these life-changing achievements, but, to my knowledge, they’ve received no recognition from the school board, media, Metro Council, or even the mayor.

Just silence.

For more of Intrepid’s inequity-disrupting statistics, click here.

And speaking of silence. Do you ever hear from Valor Collegiate? The growing charter management organization of schools that prides itself on its racially and socio-economically-balanced student population that sits atop a hill above a bustling corridor in South Nashville. It seems they work very hard to avoid the city’s volatility toward charters and, like Intrepid, focuses intently on doing what they do. And what is it that they do, you ask?

Well, while I was sitting around pondering the whereabouts of Valor reps during times of distress on the edu-battlefield, Valor Voyager and Valor Flagship were busy becoming #3 and #4, respectively, in the state in composite growth. Let’s put it this way, CEO Todd Dickson and CCO (chief culture officer) Daren Dickson are fighting the haters on their own terms and Valor scholars are the reigning champs. For instance, “Our economically disadvantaged scholars inverted the achievement gap, meaning that they outperformed non-economically disadvantaged scholars in Nashville and the State of Tennessee!” Can you say #FliptheScript?

Message received and they didn’t have to say a word.

Finally, there is a Teach for America-generated graphic that keeps making an appearance on Twitter by NashvilleEdReform. It shows every middle and high school in the district and its placement on the growth chart. I am no fan of school comparisons–it’s difficult for me to celebrate schools in the face of less successful ones. Maybe it’s the socialist in me.

But to ignore this picture is to join forces with those who refuse to acknowledge the success charters schools are having in this city. I simply cannot be on the wrong side of silence. I will celebrate those who subdue their naysayers without using words, but with student successes.

Note: the three top-ranked growth schools are mentioned in this post.

 

Be Part of the Solution: NOAH Hosts Discussions Around the City on School-to-Prison Pipeline

Nashville Organized for Action and Hope (NOAH) is a coalition of churches and unions focused on raising awareness and holding the city’s leadership accountable on the monster issues that many pretend do not exist. We can ignore mammoth-sized problems like nobody’s business.

While I’d love to see them focus specifically on education, I commend them for focusing on the issues that are married to education and cannot be addressed without schools. NOAH has committees for each of the following:

  • Affordable Housing
  • Criminal Justice
  • Economic Equity

In the next two weeks, NOAH’s Criminal Justice taskforce will be conducting discussions around Nashville on the school-to-prison pipeline with a focus on racial disparities in discipline. This is near and dear to me as I speak and write incessantly about the pipeline, but with a spotlight on race and class gaps in academic achievement – you know,  like reading scores.

When we fail to adequately prepare our kids for career or college, we succeed in assembly-lining them into prisons and poverty.

Join the conversation.


Come Be Part of Disrupting the School-To-Prison Pipeline!
Tell YOUR congregation, union, or group!

NOAH’s Criminal Justice Task Force
School Discipline Reform Subcommittee

African-American students make up about 40% of Nashville public schools, but are 75% of those expelled or suspended.  This is the beginning of the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

NOAH is working with Metro Nashville Public Schools to increase funding for “restorative practice” and other special ways to address conflict in schools.  We believe this will help to reduce the racial disparity in school discipline.  But how will this new funding be used?  How can YOU help shape these strategies?Tony_Majors_at_SLN_NOAH_-_close-up.png

At Sunday’s Speak Loudly Nashville public meeting,Tony Majors, Executive Director, MNPS Department of Student Services, committed to meet with NOAH to develop the plan for these strategies to reduce such racial disparities.

What You Can Do

Help break the School-To-Prison Pipeline by attending

NOAH’s Parent & Community Conversations

around racial disparities in school discipline. The goals for these meetings are to:

  • Raise awareness of racial disparities in school displine
  • Engage parents and the community in reducing these disparities
  • Find solutions to racial disparity gaps in school displine

Invite others to come as well!  A flyer is linked HERE!


Scheduled Meetings 

(You can attend ANY or ALL of these meetings.  If you want to know what quadrant a specific school is in, see a map HERE.)

