This is Not the Time to Sleep On Federal and State Education Policy Talk

Recently, I sat through a daylong bootcamp sponsored by the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition to take in additional information about the new federal education law: The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). After the third person inquired into my reason for being there, I began to wonder ‘Why in the hell am I sitting through hours of policy talk?’

Because it matters.

Sure, the federal law seems as far away from the classroom as the distance from Nashville to D. C., but it’s in how a state responds to the law that should make parents say, “wait, what?”

Why It Matters

When you live in a southern state and are aware of the history and vestiges, thereof, and happen to be a person of color, it’s difficult to trust the system to work on your behalf.

Yet, by all accounts, Tennessee has crafted a solid plan to satisfy ESSA requirements and meet the needs of all of children. State leaders asked for feedback from a wide range of people and got it. They even made adjustments based on that feedback before turning the plan into the feds in April. This plan has a direct impact on our kids. It affects teaching in the classroom, how students are tested, how states will track the quality of each school and report that back to parents, and what they’ll do if kids aren’t getting what they need. Note: just because some people say it’s a good plan, doesn’t mean you should hand over the education of your children to something that may or may not be true — for you.

So, for several months I’ve pored through portions of the plan and sat through several meetings on ESSA with education commissioner Candice McQueen speaking passionately about meeting the needs of all children. I believe her passion, but it just doesn’t align to the “all means all” commitment.

You See, There’s This Subgroup… 

You may remember the hoopla around subgroups during the advent of No Child Left Behind. Also known as nickelby, NCLB forced school districts to pinpoint achievement across demographic groups for each child. For instance, a black female low-socioeconomic special education student would be listed across four subgroups – Black, Female, Low-Socioeconomic, and Students with Disabilities.

Today, under ESSA that same student would be combined with Hispanic and Native American students in a grande group (the state calls it a super subgroup) known as BHN, Black, Hispanic, and Native American. During the bootcamp, we had the pleasure of hearing from TNDOE executive director of accountability Mary Batiwalla, who works hard to distill findings in an effort to make it palatable for the masses. Though, the explanation supporting the creation of the grande group was not satisfying. Batiwalla explained that without the grande group, 43,000 students would be left unaccounted for, but offered little information about the composition of this group when asked. Look, I’m no statistician, but where there’s a will, there’s a way. I believe if the will outranked the need for neat calculations, there would be no BHN.

And I’m Not Alone

The bootcampers were also privileged to hear from Liz King, director of education policy for The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. King explained the role her coalition plays to ensure historically underserved groups are provided the basic civil right of an excellent education. Most poignantly, King expressed concerned about combining the three groups into one group as each have very different experiences. I think I may have said “amen” out loud, but one can never be sure about these things.

What I am sure about is the need to stay woke. It’s more than just a cool saying. You must ensure your child is counted and we must see to it that BHN gets the proper consideration. Because, after all, what gets measured gets handled.

So, I will stay up-to-date on Tennessee’s plan for ESSA, it’s “all means all” promise, and a couple of additional issues that I will write about in the coming weeks.

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Teacher Residency Program Committed to Quality, Diversity, and Nashville’s Future

After bellyaching about the disproportionate ratio of teachers of color to students of color, nationally and locally, a friend recommended a visit to the local teacher residency program working to be part of the solution. According to its website, the Nashville Teacher Residency program:

“recruits and trains recent, non-education major college graduates to become high-performing middle and high school math and English teachers serving low-income students in Nashville’s district and charter schools.”

In other words, they help recent college grads, and working professionals from other industries become teachers. Our schools need people with different backgrounds, different areas of expertise, and different perspectives. And the Nashville Teacher Residency provides it, at least for some schools.

So I reached out, and got an invitation to come and see what they’re all about.

The Program

On a late afternoon in May, just as the school/work day transitioned, I stepped into one of Nashville’s oldest school buildings. What used to be Cameron High School is now home to two LEAD Schools: LEAD Academy High and Cameron Middle.

Two friendly faces greeted me to the historic space: The residency’s director, Randall Lahann—a teacher-prep veteran hailing from a Boston residency program—and managing director, Holly Tilden. The residency program is in good company as the high school recently celebrated its 3rd consecutive year of 100 percent college acceptance for its graduating class. Meanwhile Cameron, a traditional Metro School converted into a charter school, is a 2015 Tennessee Reward School, recognizing superior academic progress.

After finding an open classroom, Lahann and Tilden gave me a rundown of the program’s inaugural year before excusing themselves to begin part two of their day. The director and managing director literally do it all (well almost). Besides running the place, they also meet with local bloggers (ahem), handle all the HR stuff for recruiting and selecting new residents and even teach the residents.

At the present, the dynamic duo is successfully leading the first group of soon-to-be teachers to completion, which, noticeably, is powered by an authentic commitment to quality and diversity.

Seeing is Believing

I heard the words “commitment to diversity” and read them on the Nashville Teacher Residency website, but the proof is ever in the pudding. After my brief (but information-packed) meeting with the residency’s multi-faceted leaders, I walked across the hall into a classroom of young adults, some at their desks, others stocking up on snacks, all preparing for the evening ahead.

