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?”

Nashville Mom Shares Story of Inconsistency of Reading Standards from State to Local

We are in the throes of the fight of our lives to move our children toward a chance at having even a slice of the American Dream.

In Nashville, TWENTY-FIVE PERCENT of all students in grades 3-8 are reading proficient. That’s eight points below the state average of less than THIRTY-FOUR PERCENT. 

A demographic look into Nashville’s number reveal a staggering EIGHTY-TWO POINT FIVE PERCENT OF black and brown students are NOT reading proficient. Not even proficient. 

For two weeks, I’ve been on a desperate search to find answers. From Reading the state’s guide on teaching literacy to soliciting answers on Facebook. 

Before we received the news about Nashville’s scores and still operating on the state’s average of less than 34 percent, I asked on Volume and Light’s Facebook page “am I the only one freaking out about this?” and this Nashville mom of four responded:

Maybe there is no reaction because the parents are not really aware. In my experience, I had a child that was making very good grades, “reading” above grade level, and showed no signs of deficiency. It was not until they were tested for entrance into another school that I found out they were two grades behind in their comprehension skills, which is an essential part of reading. Even when I spoke to my child’s current teacher, I was told they were on the path to surpass the grade level standard. So when you consider their grades, their abilities even in your presence and the reassurance of a teacher that the child is on track, you have no reason to believe that your child falls into the 66% of students who are not succeeding thus creating an extreme gap in accountability and problem solving. You shouldn’t blame a child for not learning something they are not being taught. You shouldn’t blame the parent for not recognizing a problem that is not being presented. I don’t even know if it is a teacher problem if they are just following the guidelines which they are being given. 34% is cause for alarm. Based on my experience, I believe the foundation needs to be re-evaluated. Any improvements made to the building will be for naught if the foundation is still weak.

His First Five Minutes As A Teacher Tells Metro Schools Everything It Needs To Know About Protecting Its Young

Well into the school year Metro Schools found itself searching high and low for teachers. Though the new school year scramble is not unusual for an urban district, for years MNPS has been charged with hiring too late, missing out on the highly sought after newbies. While missed opportunities is an easy fix (better planning), there are other systemic human resource deficiencies that must be identified, addressed, and remedied.

In his recent blog Does MNPS Have A Teacher Attrition Problem?, high school AP History teacher Josh Rogen does what he does best by taking the reader on a journey through data in an effort to arrive at the truth. In this case, it seems the data takes him to a conclusion in opposition to his “pre-research” suspicions. The first half of the blog takes the reader through the numbers of teachers of all experience levels leaving Metro Schools. On par with the nation, the largest group of teachers leaving their posts is first-year teachers. And according to Rogen, there is a good reason for it in Nashville.

That entire first year, my principal saw me teach maybe two times. The vice principal, maybe two times. My literacy coach never entered the room. I had no explicit mentor…

The remainder of Rogen’s post is a generous account of his first five minutes as a teacher and the lessons that remain with him today. What I appreciate about Rogen’s blog is the invaluable consultation he offers for free to MNPS when they are notorious for lavishing tax dollars on over-priced consultants who provide lean advice and questionable outcomes.  But I digress.  He provides an important lens into the heart of the teacher attrition issue that is rooted in a culture of poor or absent in-school supports for new teachers, particularly in schools with a high concentration of poverty and where the teacher’s race stands out from the student population.

 Let’s also be real that race and class played a huge role in my experience. I was an upper-class, privately schooled white kid who was teaching in a very different environment. The teaching movies lied to me! J Were I a teacher of color, I think my experience might have been different, which really underscores just another reason that principals should be trying to hire teachers of color. But most of my friends within the district experienced something quite similar, including teachers of color.

From my perspective, teaching is not one of those gigs where a “go get ’em, Tiger!” will do. Think about it — new teachers are generally very young, experiencing new cultures and working with adults as an adult for the first time, and then suddenly solely responsible for dozens of little minds for 6 hours a day. We owe them titanium supports.

Check out Rogen’s blog Teach Run Eat Repeat follow him on Twitter @RogenJH.

