Keep Your Accolades, We’re Here For Our Piece of the Promise

It seemed like all of America voted in Alabama’s Senate election this week. Everyone had something to say about the decades-old Republican seat up for grabs. But in true cinematic fashion, Democrats pulled off a miracle and gained another seat in Washington.

We may never identify the magic that led to Democrat Doug Jones beating ultra-conservative Roy Moore in an equally conservative state. One thing is for sure — black people unexpectedly showed up and showed out in a way only we know how. If you are a Democrat in a contest against hate, we’re here for you. And black women? When America is against the ropes, with one hand lifted in praise and the other prepared for battle, time after time black women have carried this nation on our backs using our vote to restore America’s promise. And Tuesday night’s election was no different.

Sadly, for black women, America’s promise of equality, justice, and freedom for all is, at best, false advertising and, at worst, soul-crushing betrayal. Since the birth of this nation, black women have nursed and nurtured the soil and soul of this land. For this country, we have fought and died, marched and entertained, built and reconstructed, all without condition and with love and forgiveness.

Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired

As I think about our heroics throughout the generations, I declare that I am Fannie Lou Hamer sick and tired of the promise prostituted to secure our vote and then ripped from our fingertips post-election.

But not all of the blame falls on the shoulders of the politician or the party. No, voters too often believe their voice ends with the ballot. I’m here to tell you – hell to the naw! Casting your vote is only the beginning.

We can’t afford to do what we’ve always done by giving away our vote and our trust. Because how far has that taken us? Let’s see: black women are highly educated yet earn significantly less than men of any race and white and Asian women. No matter where we live in this country, large percentages of black children cannot read. In rapidly gentrifying cities like Nashville, black families are disproportionately squeezed outside of the core where affordable housing is at a premium and distant from vital services. Disparities in healthcare, loan acceptance, employment, and the list goes on…

With these irrefutable injustices looming over our lives we simply don’t have the luxury of walking out of the voting booth feeling satisfied. We cannot be satisfied until we are paid our worth. We cannot be satisfied until 100% of our children read at or above grade level. We cannot be satisfied until we make sure policymakers and shakers see us in every decision.

You’ve voted, now make good on your vote. Honor your investment by following the news, question decisions that don’t pass the smell test, and offer praise and gratitude at the appropriate times. Get your piece of the promise, sis.

And always stay woke.

black woman

Nashville Voices: “I’m Sharing My Story Because It Matters”

Toya Werkheiser is a career woman, wife and mother of four beautiful children from Dyersburg, Tennessee. Growing up with limited access to high-quality school options, it was only right that she become an advocate for her children to ensure they had access to the best education possible. As a Nashville Rise advocate, her goal is to ensure every child’s educational needs are met through empowering the child’s parents and leaving them feeling confident enough to elevate their voices around advocating for change.


As parent leaders, we need to build trust, inspire hope and move people to action. Personal stories are one of the most powerful ways to do this. They are how we communicate our shared values and build trust, how we express what is at stake and how we impress upon others the need to act with a sense of urgency.

I want to share a little bit of my personal story.

I was raised in Dyersburg, a small town in West Tennessee with limited school options. Private, charter, magnet—you name it—none of these school options existed throughout my K-12 experience. As a result, everyone attended the same traditional schools with the same “one-size-fits-all” education models. It was almost impossible to access a high-quality education without traveling outside of your district.

My husband and I have four children, ages 12 to 23, and we’ve been determined to make sure they benefit from the best schools possible. As it stands, our kids have attended 10 schools to date with two additional high schools to come.

By the time my last two kids graduate, we will have driven hundreds and hundreds of miles in a trial and error effort to access high-quality options—a major commitment to ensure that our kids get the best education possible.

HERE’S THE CHALLENGE MY COMMUNITY, OTHER PARENTS OF COLOR, AND UNDERSERVED COMMUNITIES AROUND THE COUNTRY FACE: ACCESS TO HIGH-QUALITY SCHOOLS. Here’s the challenge my community, other parents of color, and underserved communities around the country face: access to high-quality schools. I know it’s a possibility but how do we make it happen?

