2018 School Board Race: Using Battle Scars to Chart the Path to Victory for Every Public School Student

Remember how vulnerable and scared you felt watching the nuclear war tough talks between the president of the United States and the leader of North Korea? It was reminiscent of playground bullies battling to control all areas in and around the monkey bars and seesaw while the other children stand on the sidelines too fearful to play until one of the bullies backs down or gets the crap beat out of him.  

From the White House to city government, we are vulnerable to the decisions, (good, bad, and evil) made by our elected officials. This is why your vote matters.

2018 School Board Race

In one year, Nashville will be preparing to swear in newly elected members of the school board. If history serves as a guide, the newly elected and re-elected members will be exhausted and bloodied, but full of false pride that their “side” won. (what about the kids, though?)

Look, we have an opportunity to learn from the political slugfest that was the 2016 Nashville school board race. Over the next four weeks, Volume and Light will go on a journey in hopes of offering a path to victory for those standing on the sidelines.

Because we must do it differently this time. Many charter schools parents feel vulnerable to the vicious attacks on their children’s schools. Traditional public school parents believe too much attention is lavished upon such a small percentage of the total school population. They are right. 

We must never forget how it makes us feel to watch our leaders fight for control of our future without our permission or best interest.

The four-part series will begin with a look back at the School Board Battle of 2016 with a blog I wrote just after the election, one that I have not been able to revisit. It was that bad.

Next week we will look at the districts up for grabs.


The Friendliest City in America Got Downright Mean in Its School Board Elections This Summeroriginally posted on Education Post August 23, 2016

Nashville. The city of It. This summer Nashville overflowed with It, as we celebrated the arrival of wine in grocery stores, the largest firework display in America, and a never-ending stream of music, which, like the Cumberland River, courses through our hometown. Oh, yeah, we’re friendly as all get-out, too. Like, the friendliest.

A visitor might hardly believe there are deep civic divides in such a shining city. But this summer we saw painful polarization in our education community. If we don’t find a way to tamp down the vitriol of this summer’s school board elections, it will tarnish It City. Worse, we will slide farther from our goal of better educating our young people.

WHEN THE FRIENDLIEST CITY GETS MEAN

Summer got off to a collaborative start, when the school board, mayor and a posse of politically plugged-in Nashvillians appointed Dr. Shawn Joseph, 41, director of schools, the first African American to hold the position in Nashville.

Leaving Maryland’s affluent Prince George’s County to tackle Metro’s socio-economically diverse system, which is plagued more by a fractious school board than by actual district performance, Joseph wisely negotiated a clause in his contract to set the tone for communication going forward:

…the Board, individually and collectively, shall promptly refer to the Director, orally or in writing, for his study and recommendation any and all criticisms, complaints, suggestions, communications or other comments regarding the Director’s performance of his duties of the operation of the MNPS.

In other words, you got a problem, you bring it to me. The end.

But what looked like the beginning of our happily-ever-after came to a screeching halt as school board races revved up and Nashville, the friendliest town in America, got downright mean.

The issue? Charter schools. I won’t bore you with the sordid details, and, honestly, I’m not confident in my ability to provide an unbiased account due to my participation in some of the campaigns. However, there is no shortage of reporting on this subject in local and national media.

It was this podcast by national education blogger Citizen Stewart and national education writer Peter Cook, whose granular color commentary of our election forced me to look at our dysfunction from an outsider’s perspective. That’s when I realized that Nashville’s It-ness is like a beautifully manicured lawn. It tells only part of the story, while we work like hell to keep our guests from seeing our dirt.

THE DIRTIEST PART OF THE ELECTION

Depending on which side of the charter argument you embrace, the dirt of this election cycle was either loads of “outside” money dumped into school board races or middle-class leaders working to kill educational opportunity known to benefit Black and poor children.

When the votes were cast and the slate of charter-friendly candidates was vanquished, the refrain “dark money loses and public schools win” littered my social media timelines. The language implied that the thousands of students in Nashville’s charter schools were not part of our public school community.

What does that headline say to the parents of students in charter schools? It says their voices and choices don’t matter.

In an election cycle that was infamously dirty, that message may be the dirtiest part of all.

I’M MORE CERTAIN THAN EVER THAT THE VOICES OF CHOICE ARE MISSING FROM THE CONVERSATION.

After a long hot summer knocking on doors, making hundreds of phone calls, and speaking with parents in schools of all stripes, I’m more certain than ever that the voices of choice are missing from the conversation. If we are to make lasting and profound change in our schools—to meet the needs of all families—we must hear all their voices.