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Saniha, resident, Nashville Teacher Residency 
As I meandered through the desks, the commitment to diversity was confirmed. Yes, 70 percent of the residency’s first cohort is comprised of residents of color with an astounding 100% cohort retention rate. Impressive. Resident retention is important here because the program does something different by offering classroom experience on the front end.

Instead of theorizing teaching techniques and offering scenarios that might misrepresent urban district’s realities, inexperienced hopefuls are submerged, feet first, in an effort to thwart the typical travails of a first-year (and, many cases, one-time) teacher.

Surprisingly, this eight week trial by fire did little to deter the inaugural class which entered the residency in July 2016 and is now headed for teacherdom. For ten months, two days a week and three hours an evening, residents are instructed in math and English as well as community and culture. Classes are led by Lahann, Tilden, and KIPP Nashville High School mentor teacher Kate Stasik and special guests are invited to speak on community and culture.

The program also requires residents to work with a mentor teacher inside a real classroom setting. Yes, the residency program is intense, yet, many of the residents have full-time jobs while fulfilling the program’s requirements and a fraction are themselves parents.

But, I saw no regrets.

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Ciana Calhoun, resident, Nashville Teacher Residency

 

 

For instance, twenty-six year old MTSU graduate and entrepreneur Ciana Calhoun commented on the intensity and authenticity of the program saying “I’m tired, but they have prepared me for real classroom experiences.” Resident Eric DeVaughn, a musician and former W. O. Smith drum teacher, also expressed excitement about entering the classroom next fall at Lead High School.

Life Happens Fast

Sometimes a dose of real life is required before one’s career path becomes clear. The Nashville Teacher Residency provides second chances to recent college graduates with a clearer understanding of their passion. Additionally, partner schools invest in residents by providing a $25,000 stipend and a place to work and study. For residents with children, a $5,000 loan is available. Sounds good to be true? Soon-to-be teacher Ciana thought so, too, “I thought it was a hoax!”

The Real Deal

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Eric DeVaughn, resident, Nashville Teacher Residency
Currently, eight partner schools invest in the residency program and soon hundreds of students will benefit from a full-time Ciana and Eric who are fully equipped to deliver top-notch instruction without losing time to acclimation and re-training. The program succeeds through its commitment to diversity, solid retention rate, intense program of study, classroom experiences that represent urban school district realities, and commitment to its residents.

 

Why Alternative Licensure Programs?

Ever the company girl, there was a time I was completely skeptical of outsourcing. I get it now! Residency and other alternative licensure programs like Nashville Teacher Residency, Relay and Teach for America, provide an integral service to school districts with deficits in minority representation and teachers prepared with tools not typically offered in traditional programs.

Like other urban districts, Nashville suffers from a deficit of teachers of color in proportion to its students of color. I know Metro Schools has committed to increase these numbers and I hope they take advantage of programs like the Nashville Teacher Residency that can help ramp up diversity and quality.

Oh yeah, a huge congratulations to Nashville’s Teacher Residency’s first cohort who completed their residency as of this writing!  Onward!

 

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.”

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.

Malpractice

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. 

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?

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

In recent years, Nashville has been at the top of many lists: friendliest, best music life, growing food scene, and one of the best places to live and work. Yes, from the looks of it, Nashville is the place to be, the It City (another list); the kind of place big cities want to emulate and small towns want to become. Thanks to these lists Nashville’s welcome mat is worn to shreds from the 100 relocations per day.

But a stroll out to the margins and one is smacked with the reality of people and places in the shadows that fail to make it the glossy pages.

In early April, Metro Social Services released its annual Community Needs Evaluation to show people a city they might never see otherwise. The 200-page report is a shocking revelation of the underbelly of the Nashville we see on TV and in magazines. If a city is only as good as it’s weakest population, Nashville has serious work to do.

Nashville, the Beautiful

File_000Entering the core of Nashville, one can’t help but take in the breathtaking skyline with the Batman Building at its peak surrounded by dozens of cranes signifying growth, hope. But below the cranes in the area immediately surrounding the core, the flags of poverty are impossible to avoid.

We know poverty does not discriminate, but people of color are suffering disproportionately and the city has been successful concealing these exemptions from prosperity.

The greatest barriers to Nashville’s promised land for too many of its residents are housing, mass incarceration, and failure to an excellent education to every child.

Housing Crisis

Nashville is the sixth-fastest gentrifying city in the nation and 12.9% of its families live in poverty, which is higher than both state and national averages. As a result, the city suffers under the weight of an affordable housing crisis (better known as a “shortage”) forcing families to pay higher rents or experience varying degrees of homelessness.

In the Grassroots Community Survey provided in the Metro Social Services report, nearly 60% of respondents believe the greatest gap between services offered and services needed was housing. This result is not surprising when the median gross rent is $924 attached to an ever-decreasing supply and burgeoning demand. Meanwhile, the vast majority of renters are people of color who also tend to earn significantly less.