I was introduced to Nashville Rise after seeking out education advocacy groups and engaging with other involved parents. I joined Nashville Rise because I wanted to be a part of a team working to improve the quality of education for students in my community. I wanted to be able to send my children to the school across the street and able to get the same quality of education as the school 30 minutes from my house.

I wanted to be able to sit down with our elected officials, parents and other community members and discuss problems related to education—not later, but now.

I want to talk about what we can do to resolve issues affecting kids in our community. This is not something we can wait for. If Nashville is the “IT” city and I don’t dispute that it is, we have to get IT…this…right. Right now.

Nashville Voices: “No matter what I had to sacrifice, my son was going to make it.”

Contributed by Teade Tagaloa, a single mother living in Nashville. She works with parents in the Nashville Rise network of schools to improve the education system for her son and all students.


In 2005, I had my son and I was terrified. I already knew that, because he was a Black male born to a single mother, society had already put a label on him. I wondered if I would be able to care for him, would he love me, how would he be when he grew up? What was I going to do with a child?

I didn’t want the world to see my son as a number, so from that day forth I vowed to myself that no matter what I had to sacrifice, my son was going to make it.

Once my son started school in Lexington, Kentucky, I saw that it wasn’t working—and I wasn’t satisfied. I thought to myself, “There has to be something better than this.”

THE SCHOOLS IN OUR AREA WEREN’T GETTING BETTER, ONLY WORSE.

The schools in our area weren’t getting better, only worse. So, I packed our bags and made the tough decision to leave everything in Kentucky behind. We were Nashville-bound.

Once we arrived, I realized that while Nashville was a much bigger city than Lexington, bigger doesn’t always mean better.

Every child in Nashville does not have access to a quality education, and the only kids who attended good schools lived outside the city.

There were no support systems available to help me navigate the school system, so I had to research and tour schools on my own. After months of research and trial and error, I found a school that fit all of my son’s academic needs. However I noticed that while my son loved the academic structure of his school, there was still something missing. My son enjoys playing basketball, but the school he attends does not have a strong athletic team.

My son began to get in trouble, which frustrated me a lot. I knew sports motivated him, but I could not (and still can’t) seem to find a school that has a great academic program and athletics.

This struggle made me feel defeated.

BEING A SINGLE MOTHER TO A BLACK MALE IS LIKE A BALANCING ACT IN THE CIRCUS.

Being a single mother to a Black male is like a balancing act in the circus. You have to balance finances, education and a household, and you can’t let any of those fall. In doing all that, I lost myself. I got so caught up in trying to make it that I forgot to stop and spend quality time with my son.

I felt so guilty.

Until one day I had the opportunity to meet the Nashville Rise team.

Nashville Rise provided me with the opportunity to meet other parents who were facing the same issues. Through attending their meetings and engaging in community activities, I became empowered. I learned things about the school system I never knew. I became an even bigger advocate for my son’s school, as well as for schools in my area.

I started attending parent meetings at my son’s school and challenged other parents to think outside the box. I became a part of figuring out how to fix our broken system. Doing all these things felt good. Not only that, the good feeling trickled down to my son, who felt motivated as well.

Although I haven’t found that perfect school with the athletic and academic balance, I’m able to be a part of an organization that is advocating for change, elevating parent voices and empowering parents to grab a seat at the table during the conversation on reform.

And for that I will forever be grateful.

Do You Hear What I Hear? It’s The Sound of Fear-Mongering and Parent-Shaming

The Associated Press’ story blaming charter schools for re-segregating schools has the ed reform community in a tizzy. Thought-leaders, policymakers, and advocates have lit up Twitter, and rightfully so, crying foul about a story that supports the tragically irresponsible claim made by the NAACP and AFT (American Federation of Teachers union) last summer.

I get it. People are afraid. As more charters experience success, the greater the potential for the closure of traditional public schools, thus, job loss. So the strategy to label charter schools agents of segregation is a pretty desperate attempt to save jobs, maintain control of marginalized families, and protect the business of masking shit as free and appropriate education.