So we must ask what accounts for the silence. Is it because we’re not inviting these voices into the conversation? Is it because we are drowning out voices we don’t agree with? Is it because we are not welcoming enough? Is it because we are making half-hearted attempts to engage in meaningful ways? Or is it—gasp—because we really don’t believe these voices are valuable to the discussion?

Until we answer these questions, battle lines will remain in place and our children will lose.

PARENT VOICE MATTERS

To ensure success, we must bring all parents from the margin into the fold. We must believe in our hearts that their voices and experience matter.

A parent armed with information is an empowered parent, a ready-made partner in an educational process that leads to the success of students and schools. Furthermore, parents should absolutely seek out learning centers that best fit their children’s needs, and they should be celebrated for their efforts rather than criticized for their choice.

Metro Schools is rich with options, and parents understand the importance of finding the right fit with a healthy acceptance of charters’ role in this narrative.

At Metro Schools, there is a school for EVERY family in our district, no matter what children want to learn, how they want to learn, where they want to learn or when. There is a choice for everyone, and with one application, the vast array of school choices are at your fingertips.

From this point forward, I pledge to do my part. Gone are the days of sitting on the sideline complaining while participating in meaningless Twitter battles that serve to boost egos rather than student achievement.

So, I’m looking for a few good voices. Voices of choice who will have the courage to promote a parent’s right to choose, encourage others to exercise this right, and serve as a support system.

If we truly believe in public schools, then we believe in the role parents play—no matter their choice.

 

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?

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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!

Desperately Seeking Good News During Week of Renewal and Hope

Religious or not, it’s hard not to get swept up in this season of renewal and hope. I have needed a change of scenery after spending so much time calling out deficits in our education system and the acceptance of underperformance of students of color that is baked into our culture. Not to mention the stories of faux pas’, war, and death that take up most of the real estate in my social media timelines.

We need a break.

In that spirit, I’m dedicating this space to show some love for our director of schools, school leaders, and a few parents (374, to be exact).

To All Who Celebrate: Happy Easter and Happy Passover


Dr. Shawn Joseph’s Inaugural State of Schools AddressScreen Shot 2017-04-10 at 6.08.19 AM

“Metro Schools is Writing a New Chapter to Its Story”

First, the event was very well executed (so many bells and whistles!), but the student performances from I.T. Creswell Middle Magnet School of the Arts and its feeder high school Nashville School of the Arts stole the show from the anticipated main attraction, director of schools Dr. Shawn Joseph.

Second, I must give a shout out to Mayor Megan Barry who not only offered authentic words of praise but stayed to watch the address. I will always recognize this seemingly small gesture because of the significance of the city’s top executive sitting amongst education leaders, parents, students and other advocates.

Screen Shot 2017-04-13 at 11.33.55 AM.pngAnd, finally, Dr. Joseph. I am extremely impressed with the goals of the budget. Additionally, I love the narrative of writing a new chapter to the MNPS story. This softly suggests the district will be changing up things without scaring off those content with they way things are. I’m cautiously optimistic, but optimistic, nonetheless.

If you have not watched the address, please enjoy by clicking on the link below.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YtOn8unMh1g&feature=youtu.be


Project Renaissance’s Great School Tourimgres

Thanks to my time with Metro Schools, I’ve had the pleasure of visiting nearly every school in our district, but this week Project Renaissance provided an opportunity to visit two schools new to me, Purpose Preparatory Academy and Cockrill Elementary.

The day started at Purpose Prep with principal Lagra Newman sharing very honest information about community expectations and challenges. While some of these things were hard to hear, the principal’s language not once revealed a sign of lowered expectations or accepting circumstances as an excuse for mediocrity. Every word was drenched in great expectations and excellence.

“In order to get different results, Purpose Prep must be different.” Lagra Newman

After leaving Purpose Prep, we traveled to the very diverse Cockrill Elementary. As the principal Cochrane noted, “everyone (teachers) here is here because they want to be here.” The school is surrounded by a rapidly gentrifying community creating severe housing issues for many of its students. The principal made another interesting point about the housing situation that forces her faculty to live out of county due to exorbitant costs. The love and concern for Cockrill’s students was evident during our tour.

Finally, the most valuable part of the tour for me was the wrap-up session at the end that included principals and staff from each of the schools as well as parents, education leaders, and community advocates. Because sharing experiences and best practices is a goal, right? Good stuff.


374 Charter School Parents Make Place at the TableScreen Shot 2017-04-13 at 1.01.27 PM

If you roll with me you know I’m crazy about all things parents – rights, advocacy, training, etc. So imagine my surprise when this Tennessean editorial signed by THREE HUNDRED SEVENTY-FOUR charter school parents who brilliantly banding together in a demonstration of resistance to the school board and administration.