For more info, call NOAH at 615-905-6624, or email info@noahtn.org.

See you there!

NOAH
http://www.noahtn.org/

Nashville Parent Leader Allison Simpson Discovers Her Power, Helps Others Find Theirs

Not all parent-shaming is created equal. As a society, we expect anyone with any degree of wealth to assign their resources to goods and services that will yield the greatest return on investment.

In Nashville, in certain zip codes, you might get shamed for attending public schools. Some parents get shade for choosing a school out-of-zone. But no group gets the burden of being responsible for the downfall of an entire district like parents who choose charter schools. This group, mostly families of color and poor, are shamed for participating in the middle-class act of selection. 

Nashville Rise leader Allison Simpson has a powerful message for parents. Take heed.


My mom used to say, “Allison, you have two things against you, you’re female and you’re Black—and because of that, you’ll have to work harder than your peers your whole life.” And she was right.

In school, I was an average student while my sister made straight A’s. I remember hearing someone say little Black girls like me would never amount to anything but a baby mama.

With that statement running through my mind I worked my butt off and on June 1, 2002, I walked across the stage and accepted my high school diploma—making me one of the few in my family to graduate from high school.

Both of my parents are college graduates. As a result of that, they always made sure my sister and I went to the best schools so that we could both go to college.

I can remember my mom stressing the importance of finishing school, doing well and going to college. And with their voices in the back of my mind, I took my parents’ advice, attended and graduated from Auburn University in May of 2007.

Two years later, August 13, 2009, I had my daughter. That was the scariest time of my life. When she entered into this world, I realized that I held her success in the palm of my hand. I didn’t want that responsibility.

I worried everyday about how I would provide. I wondered what she would be like when she grew up, and if I could be a good mother to her. I had questions and needed answers, but soon realized that there was no perfect recipe for parenting—I’d just have to rely on my instincts and focus on providing the best life for my daughter that I could.

I HAD HEARD BAD THINGS ABOUT THE SCHOOLS AROUND US, SO I KNEW I WOULD NEED TO LOOK FOR OTHER OPTIONS.When I began my search for a quality school in Nashville for my soon-to-be kindergartner, I knew nothing about the school process. I had heard bad things about the schools around us, so I knew I would need to look for other options. That year I toured what seemed like thousands of schools. I even considered moving out of Davidson County, but my budget would not allow me to do that.

One day I stumbled upon a community event for parents at Tennessee State University. At this event, I finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel after meeting with a school leader who, in minutes, walked me through options I didn’t even know I had.

I rushed home, got on the computer and spent the entire night searching for high-quality options for my daughter. After touring about five schools, I found a great option for my baby.

Because of all the volunteer opportunities and time I spent at my daughter’s school, I was introduced to Nashville Rise. I couldn’t believe there was an organization out there empowering parents and advocating for kids. So, I joined. And because of Nashville Rise, I was able to engage and empower parents around school quality and choice.

I’m dedicated to this work to elevate the voices of parents who, like me, felt like they didn’t have a voice. Parents who, maybe at one time, were told that they would never amount to anything and believed it.

I’m here to let the lady who said that little Black girls like me would be nothing more than a baby mama know that I’m more than that. I’m a doctor when my kids are sick, I’m a taxi cab driver, I’m a counselor when there’s meltdowns at home, and I’m a cheerleader.

But most importantly, I’m an engaged parent and no one can take that away from me.

“What We Are Doing With Reading and Literacy Is Replicable In Any School”

I’ll do you a solid and spare you a long introductory paragraph explaining Nashville’s literacy crisis. Instead, I’ll lead with this:

Seventeen percent of Nashville’s black and brown children read at grade level or above. We are failing our children by doing what we’ve always done and not accepting responsibility for the failure. I don’t care to hear excuses. My singular interest is in finding solutions and spotlighting those successful at flipping the script.