The family that spends 30% or more of its income in housing expenses is cost burdened which includes nearly 45,000 households earning under $35,000. Not to mention approximately 25,000 of those families spend 50% or more on housing expenses. These families become nomadic, moving often in search of cheaper rent, sacrificing their children’s educational attainment, safety, and proximity to social services.

Incarceration

File_000 (2)We’ve become comfortable with using “school-to-prison pipeline” to label our society’s fascination with throwing the book at black men and women for the smallest infractions. At the Metro Social Services report release, public defender Dawn Deaner aptly called it the “birth to prison” pipeline. It certainly looks that way. This culture of incarceration is not unique to Nashville but in no way is the “it city” exempt.

In Tennessee, 43% of the felony population is Black, a group that makes up 16% of the state’s population. Though unable to find actual data on Nashville’s incarceration stats, all one has to do is look to local media to get an idea of who is being locked up at an alarming rate.

Part of the problem of mass incarceration is that it negatively impacts other areas such as family strength, employment, earning potential, healthy communities, and children’s educational attainment.

Education

img_0993Yes, education is the civil rights issue of our time, but there’s no time to wait for everyone to agree to disagree. While teachers fight for respect, unions strike for salaries, ed reformers battle for validation, and parent’s scrap to be heard, children’s educational possibilities are circling the drain.

In 2016, only 11 percent of Nashville’s students were college-ready and only 34 percent of 3rd graders could read at grade level. At an event announcing the launch of a new literacy initiative in March, Nashville’s Mayor Megan Barry said, “Reading at grade level is a major indicator for a child’s academic success, and a child’s academic success is a strong indicator for the future of Nashville.”

Unfortunately, literacy is not the worst of the issues within Nashville’s schools. Around the country, schools are plagued by the dysfunction of the communities around them. Education is the lone institution where every societal ill gathers under one roof, turning schools into social service centers while trying to be high-achieving places of learning.

Children take to school the situations in which they live. Metro Schools’ poverty rate is more than 70 percent and we’ve established a few of the issues within our disenfranchised populations. In addition to the lack of affordable housing and mass incarceration, our schools must also work with high student mobility, food insecurity, mental and physical illnesses, acculturating new Americans, and abused children—just to list a few.

The Great Paradox

File_000 (1)Is it possible for Nashville to be one of the greatest cities in the United States when its marginalized citizens are not only becoming more vulnerable, but increasing in number? Our city is experiencing the largest apartment construction in America while our homelessness population spiked by 10 percent in 2016 – the 6th largest increase in the nation.

We have nationally ranked high performing magnet schools and schools where 85% of children struggle to read at grade level. The city is a virtual revolving door, welcoming new thousands of new residents per month while rolling out the undesirables to jails and other counties.

Don’t misunderstand me, these issues are not being completely ignored.  For instance, the Barnes Housing Fund and literacy initiative created by Mayor Barry are valiant efforts to mitigate affordable housing and reading deficiencies. Schools are working more intentionally with discipline in an effort to dismantle to the school-to-prison pipeline and programs can be found around the county to help with recidivism and inmate education. Finally, Metro Schools’ openness to offering non-traditional options (charters, alternative graduation and curriculum programs) has been good for students.

Something’s Amiss

Urgency. My frustration and impatience are at a tipping point because of my daily interaction with the other side of Nashville where many of my loved ones reside. The baby whose brilliance is scheduled to be extinguished by a list of odds experts are sure he can’t surmount. A close family member who fell on hard times and cannot find housing. The cousin who has spent his entire adult life caught up in the web of the criminal justice system creating a nearly impossible situation for his children and parents.

I wish I had the salve to quickly heal the ails of the marginalized and march them toward the middle. I wish Nashville’s greatness was felt by all of its citizens. I wish decisions were fueled by the same urgency and compassion when considering the fate of family member. I wish every school offered a nationally ranked education. I wish…

 

2017 Testing in Tennessee Is Off to a Great Start…Whether We Like It or Not

It’s Day 3 of TNReady, Tennessee’s renamed standardized test, and so far, so good! You may remember last year’s fatal glitches, but by all accounts, this year’s tests are smooth sailing. Check out Commissioner Candace McQueen below:

Standardized Tests or Nah?

Let’s be real, nobody loves standardized tests. But name another way to find out if our children’s performance is better (or worse) than the year before? Or how groups of children perform in comparison to others? (Why State Tests? Click here)

Like brussel sprouts, standardized tests fall at the bottom of my list.  Funny looks aside, there is no amount anything that can drown out its natural flavor. But here’s the kicker, those baby cabbages are loaded with protein and I sorely need healthier options rather than my go-to cheeseburger.

Think of it this way, you know how important education people (politicians, too) love to talk about the Achievement Gap? Well, from those pesky standardized test results performance gaps are revealed allowing schools to correct teaching and learning for children of color, poor children, students with disabilities, and English Learners. The information gleaned from test results in invaluable to educators and parents alike.

So while testing may not be good TO us, it’s certainly good FOR us. Accountability is never a bad thing where children are concerned!