Federal Government Says Child Poverty Rate is Down in Nashville, Withholds Millions from Schools

More on the continuing saga of Taking from the Poor…

Last week I wrote about Tennessee’s largest counties losing federal funding due to the government’s (mis)calculations identifying poverty decreases within the geographic boundaries of our largest school districts. Yes, you read that right – decreasing poverty in urban schools districts. Shelby County, Tennessee’s largest school district, will suffer a $5 million deficit in the coming school year and it seems that the funding is being redirected to the smaller, wealthier districts. 


In Nashville, the district has been on the budgeting battlefield preparing for the $4 million kick in the gut. As much as the deficit itself is a hard pill to swallow, the rationale behind the funding loss betrays logic.

The Metro Schools’ Federal Programs department has this to say:

“The poverty rate that drives our federal education budgets (such as Title I) are determined by the poverty rate for children 5-17 in Davidson County reported by the US Census.  To allocate funds to the State of TN and each of its districts for next fiscal year, the USED will use the US Census child poverty rate from 2015.  Our current Title I budget was based on the rate of 2014.  As determined by the US Census, Davidson County’s child poverty rate went down 13.18% in one year from their reported rate in 2014 to the 2015 rate.

In comparison, the national child poverty rate went down only 4.40%.”

The Heck You Say

Anyone living in Nashville for six minutes can see our growing homelessness (6th in the nation) and housing epidemic and say with total confidence that the federal government is just plain wrong.

As a matter of fact, just three months ago I sat in a day-long community needs presentation proving Nashville’s growing needs for the city’s most vulnerable (see Nashville’s Prosperity Rests on Backs of Unhoused, Over-Jailed, and Undereducated). Annually, the city’s social services department releases a community needs evaluation, collecting a year’s worth of service delivery data from governmental agencies and nonprofits. The nearly three-hundred-page tome doubles as an indictment on the city’s priorities and roadmap to absolution. Ultimately, it serves as proof of the colossal hole between what is reported and reality. 

What Could a $4 Million Loss Mean for Students?

While scrolling through Facebook last week, I came across a post from the principal of Screen Shot 2017-07-20 at 10.16.52 AMmy old high school. Dr. Sue Kessler, principal of Hunters Lane High School (go Warriors!), posted a message to parents and students reminding them that the Warrior Bookstore is stocked and ready — relieving their minds of any worry of being ill-prepared for the first day of school. Just writing it gives me chills.

How on earth is Dr. Kessler able to provide free school supplies to every Hunters Lane student?

“We are in year 9 of this practice. Our marketing 1 students run the bookstore as an “inventory” exercise. All students can get what they need during lunch when the bookstore is open. It’s a win-win that ensure everyone has what they need, and requires that students take responsibility for retrieving the supplies they need when they need them. So, if geography teacher says you need colored pencils for next class the student knows to pick them up rather than ask parents to get them. For kids who come from families without resources for school supplies it’s a great equalizer. Free for all Warriors, no judgement and proof of “need” required. We use Title 1 funds to stock the bookstore and for 1600 kids only costs about $8000 to ensure everyone has access to the school supplies they need.”

Yes, Title 1 funds.

The government designates these funds to schools with high numbers of students living in low-income situations. Students with limited means struggle to get even the most basic of supplies and, thankfully, we have leaders like Dr. Kessler who identify student need and creatively make the funding work for every student. I believe she will fight to continue the underappreciated service of stockpiling the school bookstore and offering supplies to all students free of charge. More chills.

And it appears Metro Schools is working to protect students from the nonsensical funding shortfall. I pray they are successful.

NAACP’s Misguided Moratorium on Charter Schools Puts Children Dead Last

Since 1909, the NAACP has been at the forefront of civil rights struggles in the United States, from ending lynchings to securing Black voting rights and ending school segregation.  But its rigid stance on charters flies in the face of reality.

Take the ACT college exam for example. On what planet does it make sense for the NAACP to tell a black charter school leader like Christopher Goins, whose black students average 19.5 on the ACT, to stop serving students when the national average for ACT scores among Black students is 17? A 17 and a 19.5 are only two and a half points apart, but that’s the difference between going to a community college or 4-year university.

Goins isn’t alone. He is in good company with charter school leaders like Lagra Newman, of Nashville’s Purpose Preparatory Academy, a school of mostly black, brown and poor students where nearly every student is reading at or above grade level. Then there’s the award-winning Soulsville Charter School in Memphis led by NeShante Brown.

