For LEAD Public Schools’ Class of 2017 Getting Into College Is Just the Beginning of the Story

Senior Signing Day 2017 is in the books and LEAD Public Schools knows how to throw a party for its students! LEAD’s communications director Jon Zlock launched the festivities with a pep rally of a lifetime. Each LEAD school performed a chant pumping up all within earshot before things slowed to serious.

From the schools’ CEO Chris Reynolds to Governor Bill Haslam, the message to graduates and future classes was clear: it’s great to get in college, but graduating is gold. Additionally, the students even received a mini-sermon from Belmont University’s president, Dr. Bob Fisher:

“Your purpose in life is not about you. Your purpose in life is about what you can do for others.”

If that wasn’t powerful enough, Marcus Whitney, successful businessman and civic leader, offered some heavy truths in his keynote speech by celebrating discomfort as a means to a soul-satisfying end, emphasizing the power of high expectations, and promoting a ‘no excuses’ way of navigating life.

Let me tell you what doesn’t work. Doing something to someone else because it was done to you.

After Whitney told us a thing or two, the atmosphere already electric, seemed to explode with the introduction of the main event – all 42 seniors announcing the college or university where they will obtain their degrees in either 2019 or 2021. Yes, each senior revealed their school of choice by saying “In 2021 (or 2019), I will be graduating from (school name)!” Inspiring, electric, hopeful, amazing.

Enjoy a few minutes of the senior announcements here.

So, class of 2017, congratulations today for the degrees that will be conferred tomorrow, you’re good for it. Finally, I’d like to echo the beautiful sentiment offered by Mr. Whitney:

“Look for the light. It is always there and you, 42, are the light.”

This Nashville Teacher Tells It Like It Is and Reveals A Truth Most Not Eager To Tackle – Publicly

But if the foundations are not set for success, aren’t we merely perpetuating a system of disadvantage and creating a larger opportunity gap from the beginning? – Bianca Larkin

This quote is from a middle school teacher in Nashville. In this Edutalk in Tennessee blog post, Ms. Larkin does something publicly few of us are willing to do in private and that’s spotlight irrefutable deficiencies in Nashville’s elementary schools.

I must admit, I cannot leave an elementary school without crying. The babies, man. Most teachers leave it all on the field for our youngest children and for this reason I keep my mouth zipped about dismal achievement outcomes in too many of our schools. I guess you could say I’m guilty of “perpetuating a system of disadvantage and creating a larger opportunity gap.”

So, I’m sending out mad props to this middle school teacher for having the courage to not only speak her truth but challenge our culture of low expectations for certain students and comfort with anything less than excellence. Thank you.

Check out Ms. Larkin’s full post.


Nashville Charter Schools Discussion Sends Dark Message, Fuels Fear and Acrimony

The charter school conversation in Nashville continues to erode. There are a plethora of issues that plague a district our size, yet increased attention is dedicated to blasting charter schools.

Last evening, the Board of Education discussed the viability and future of the seven year old district-charter school compact. Once hailed as a national model of collaboration and symbol of good intentions, dissolving the compact would make a pretty strong statement to current and prospective parents as well as current and prospective charter school leadership. I suspect this is the goal.

Ironically (or perhaps not so much), this little discussion takes place almost one month to the day 374 charter schools parents signed a letter to the editor demanding respect from the school district and the school board. I am just cynical enough to believe the dissolution talk is a warning shot to these parents and their “meddling” charter school leaders.  Note: it has been recommended that charter schools prohibit the act of “meddling”, among other things. 

So if the environment is not already hostile enough, hold on to your hats!

Speaking of hostile…

Daily, I get messages from someone expressing their frustration at the tone of the charter school discussion or the disproportionate amount of energy directed to charters and therefore, away from the majority of district schools. Because of the hostility-laden landscape, almost every message begins or ends with “please keep this confidential.” It’s sad that parents and other community advocates live in fear of speaking out about a basic civil right. When did we become this?

Last night I received a letter requesting amplification on my blog, but only on condition of anonymity. The content of the letter tells a sad story about how we do education, but the conditions by which the author must share his/her truth is a tragic narrative about who we are.