The AP story was careful to keep the premier teacher’s union and the NAACP out of the spotlight, but the remnants of this summer past can be detected in each line. Remember when AFT chief Randi Weingarten called charter schools and vouchers “slightly more polite cousins to segregation?” And the Reverend Al Sharpton had to chime in:

Maybe it’s a coincidence that the AFT, NAACP, and AP are all calling charter schools segregationists. I wonder if they also believe the audacious accusation that schools full of kids of color cannot succeed. “‘Desegregation works. Nothing else does,” said Daniel Shulman, a Minnesota civil rights attorney.”

Many of my grandparent’s generation lament desegregation as they blame it for breaking up the village. The tight-knit community of professionals and laborers and artists formed to defend the volatile world around them. Schools and churches were the beacons of these communities and no child was left behind. Enter Generation X, one generation removed from real segregation as Chris Stewart defines as “the state-enforced separation of races and the assignment of minorities into inferior conditions.”

As a Gen X-er, I was forced to attend schools in the suburbs with middle-class white kids and, in turn, forced my kids to do the same. I believed that black and poor kids could only succeed by attending school with white, wealthy kids in their neighborhoods.

But today’s parents of color have figured it out and those accustomed to controlling our narratives are terrified. Clearly, for charter school parents diversity is not the priority as they walk towards educational options that fit. Their steps are loud and the message is clear “This school meets my child’s needs. Period.” More importantly, with their feet, traditionally marginalized parents are sprinting from efforts that work to ensure they stay in the margins. 

There are so many shades of wrong coming out of this AP story, but the most egregious act committed is the attack on black and brown parents. Shamelessly shaming them for doing what every white and wealthy parent in America does – selecting the best educational situation for their babies.

The NAACP, AFT, and AP-types should be ashamed of themselves.

And, by the way, we cannot talk racial isolation and segregated schools without discussing housing patterns. So where do you live and how is that working out for your children? 

 

How The Flu, Nashville’s Reading Crisis, and A Single Question Ordered My Steps to 2018

Like everything else 2017 has had a hand in, this year’s flu strain showed up with a side of Satan. For nine days, I battled the worse flu of my life with rolls of tissue, too many doses of Theraflu, gallons of Hot Toddy, a rescue inhaler doubling as a crutch, and hours upon hours of Hallmark Christmas Movies and Gilmore Girls (yes, them). Oh, and hubs was sick, too. It was not a pretty scene in Hawkins house. 

For six of those days, I did not participate in social media in order to avoid triggers that could impede the healing process. The devil-flu stole my energy, so I was often too weak to sit at the computer or even pick up a book. So in the time between the stories of unrequited mistletoe love and trying to decode the dialogue between the speed-talking mom/daughter duo, I had time to think. 

My top three flu-addled thoughts:

  1. Literacy in Nashville
  2. Nashville’s Literacy Crisis
  3. Flipping the Script on Nashville’s Reading Scores

Real talk. I’m obsessed.

As I regained my strength, I was able to honor a couple of commitments on my calendar, a holiday open house and podcast interview. Even at a party replete with fancy champagne flutes and hard to pronounce hors d’oeuvres, I found a target to share Nashville’s literacy woes. The listener was in search of contacts to education organizations doing great work for kids and I was happy to oblige. But really I was just happy to take advantage of the captive audience.  I dropped a few reading statistics and watched as her eyes widened and mouth the stats in disbelief. Then she asked, “so what do you plan to do about it?

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I decided to move to another room. Didn’t she know I had been sick for an entire week and too weak to change the world? Admittedly, the question impacted me deeply.

With “the question” coloring my every thought, I wasn’t sure how to prepare for the podcast. How could I possibly continue to beat the drum of our literacy crisis without a plan to do my part? I mean, look at Jarred Amato. Here’s a teacher who saw a need in the community in which he teaches and did something about it. A year later it’s a movement. And there are hundreds of organizations in Nashville that began with a decision after recognizing a need. So, what’s up, Vesia?

I decided to diss the naysaying voices in my head and continue my mission to take in as much literacy information as possible and raise awareness.

Podcast with Linda

I’m grateful for the discussion with Education Conversations podcast host Linda Dunnavant. She is a gracious host who cares deeply about children and the Nashville education community. Whatever philosophical differences we may have had before I entered her space, disappeared under the weight of our love of kids and concern for families. Further, this experience helped me work through “the question.”

My answer: I will continue to research and raise awareness. And stay tuned…

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.