The charter school conversation is (was) owned by the anti-charter crowd who have been all too happy to keep these parents scared straight. Now, the parents who have chosen to send their children to charter schools have spoken and there is no going back. They have created a big, gaping place at the table and their voices can no longer be dismissed. Let the talks begin.

Shout out to the parents at the following schools:

East End Prep

Intrepid College Prep Schools

KIPP Academy Nashville

LEAD Public Schools

Explore Community School

Nashville Academy of Computer Science Nashville Classical Charter School

Nashville Prep

New Vision Academy

Purpose Preparatory Academy

RePublic Schools

STEM Preparatory Academy

Rocketship Nashville Northeast Elementary

Rocketship United Academy

Smithson Craighead Middle School

Strive Collegiate Academy

Valor Collegiate Academy

Hundreds of Nashville Charter School Parents Say ‘Our Children Matter, Too!’

In an editorial in the Tennessean, charter school parents from across the city delivered the statement of all statements by brilliantly banding together in a demonstration of resistance. About the same time Dr. Joseph was preparing for his inaugural State of Schools speech, the Tennessean was preparing to roll out a list of 374 names of charter school parents demanding respect from the school board and school administration.

Contrary to the picture some board members paint, we are intelligent, engaged, determined parents who want a better life for our children. All parents want what is best for their children, and we are no different. Our children are thriving. They are working hard and learning every day. They are encouraged at school to dream big, and they are receiving the education they need to reach those dreams.

Charter schools have been part of Nashville’s education tapestry for more than a decade, but the bitterness and brutal language surrounding the charter narrative only gets worse. So, for these parents to enter the bloody arena, take a stand, and sign their name is nothing short of courageous.

I can’t adequately express how proud I am of these parents for taking a public stand for their children, themselves, and the schools they have chosen. I’ve heard from too many parents who feel threatened by the officials elected to work on our behalf and it saddens me. Even sadder, many of them are not on the list. So please understand, 374 is a lot of parents, but there are others. And if you’re the kind to dismiss parent voices or comfortable with the idea of parents bullied into silence, you are a problem and should be removed.

Read this editorial and check out the names!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“They Planning For Our Future, None Of Our People Involved” – A Reminder From A Tribe Called Quest

Education advocacy–and I’m talking mainly about the debate on charter schools, vouchers, and tracking school progress (aka accountability)–deserves your attention. It doesn’t matter what you’ve heard or what you think you know, sit back and take a look at what’s happening nationally and in your own backyard. Too many people get their information from one side of the debate or the other. I am not without bias, but will try to lay out the facts.  

Education reform (known as ed reform) is a movement led by a small group of people focused on creating non-traditional educational options in high needs school districts. Too often, the people who are affected the most aren’t even in the room as decisions are being made.  

Charter schools are non-traditional public schools. Non-traditional in the sense that these schools have their own board and oftentimes have programs that are available in traditional schools.  

Vouchers are actual checks that follow students to a private school of choice. This concept is virtually new to Tennessee and is currently offered to students with special needs.

And we track school progress by looking at things like student test scores, graduation rates, and how much students are growing academically. For the purposes of this post, I will focus on charters and vouchers as these offsprings of choice create a lot of noise in Nashville and throughout the country.

The Fight Around Us

imgresThere is a ferocious education battle in every major city in America and I have expended a lot of space to the Battle at School Choice between the anti-charter crowd and ed reformers in Nashville. As best I can tell, the core of the fight (as seen on Twitter) is money. Those against charters are opposed to money leaving traditional public schools to go to schools that are both publicly and privately funded.

Meanwhile, ed reformers seek out opportunities to launch a school, generally in urban districts with failing schools. As in Nashville’s case, these reformers mostly come from other places and set up shop, using resources (time, people, money) to deploy marketing tactics (digital and door-to-door campaigns) to recruit families.

What’s most interesting about the debate is the demographics of the debaters in comparison to the demographics of the intended targets. Most of the anti-charter traffic (again, on Twitter) come from white, middle/upper class, and well-educated women and men with children in public schools. Nashville ed reformers are generally white, well-educated out-of-towners. The group for which they are fighting are children and families of color and in poverty.

Dr. Chris Emdin, associate professor at the Teachers College at Columbia University and author of For White Folks Who Teach In The Hood and The Rest of Y’all, Too, recently gave a SXSW (South by Southwest) talk. In it, Dr. Emdin imparts 50 minutes of superfood for the soul using A Tribe Called Quest’s latest project as his framework. Sharing their take on the politics of the day in the track The Space Program, Tribe says “they planning for our future, none of our people involved.” Truth.