I was lucky to sit beside two wonderfully well-behaved children whose mother spoke at tonight’s MNPS board meeting. They sat quiet and wide-eyed as she told board members about the difficulty she and other Arabic speaking families have obtaining special education services in some schools because of language barriers – though not at Nashville Classical Charter School, where her son now attends.
Eight mothers – the majority of whom were non-white – attended tonight’s board meeting to tell the board how grateful they are for the public charter school their child attends. Four of them mentioned the board’s lack of response to a letter several hundred parents signed and sent to the board over a month ago.
Sadly, the powerful stories and voices of these women collectively seeking answers from their elected officials about attacks on the schools they love by elected officials were acknowledged neither by the board chair nor by any members of the media covering the meeting.
We can be sure, however, that if each of those mothers had come to share their problems with – instead of their praises for – their public charter school, all of us would have “Breaking News” notifications on our phones and it would be all over local news and social media like fleas on a dog.
This is in no way a dismissal of other injustices shared at tonight’s meeting – what we pay our teachers is shameful, for example. There is more than enough unfairness and never enough money to go around. But failing to address attacks on existing public schools that are producing great outcomes for some of the most vulnerable of our population, when asked by constituents, in writing and also in person, is grossly unfair. How unfortunate for our growing city that leadership is in even shorter supply than taxpayer dollars.
In her State of Metro address two weeks ago, Mayor Barry said, “In Nashville, we build bridges, not walls.” I generally agree. But with respect to MNPS, which comprises 50% of the city budget, it’s just not true. Walls have been erected, complete with catapults, used to assault our own. Worse still: when hundreds collectively wave a white flag and ask for peace, their request is ignored and the attacks only intensify.
Over the last few months, it’s become popular to show up at protests – surrounded by people with similar beliefs – to express disdain and march in solidarity. Try being female, non-white, and a non-native English speaker, standing alone in a roomful of strangers, and finding the courage to tell an unpopular truth –  but your truth – about the thing that matters most – your children. That takes just about the bravest woman I’ve ever seen. And when she finished, the glowing faces and enthusiastic hugs said that’s who her children saw, too.


Tennessee Graduation Rate Exceeds National Average… For Some

A GradNation report released last week offers a report card on graduation rates across the country. GradNation’s goal is to “increase the on-time graduation rate to 90% by the class of 2020″ and provides data and best practice opportunities to help states reach this goal.

Graduation rate is one those things we’ve come to depend on when assessing the health of a school. This would be fine if there were no instances of attempting to the game system by hiding students in alternative schools or employing “creative” tactics during testing.

The authors of this report acknowledge the skepticism, but make the point that while there is some truth to the skepticisms, for the most part, graduation rates are still a good way to see one slice of how students are doing.

According to the report, Tennessee has a graduation rate of 87.9% which is above the national average of 83.2%. This would be promising if we hadn’t just discovered hundreds of students graduating without the proper number of credits. While this little tidbit of information doesn’t alter the graduation rate, it does influence its credibility.

Still, with improved standards courtesy of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), Tennessee is poised to realize a 90% graduation rate by 2020. Or is it?

The subgroup breakdown tells a different story (doesn’t it always?).

Screenshot 2017-05-08 at 7.33.45 AM

The gaps between white and black students, white and Hispanic students, low socioeconomic and non, and students with disabilities and students without disabilities are astounding. How is it possible to celebrate a state graduation rate that beats the national average while only 80% of its black students and 70% of students with disabilities are so disturbingly below the mark? No celebrating here, but hope lies ahead.

Screenshot 2017-05-08 at 8.18.23 AM

One of the components of Tennessee’s strategic plan Tennessee Succeeds is aptly titled All Means All created specifically to address inequities. The state department of education is to be commended for acknowledging the importance of closing achievement gaps by making it a priority. Because what gets measured gets done, right?

Thankfully, we’ve learned hard lessons from No Child Left Behind where subgroups were measured to death, so today states are doing everything possible to neutralize the effects of the well-meaning but off-putting education policy. And by most accounts, Tennessee is at the head of the class thanks to Race to the Top reforms and a solid ESSA plan.

Tennessee’s graduation rate is headed in the right direction and possibly moving on a faster clip than most states. Most significantly, there is a real possibility that the finish line will include all students. Fingers crossed.

See Tennessee’s GradNation report here.

East Nashville High School Students #Resist Tweeting Teacher* Through Self-Love

I can’t stop thinking about it. Instead of cultivating and celebrating, Lyn Rushton, an art teacher* at East Nashville Magnet High School used an alternative Twitter account to mock and spew hatred for her students. I imagine some of you will protest my use of the word hate and I get it — it is a strong word. So, I’ll do you a solid by providing you a set list of this teacher’s* greatest hits and allow you to decide:

“The ghettoness of some of my students just sickens me beyond belief.”