All over the country, dedicated educators of color are leading charter schools that cultivate the minds of children too-often locked out of success in traditional public schools. In Philadelphia, Mastery Charter Schools’ Sharif El-Mekki not only treats his students like his own children, he is teaching his own “grand-students” (students whose parents were his students, too). Plus, he’s working to bring more Black men into the teaching profession.

img_0867Let’s be clear, the inequities of public schooling persist everywhere, both in the charter sector and in traditional public schools and parents know this better than anyone. Last October, I traveled to the NAACP’s annual meeting in Cincinnati with 150 parents, mostly from The Memphis Lift parent group, to stand for children and families in opposition to the moratorium on charter schools. That event produced the NAACP’s commitment to conduct “hearings” across the United States, including a stop in Memphis, to consider the merits of the debate.  Less than a year later, emboldened by their “listening tour,” the NAACP is likely to double down on its moratorium in even bolder terms.

But the NAACP must not have listened carefully to all the testimony it collected during hearings on its charter moratorium proposal. It feels like they still don’t have a good sense of the bigger picture.

Back in April, charter supporters and opponents at the New York City hearing found surprising common ground. Basically, they concluded, when parents are looking for options, that tells us the public school system isn’t working. And we can’t pit schools against one another when all of them are striving toward the same goal: educating our next generation to help them reach their highest potential.

It’s sad that the NAACP is focusing so much energy on road-blocking the only path many black and brown students have toward a brighter future. Perhaps the most painful thing about all this is to watch the NAACP join forces with the teachers’ unions, a powerful union that puts adults before children.  Now is not the time to form unholy alliances in a desperate attempt to restore relevance.

The NAACP is famous for its role in challenging the U.S. Constitution and winning. Heck, they’re still riding on those laurels. But we’re at another critical time in the American education system where severe inequities threaten our most vulnerable communities. If education is the civil rights issue of the day and the NAACP is clearly on the side of adults, then we must ask who stands for the children?  If not the NAACP, then who?


Longtime Educator Offers Last Rites, Lays to Rest Tired Debate on Public School Choice

Guest Blogger Dia L. Jones joins Volume and Light to lay to rest the charter school vs. traditional public school argument – once and for all. Ashes to ashes.

Dearly Beloved,

We are all gathered here today to celebrate the life and death of a perennial verbal battle. An argument where the 1% continues to pull the strings of the 99%. Where the 1% narrate the perpetual oratorical debate that poor folks should not…will not decide whether their children deserve a first-class education. This argument is now dead and we come to pay our last respects to the old banana-in-the-tailpipe BS. 

I would like to begin by reading from the gospel according to Howard Fuller “How can it be that in a country as great as ours that we can understand that 17-year-old Black and Latino young people are doing math and reading at the same level as 13-year-old white children in this country? How can this be?” 

No More

You see, my friends, this can’t be…anymore. We won’t let this be…anymore. My brothers and sisters, we all want the same things. All parents want…the same things. We want our children to earn a great education via great schools with great teachers, teaching rigorously engaging and relevant lessons in a safe, respectful, warm environment.

We want our children to gain knowledge of themselves and the world around them. We want our children to leave learning institutions with 21st-century marketable skills to take with them to and through college and into the workforce. We all ultimately want our children to have the life that only they can dream of.

Can I get an Amen?


So, why are we even arguing about public charter schools vs. traditional public schools, aren’t we all speaking the same language? Whether the school is traditional, charter, magnet, parochial, online, project-based, Montessori, application, neighborhood, or suburban. If a parent says, “I want my child to learn from here because I want my child to have this type of education,” then why are we fighting about it?

And this is why the Charter vs. Traditional School Argument is Dead. 

Parent choice is a choice for educational freedom. Freedom, my brothers and sisters! Freedom for parents to enroll their children into the school of their choice despite location, race, ethnicity, gender, religious affiliation, income, sexual orientation, sexual choice, nationality or disability. 

So, everyone… Everyone who wants to remove the shackles of academic oppression of all children – gather ’round. Pick up a rose, a lily, because, yes, He’s the Lily of the Valley…Amen? 

Or grab a handful of dirt and throw it on this pine box where this argument now resides. May it rest in pieces. Now and forever more…Amen and 1 Love

Dia L. Jones has worked to build culture rich schools and organizations for the past 20 plus years. For the past 13 years, she has been a teacher, Dean of Students and an Assistant Principal in traditional and charter schools in Philadelphia. In 2016, she was chosen by Educators Rising to help create a national curriculum to cultivate high school students from around the country to become highly qualified teachers. She was a 2017 Ryan Fellowship Finalist. She’s an avid reader, traveler, a photographer, news hound, sports watcher, foodie specialist and awesome auntie extraordinaire—ask her multitude of nieces and nephews.

Later this year, she is launching a blog where she will shed light on school culture and climate in hopes to push educators into 21st-century discipline practices, ultimately destroying the school-to- prison pipeline. STAY TUNED!