Commissioner McQueen Celebrates Innovation and Calls Out Culture Issues While On Capitol Hill

Note: I wrote this before the news that less than 6% of Tennessee’s 3rd-8th graders are meeting the state’s reading standards. Currently, I am in a RESIST state of mind, but the commissioner’s testimony on Capitol Hill is still worth sharing.


Maybe I need a life or maybe you should stop judging me, but I thoroughly enjoyed Commissioner Candice McQueen’s testimony to a group of senators on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Dr. McQueen was invited to speak about Tennessee’s exemplary Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plan submitted in April and approved in August.

At the start of her testimony (at 29:28), Commissioner McQueen rightly and not so timidly points out that Tennessee’s strategic plan Tennessee Succeeds was ESSA plan before ESSA was even a thing. And with that, the Tennessee commish’s “just sayin’” moment set the tone for the remaining ninety-five minutes.  

After burning up a minute of high-fiving the Tennessee’s innovation and public engagement efforts, McQueen gradually arrives at the part of the plan that some find controversial. Some, meaning me and a few others who are minorities or work for civil rights. “Here we go”, I think as the hair on my arms stand at attention and the pride of watching my commish testify before the United States Senate takes a backseat. But not for very long.

I dunno, maybe it was the sheer number of seconds she spends explaining the bane of my existence – BHN – the combination of Black, Hispanic, and Native American students into one super subgroup. I’ve blogged and tweeted endlessly about my thoughts about the state’s statistical creation of combining these three very different groups of students. I’m neither a statistician nor education professional, so my conclusions are mostly anecdotal but solid as a rock. Because as I’ve stated too many times “You don’t need a degree in education to know these groups are different, with unique challenges requiring customized attention and remedy.” (Yes, I just quoted myself)

Still, I appreciate Dr. McQueen’s effort to allay concerns (or end the discussion once and for all) about this issue using as much time as a five-minute testimony on innovation will allow. The gradual transition from celebration to ‘oh, by the way, we did this subgroup thing and here’s why you should like it ” was so crafty I almost forgot my grandiose opposition to the super subgroup. She says the department is committed to equity for every student and illustrates her point using the demographics in a small school in rural Tennessee.

“An example is Camden Junior High in Benton County. There are 31 total students across three individual racial/ethnic groups, so it can be held accountable for all 31 students under the combined group. But it only has 19 Black/African-American students, 11 Hispanic students, and one Native American student – none of which are high enough counts to be included in our accountability system. Because of the combined racial/ethnic group, Camden Junior High is now held accountable for the performance of these students.”

Further, “…we will also publicly report the performance of every individual racial/ethnic student group, provided it meets an n-count of 10. This will equip educators, parents, community members, and advocates to hold each school accountable for how they serve every child. We believe all of these approaches will help to shine a spotlight on all students’ performance and drive a conversation about the needs of individual students, which is our goal, and we are doing more than ever to ensure that ALL students, particularly historically underserved students, are making progress.”

We will have to wait and see.

I’m convinced there is not much, if anything, one can throw at the former Lipscomb University dean and not be met with a swift, perfectly-delivered uncrafted response. The woman knows her stuff. I’m not here to be the good doctor’s cheerleader, because, you know, the kids… I will, however, shout her praises for acknowledging Tennessee’s decades-old problem of disproportionately suspending black males in response to a question about accountability (1:06).

She could have easily swept that tidbit of Tennessee’s unsavory history and culture under the rug, but she put it out there – for America to see. She put it out there in a room full of rich white men and women who are so far removed from public schools they speak of them as if they are little third-world countries. She put it out there against a backdrop of heightened racial tension. When we know better, we do better.

Senator Petty Warren

Finally, I’ve just got to put this in the universe. Senator Elizabeth Warren, the resident smart-aleck brazenly repping Massachusetts was given her time at the mic. She never fails to ask spite-dipped questions accompanied by body language that would not go over well in the hood. After she and the senator from Tennessee had a brief but heated back and forth, she asked those questions. She knew the answers making the targets look like a punchline. But what ticked me off was the not-so-gently lady’s reference to “Ms. McQueen” and one second later addresses the very-male “Dr.” Steiner.

Senator Warren, that’s Dr. McQueen, sis.
Hearing on ESSA innovations in Tennessee, Louisiana, and New Mexico.