What is #flipthescript? It is turning upside down the tragic narrative that says 82.5 percent of our poor, black and brown students do not meet reading standards but with more funding, less school choice, the eradication of poverty, and more parent engagement we just might be able to get these kids to read. Do better.

Enter Nashville Classical

“What we are doing with reading and literacy is replicable in any school” – The Incredible Charlie Friedman.

Nashville Classical is a five-year-old charter school located in an old East Nashville school building, founded and led by the highly energetic Charlie Friedman. I’ve watched the hipster-uniformed school leader call out the names of every student in the building in the span of about 45 seconds.  I exaggerate… a little. Jokes aside, the man knows how to lead and the love for the little people under his watch isn’t hard to detect.

Sure, such attributes are typical of a school leader, but few are blasting the narrative that we’ve become uncomfortably comfortable accepting as the norm for poor and children of color.

“Nashville Classical’s results show it has made significant headway in closing achievement gaps for economically disadvantaged students and students of color. Not a single economically disadvantaged student at Nashville Classical performed below state standards in reading, while 44 percent of economically disadvantaged students across MNPS and 35 percent across the state are achieving below standards. Similarly, nearly all minority students at Nashville Classical are mastered, on-track or at least approaching state standards.

ON REPEAT: Similarly, nearly all minority students at Nashville Classical are mastered, on-track or at least approaching state standards.

FB economically disadvantaged below standards comparison chart

“We start by believing that all students can achieve.”

I believe in the #beliefgap. It’s as real and present as the bifocals hanging off my dad’s nose that happens to be on my face. Unlike the achievement gap or even the opportunity gap (access to opportunities), the belief gap is one of those things that is difficult to quantify. How can you actually prove that principals and teachers believe in their students? Ask Charlie Friedman.

When you BELIEVE that ALL students can ACHIEVE students will work to prove you right. Students subjected to mediocre-to-low expectations will meet those, too. Mr. Friedman’s statement about believing in his students speak volumes and the takeaways gleaned from his school’s testing outcomes support this assertion. More importantly, Friedman & Team has formed a new narrative. One where the script with which we’ve become so familiar has been flipped and forced upon us are high expectations and the knowledge that yes, success can be achieved with poor and minority children and with finite resources.

FB minority averages comparison chart

I know, I know– if belief was the Great Fixer thousands more of our children would be bound for at least a twenty-one on the ACT. But as Mr. Friedman said, the school starts with believing all children can achieve while the other ingredients include data-driven practices, structure, and brutally difficult work.

The success Nashville Classical is seeing in reading results comes from prioritizing instructional time and the quality of instruction through a variety of approaches:

  • More Time – Nashville Classical has an extended school day, similar to the district’s other Title I schools. The longer day allows for students to receive 3.5 hours of reading instruction daily, with literacy embedded in the teaching of other subjects such as science, social studies and math, as well.

  • Text Selection –  Students in all grade levels read from a collection of great literary works, intended to enrich their vocabulary, cultural awareness, and background knowledge.

  • Professional Development – Teachers at Nashville Classical spend 15 days on professional development before the start of each school year and participate in weekly professional development sessions, practicing lessons, studying video, and analyzing student work.

  • Joyful Rigor – Every classroom features its own library with more than 300 books for students to bring home each evening and teachers use songs, chants, and dramatic read-alouds to keep students on the edge of their seats.

  • Direct Instruction – In early grades, students receive individualized phonics instruction through a centers-based, small group instruction model. Students study sounds first and then letters, building phonemic and phonetic awareness.

  • Data Driven Instruction – Student performance and growth is closely monitored throughout the year, using a variety of rigorous monitoring tools. Students who are falling behind or transfer into the school mid-year receive immediate interventions and support.

 

And they are not stingy with their best practices!