“I wish I could carry around a stamp at school to put “worthless a*******” across their heads.”

“I take fashion advice from my students. If they wear it, I don’t.”

According to a friend, a parent at East Nashville, a student discovered the art teacher’s* tweets after a search revealed his name as the subject of one of her hate storms. This particular tweet went after students with creative names like, say, Vesia.

A little background: East Nashville Magnet High School is one of Nashville’s shining examples of success with an annual graduation of 100%. The student population is 45% economically disadvantaged and 85% Black. I only mention the last two data points to inform my earlier assertion of hate.

The Problem

If you are black or poor or black and poor, society does its dead-level best to devalue you. How many advertisements promoting social, physical, and financial success include brown women, men and children? Then add a layer of community distress where there are few, if any, glimmers of hope, examples of resurrection.

But when society and the community lets them down, generally, the babies can count on their schools to get it right for them. After all, schools are safe places filled with adults who are there because they choose to be, because they love working with children.


Teachers have enormous power over students’ personal and educational lives. We all have a story within us about the teacher who pushed us toward success and loved us in spite of ourselves. So if a great teacher has the potential to have a lifelong positive influence, imagine the power of a dud.

I can’t shake the idea of those students entering Rushton’s art class fully expecting an adult who will help them realize their greatest potential and provide the instruction to get them there. Instead, they were saddled with a fraud who used them as some kind of social experiment to mock and use for Twitter content. How effective a teacher could she have been?

The Students, Though

In an authentic act of resistance (unlike the hashtag), the students did something rarely seen or celebrated. Those beautiful babies realized the very power the teacher* worked so hard to extinguish and called out her hate by celebrating their worth.

“I don’t want a name like everybody else! I love my name… I don’t care if I walk into a job interview and they don’t like my name because it’s a black name. I love my name!”

And that gets a resounding AMEN from this chick named Vesia.  A loving shout out to the students at East Nashville Magnet High.

 * denotes that the teacher is both fraudulent and former. 

This Nashville Rocketship School is Spreading the Love Through Gratitude

Written by Tatum Schultz, 3rd grade teacher at Rocketship United Academy in Nashville. 

Every language in the world has a way of saying “thank you.” Gratitude is an inherent quality that resides deep within each one of us. It is triggered by different events and crosses the boundaries of race, age and gender. Gratitude comes from the heart. It is an acknowledgment of the positive things that we feel in our soul. When we give gratitude, we give a gift freely and unearned.

At Rocketship United Academy, our leaders, teachers and support staff are dedicated to sharing gratitude. Within our halls a positive culture thrives. Every Rocketship school has five core values and four are shared across our network: respect, responsibility, empathy and persistence. Rocketeers recite these shared values in their Rocketeer creed each day and live them out at school and in their community.

A COMMUNITY THAT SHARES A DESIRE TO EXCEED EXPECTATIONS.We build on these core values and allow our Rocketeers to grow in a community that shares a desire to exceed expectations.

The fifth core value of each school is chosen by parents and teachers as the value that best illustrates that school’s unique character and vision. Fifth core values range from service to bravery to curiosity to ganas.

Our core values fit within our mission to prepare our students to thrive in school and beyond by equipping them with critical character skills. Many of our students come from high-poverty communities. Research shows that children living in these communities experience more “toxic stress” than children living in middle- or upper-class neighborhoods. Toxic stress makes it difficult for children to manage their emotions, resolve conflicts and respond to provocations.

That is why we create a consistent, predictable and positive school experience that helps our students develop the social-emotional skills they need to succeed in the classroom and beyond.

Our instructional programs include social-emotional learning curricula taught roughly three times a week in morning community meetings. We utilize carefully-selected curricula differentiated for lower- and upper-grade students.

In our younger grades, we use the Kimochis curriculum which is centered on five characters with unique temperaments and personalities, designed to give students depersonalized opportunities to practice the skills to recognize their emotions, demonstrate care for others, establish positive relationships, make responsible decisions and handle challenging situations. The characters act as a safe third-party that students can relate to as they consider their own strengths and development areas. Students in upper grades use RULER tools to track their behaviors, feelings and progress in a mood journal.