What the —-? Nashville Loses 50% of New Teachers in Three Years

I’m working hard to clean up my language. I’ve not tweeted, facebooked, or blogged an expletive in a full 48 hours. But the near-constant barrage of reports of meanness, stupidity, and just plain BAD warrants a few choice words don’t you think?

Don’t worry, I’m sticking to my moratorium on cursing even though the thought of losing so many new teachers every year makes me wanna scream “what the &%$@!”

I won’t bore you with a lot of words drenched in self-righteous platitudes – at least not in this post. Just throwing out some food for thought (with links to supporting articles).


  • We must also think in terms of quality teacher preparation programs and a robust support system within the district. Apparently, Dr. Joseph is working on the latter.

Who is Butter Emales? (But her emails…)


Redirecting Federal Dollars from Poor Districts and Giving to Wealthier Ones – REALLY?

As you know, a few years ago Memphis City Schools underwent major surgery as several suburban districts seceded from the large urban district to establish their own school systems. Now called Shelby County Schools, the district is still rather large post-secession and overwhelmingly comprised of schools filled with children from distressed circumstances.

No urban district is immune to problems, but the large secession makes Shelby County unique. The surrounding middle/upper-class communities made it clear they no longer wanted to be associated with the urban district and now it seems they are being rewarded. According to the Commercial Appeal, five surrounding school districts have discovered they are the beneficiaries of healthy monetary gifts from the federal government.

So the largely poor district loses federal $5 million in Title I funding—money meant for schools with a majority of low-income students—and meanwhile, the districts with significantly less impoverished students get the cash. Maybe I’m oversimplifying the scenario a touch, but the outcome doesn’t change. Large urban poor school district loses millions of dollars to wealthier school districts.

Incidentally, this leads me to Nashville, which is expected to lose $4 million in funding for schools with low-income students. This is a huge concern. As our city gets more prosperous, our school district becomes increasingly impoverished and these funds are given based on the income levels of residents in the district. The crazy thing is that people can’t afford housing here. It’s well-documented! We have a ridiculous amount of people moving around, month-to-month, trying to find affordable housing. No way we should be losing federal funding. I need a little help understanding this one.

Check out the Commercial Appeal article about Shelby County Schools in its entirety.

If you’re interested in how Nashville’s growth -”prosperity”- is happening at the speed of light and leaving scores of families in the dust (literally on the streets), check out the pieces below. Few articles, if any, talk about the negative impact on schools.

Nashville’s Prosperity Rests on Backs of Unhoused, Over-Jailed, and Undereducated

The Costs of Growth and Change (Series)

New Data: Nashville Region Still Growing By 100 People A Day

Cost of Living Rising in Nashville, Study Says


When You Should Be Watching the Pasture, But Rather Play in the Weeds

After witnessing a particularly uncharacteristic tweetstorm fired off by former Metro Schools communications director Joe Bass (a former colleague) about behavior unbecoming an elected official, I feel compelled to remind some and inform others about the role of a school board member. Because when we don’t stay in our respective lanes, children lose.


First published on Volume and Light February 2017.

Michael Casserly, Executive Director of The Council of the Great City Schools paid a Valentines Day visit to the Nashville School Board to establish an effective evaluation process by which to assess their one and only employee, director of schools Dr. Shawn Joseph.

Jason Gonzales of The Tennessean, smartly captured Casserly’s most searing advice “If you start saying who he should hire or which programs he should adopt … the board forfeits the role to hold him accountable.” While this not the story of the day, I will never miss an opportunity to introduce to some and reinforce to others the school board’s governing framework. But, again, board responsibility is not the story du jour.

Straight A’s

According to The Tennessean, the battle-tested director received glowing accolades accompanied by a string of perfect grades. I’m silly happy for the director of schools after a rocky start with what appeared to be a collusion between certain media types and internal saboteurs. Now, eight months into his tenure, board members are singing his praises for making good on promises.  School board member Mary Pierce posted on Facebook, “He clearly laid out his plan, and then executed it.”

With that said, I’m grateful to the school board for standing by their man by allowing him the space required to build and roll out a plan. I am also pleased to see a united front. Unfortunately, I’ve been around long enough to witness blissful honeymoons fade into bloody battles overnight. Yes, overnight. So, I’m cautiously optimistic — just shy of being a negative ninny.

From the Fire

Effective Valentines Day, the honeymoon ends and the hard part begins. Henceforth, Dr. Joseph will be evaluated by student achievement and, let’s not forget, charter schools applications are due April 1. These things matter. Big time. Student achievement and charter schools have proved fatal to the tenures of Nashville’s last two directors of schools. Just saying.

You might be thinking “she is expecting them to fail!” Au contraire, my sista. I’d love nothing more than to see this board stick it out for the long haul, but again, I’ve seen too much. The battlefield is too enticing. I can’t help but think of the W.B. Yeat’s poem The Second Coming (of which I learned through Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart) where he morosely acknowledges “things fall apart, the center cannot hold.” I guess I am a negative ninny.