Congratulations Mr. Friedman and all the teachers, staff members, and families of Nashville Classical! For more information on Nashville Classical and its testing results, go to their social media sites by clicking →→→ Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

And, finally, the best illustration of #flipthescript…

NC Founding Class

From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

Guest Post: Connie Williams On The Importance Of Volunteers In The Battle To Flip The Literacy Narrative

The past couple of weeks I’ve been obsessed with the dismal student reading scores coming out of Nashville’s public schools. I’m known be a tad dramatic, but 17.5 percent is a low number no matter what you’re measuring. Further, a number as large as 82.5 percent that represents kids of color not reading at the level expected warrants Broadway-play dramatic. 

Instead, I plan to do my part to flip the statistics and change the narrative by raising awareness and accepting an offer to get in front kids with a book a few times a year. Connie Williams with Reading is Fundamental (RIF) is recruiting volunteers to read to students in select schools around the district. Join me. #FliptheScript.


Screenshot 2017-10-26 at 8.17.10 PM

If you, like many of us, are discouraged about the latest report on reading levels for Nashville children, I have a suggestion. Be part of the solution.

It’s tempting to sit around and have endless discussions about what others should do differently and who is at fault. The answer is that we are all at fault that 7 out of 10 Nashville children can’t read at grade level, and 8 out of 10 children of color in my wonderful, forward-looking hometown can’t read at grade level. That’s so shameful that I can hardly bear to think about it.

There are many ways that regular people like you and me can help our children, and this fall I’m helping Book’em place volunteers in elementary schools as part of the Reading is Fundamental (RIF) program. RIF volunteers visit a Nashville public school classroom five times during the school year. On each visit, they read a book or two to the class and then they let each child pick out a new book of their own to keep. Volunteers can share their favorite stories, talk about their love of books, and encourage children to read.  

But the most important part is letting the children pick out their own books, provided by Book’em, some of them for the first time. The Handbook of Early Literacy says that in middle income neighborhoods the ratio of books per child is 13 to 1, in low-income neighborhoods the ratio is 1 age-appropriate book for every 300 children. I want to think we do better than that in Nashville with Imagination Library for toddlers and pre-schoolers and the best library system in the U.S. in the Nashville Public Library, but I know that the children in RIF classrooms are overjoyed to receive these books and even more excited to be able to pick out the ones they want.

I understand that what we can accomplish as readers and book providers to these precious children is not the magic answer. It’s certainly not as big and shiny as teacher training or teaching methods or parent engagement or more funding or even one-on-one weekly volunteer tutoring in an MNPS Reading Clinic, but I know that it’s meaningful. And it’s something that almost anyone can do.

Are you willing to give 10 hours total of your time to help a classroom of children during this school year? We still need a few more volunteers at Cockrill, Park Avenue, Tom Joy, KIPP Kirkpatrick, Explore, and Dodson schools. Email me to learn more or to sign up at connie@bookem-kids.org.


Connie Williams is the former executive director of Metro Schools’ longtime partner PENCIL Foundation, which is known for its impact on the Nashville community through the creation and nurturing of hundreds of partnerships between business and schools. When not recruiting and training reading volunteers, Ms. Williams teaches at Belmont University.

 

If Reading Scores Are A Predictor of Success, We’re In Big Trouble 

I’m terrible at compartmentalizing my life. If I’m going through something it affects everything I do (or don’t do). For two weeks, since learning about Nashville’s reading scores, I’ve submerged myself into studies, manuals, blogs, newspaper articles, and personal testimonies in an effort to understand where we are going wrong with literacy in our schools.

 I just want to understand. 

Because I need to believe that our system and the powers-that-be are uncomfortable with sending three-fourths of our students into the world poorly equipped. I have to believe that our kids are not being groomed to lift the wealthy and carry their middle class on their backs. 

I want to believe the best, but when only 17.5% of Black/Hispanic/Native American students read at grade level and no one has stepped out to say – “never again” – well, I can only surmise we’re a people ok with certain public school children not reaching the American Dream. 

This is not to advance wild conspiracy theories, but rather to raise awareness about our crippling literacy crisis and seek real solutions. 
So because I wear my heart on my sleeve and I’m totally inept at pretending, when you see me about town and ask how I’m doing, I’m likely to respond with “I won’t be fine until we #flipthescript for our children. And you?”