In the beginning of February, we decided to roll out our fifth core value: gratitude. Our school picked this value because we thought it was a characteristic that would make our students stronger as well as build strong relationships with their peers and teachers. When we introduced gratitude, it was just a word, but now it is a feeling that will touch your soul when you walk through the front doors of a Rocketship school.

Gratitude Grams were an idea that our Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support (PBIS) team launched to further our social-emotional teaching and let our students express themselves. We thought it would give our children a vehicle to show their thanks and appreciation; to give appreciation and kindness to others. Every day, for seven days, students were given a half sheet of colored paper with a different student’s name on it. Their responsibility was to watch gratitude spread.

JUST LIKE THAT, GRATITUDE GREW THROUGH THE HALLS OF ROCKETSHIP UNITED ACADEMY.They had to write one sentence thanking that student for something they had done or they could capture appreciation for them as a peer. At the end of seven days, the students would receive their own name and could read what seven other students appreciated about them. And just like that, gratitude grew through the halls of Rocketship United Academy.

Gratitude is not just a feeling deep inside, it is choice that we make every day at Rocketship. It is an attitude we adopt and one we freely give to the children we meet each day. The habits of kindness never grow old or tiresome, they are renewed each day with a smile and open heart. To give gratitude freely is the energizing spirit that is harnessed each day in the classrooms of Rocketship.

An original version of this post appeared on the Rocketship blog as Gratitude is a Choice We Make Every Day and Education Post. 

When Racial Groups Self-Segregate and Its Effect on Schools and Neighborhoods

“Where can I live where there are no Black people?”

It was nearly twenty years ago, I was working at the Nashville Chamber of Commerce when a lady preparing to relocate called to get demographic information. We had a delightful conversation about Nashville’s growth, how the cost of living was below the U.S average, and with two small babies of my own, I assured the potential newcomer that Nashville was the perfect place to raise a family.

But near the end of our call, she needed to know specific places to move where there would be no signs of the likes of me, the nice Chamber of Commerce employee whose “sista-ness” she somehow missed. Without missing a beat, I directed her to my neighborhood and told her how much I would love to be her neighbor. I remember that phone call like it just happened because it hurt like hell.

So many lessons learned from that seven minute conversation, but it was then I realized people actually placed priority on the color of their neighbors over the color of the house. Whether they admit it or even realize it.

But is it not human to find security in familiarity? Is this not why we seek to join membership organizations that allow us to move and speak freely with perceived like-minded individuals without having to put in the work of getting to know them? I won’t explain away behavior like the racist lady on the phone call, but people have a right to live where they want.

In the two articles referenced below, the authors call out white people for self-segregation in the areas of schools and neighborhoods (which are interconnected). Because I’ve witnessed this for a few years now, the information is not shocking, but it does inform another narrative – school choice.

From my vantage point, it is the middle-to-upper class self-segregated whites who tend to be the biggest opponents of charter schools and the choice movement. So I have a problem when one’s life is rooted in choices/privilege, yet fix their mouths to bash choices offered to those with so few. We will save this for another day.

In this New York Times article by Kate Taylor, we see white families in Manhattan who live in close proximity to a public school but refuse to send their own kids there, one father even calling it “malpractice.” The school is mostly Hispanic and low income with a mediocre performance record.

In the case of P.S. 165, only two in five of the kindergartners who lived in the school’s zone and attended public school were enrolled there in 2015, according to Education Department data. White families disproportionately shun the school: Roughly a third of the public school students who live in the school’s zone are white, but only 13 percent of the school’s students are white. Its test scores, like those at the other district schools where black and Hispanic children are a majority, lag behind.

We see a different narrative with an identical outcome in this Vox article by Alvin Chang where the focus is jobs in a suburb of Minnesota.

But in 1989, the local pork processing plant added 650 jobs and attracted new workers, many of Mexican descent, by giving them one free week of lodging and food.

By the early 1990s, about 5 percent of the town’s population was Mexican. People told their friends and family about these jobs, and more and more Hispanic workers came to Worthington — a phenomenon called chain migration.

By 2010, more than one in three residents were Hispanic.
Unlike the silly lady who called looking for Black-free neighborhoods, most people do not announce their racism and/or classism. We can only surmise that our majority-minority schools and neighborhoods are products of hate. Still, the information is good to have, even if it’s to serve as a mirror. But we will ever love our neighbor as ourselves?