Into the Frying Pan

Expect to see lots of chatter about charter applicants and watch for darts thrown by community members seeking a seat on the board in 2018 (these darts actually launched in 2016). Despite these distractions, always be mindful that part of the school board’s job is to allow the director to do his. Also, unless Dr. Joseph commits some fatal sin, remember the honeymoon through the tough times. Remember the straight A’s. Remember the extensive outreach to families, teachers and community.

If we are prepared, we don’t have to succumb to the inevitable.

Note to 2018 School Board Candidates

The school board has three (3) responsibilities:

  1. Pass the budget
  2. Govern through policy
  3. Hire, evaluate, and fire their one and only employee

You’re welcome.


Tennessee’s Untapped Superpower: Making Kids Invisible

by Lane Wright, Editor at Education Post

When I was a kid, sometimes my friends and I would ask each other which superpower would we give ourselves if we could. Inevitably, the power to make yourself invisible was always hotly debated. (Why would you want that, you creep!)

Well today, Tennessee has a superpower—not to make itself invisible, but to make some of its students disappear. Actually, under the new federal law all states have this power. Some education advocates (and friends of mine) worry Tennessee is making plans to use this power, but I disagree. I think the state is making a calculated trade-off that is ultimately best for students.

Let me explain.

Who Counts, Who Doesn’t

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the current federal education law, states have to tell folks in Washington how they’re going to make sure schools are accountable for gettin’ some learnin’ into them thar brains.

There’s a special focus on kids who typically end up getting the short end of the stick when it comes to education, like poor kids, students with disabilities, children who are learning to speak English, and racial minorities.

States have to track each of those groups of students and have a plan of action for the schools that struggle most. But they can choose how big the group needs to be before they do that.

Why It’s Tricky

For example, if you’ve got a school where there are only five black students, publically reporting on the progress of that small group of students—and attaching consequences—can be problematic.

Let’s say 60 percent of that group (three of the five) are passing math. Next year one student slips and is no longer passing. Serious consequences could be triggered because the group dropped from 60 percent to 40 percent even though it was only one student. That wouldn’t be fair to the school. The other issue is you risk identifying (and embarrassing) individual students when you have so few in a group.

The law says you’ve got to pick a minimum number of students needed at a school before you start holding schools accountable for them. Pick a number too low, and you run into problems where you can’t really rely on the information (at least not to draw any conclusions about the school) and you might cause harm to individual students. Pick a number too high, and you can literally make entire groups of students invisible to everyone in the state. Nobody will be able to see how those kids are doing compared to everyone else.

Like I said, superpower.

Concerns With Tennessee’s Plan

Experts say anything higher than 30 risks overlooking too many students. Tennessee is right at 30—tied with Michigan as the highest in the country among the 17 states that have turned in their plans so far. Most range from 10 to 20 students.

While this is a concern for some education advocates in the state, the bigger concern for many is with Tennessee’s plan to combine black, Hispanic, and Native American students into one subgroup, instead of breaking them out separately.

That means if you wanted to track math scores among Native American students at XYZ School in Tennessee and step in if they’re consistently struggling, you’re out of luck. You can only expect the state to take action if all the students, on average, in the black/Hispanic/Native American group are falling behind.

Advocates rightfully argue that these different ethnic groups have unique challenges: The problem for one group may be different from the other. And the solutions may be different too.

Combining the three racial minority groups also makes it possible for two of the groups to do well while one falls way behind. But since they’re combined, the accountability report card will simply show that, on average, that group is doing okay.

Again, we see the real power to make students invisible.

Why Combining Racial Groups Makes Sense

Education Leaders in Tennessee argue that the current plan, holds schools accountable for 43,000 more black, Hispanic and Native American students, than if they were counted separately.

In other words, for schools with less than 30 students in one of those groups, the architects of Tennessee’s plan believe it’s better to count students in a combined group than to not count them at all.

Fortunately, parents can still see how individual groups of black, Hispanic, and Native American students groups are doing.

Tennessee plans to have schools report each group separately if there are at least 10 students in a group at a school. There’s just no guarantee the state will spring to action if one group is struggling. But with that transparency, parents and others who care about public education can still put pressure on the state when they see a problem.

Being able to make groups of students disappear is a serious power. It’s not imaginary, and it’s not a joke. But Tennessee is approaching this thoughtfully and responsibly. They’re balancing the need for an accountability system that is fair to schools, with one that looks out for the needs of students. And they’re transparent about the individual performance of black, Hispanic, and Native American students which allows everyone to see if there is a problem that needs addressing, regardless of what’s written in the law.