The whole education battle is paternalistic, indeed. I’m sure most are well-meaning, but too often the debate blurs into a toxic combination of ideology and self-interest. Other times it’s a simple battle of wit – who can bitch the best in 140 characters or less. Meanwhile, there are children waiting in the margins whose outcome is dependent upon a great education.

The paternalism and borderline hypocrisy smacked me in the face just last week while sitting in a hearing room at the Tennessee legislature waiting to hear the fate of a voucher bill in the House Education Committee. Sitting amongst a group of Shelby County parents, teachers, and students adorned in blue shirts and anti-voucher stickers, I had a chance to speak with a couple of the protestors before the session.

The first person I spoke with was a white mother from Germantown, TN, a swank suburb of Memphis, who has a child enrolled at the performing arts school there. The second person I spoke with was a black mom, who is a teacher and union board member. Both women were seriously opposed to vouchers forcing me to assess the situation from a different lens.

Here were two educated middle class women (three including me), with the wherewithal to navigate the system to benefit their own children, yet speaking fervently against an option that could possibly help our most vulnerable population. Yeah, “they planning for our future, none of our people involved.”

Paternalism and the Belief Gap

af773c1312b5de1f490c188afc53e956I think about my own family members raising grandchildren amongst the most dire of circumstances and I see the challenges. Witnessing mothers and grandmothers masterfully juggling work and family with few resources. So I get that adding just one more thing that isn’t food, clothing, or shelter is too much. Still, we must believe that parents in difficult situations want the best for their child and it’s the duty of those with resources to get the information to them so they may make their own decisions.

We must believe in them to combat influential naysayers like Tennessee lawmaker Rep. John DeBerry, a black legislator representing Memphis who believes  “We’ve got people who can care less whether or not their child is educated, just as long as their child is out of the house so they can go back to bed.” 

The representative’s clumsy attempt at respectability politics perpetuates paternalism and the idea that parents living in a certain income bracket and parents of color are unconcerned about their children’s educations. Additionally, and tragically, this harmful thinking by state leaders trickles down to district and school levels widening the belief gap: the space between what students can achieve and what others believe they can achieve. (h/t Education Post)

There’s enough blame to go around, but that doesn’t help children in need of high quality education answers today. What is helpful is to actually take a trip into the lives of those for whom we are fighting. Go to the parents and grandparents whose education decisions have been made for them by where they live and through the advocacy and opposition of decisions made on their behalf.

As Charlie Friedman, Nashville Classical charter school leader recently stated, “you actually have to go ask the parents what they think.” Yeah, that’s something even A Tribe Called Quest could appreciate. 

 

ESSA: From Hiding Black Students to Making Them Disappear

Tennessee schools might be “hiding dropouts” and gaming the accountability system. That’s the finding of a recent report by the data-centric journalism group ProPublica. The report, while focused mostly on Florida, suggests schools all over the country (again, possibly in TN) may be pushing low-performing students, many of whom are black, into “alternative schools,” as a way of preventing their low test scores and graduation rates from dragging down the average.

But the potential side effect is even more disturbing. Thanks to the wording in the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, these students, who are mostly black young men, don’t need to be counted at all. We can disappear them from our state’s accountability system with no questions asked.

Alternative schools aren’t necessarily bad. They were originally created to help students who have behavioral issues, or who just don’t do well in a traditional system–some students really do need an alternative pathway. But if the motive for transferring any of these students is to put on a front, and allow schools to act like they’re doing a better job helping kids then they actually are, then that’s a problem.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot we still don’t know. There’s not enough data in the report to say whether or not it’s happening in Tennessee, though they do flag Nashville as a place that is of concern. But we’ve seen this kind of thing come up before. It was just a little over a year ago when a group of teachers raised concerns that students were being put into credit recovery programs so they would not take year end tests, which beefed-up the district’s overall testing performance. A student also filed suit (now dismissed) based on the same allegations.

So it’s worth raising the question: Is there something fishy going on in Nashville schools?

While I am not interested in stirring up a bee’s nest about the testing behavior in Nashville, I can’t help but be concerned. I can’t help but wonder if someone’s trying to pull the wool over my eyes. Or if the state is creating an environment where that’s easier to do.

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, states have unbelievable latitude in the definition of a school. Tennessee’s plan takes advantage of that flexibility and explicitly says in its state plan that we won’t hold ourselves accountable for alternative schools:

“ESSA requires states to meaningfully differentiate public schools on an annual basis. Tennessee will include all public schools within this framework, excluding schools that only serve K–2 students, or adult high schools, or schools that only serve students with special needs and/or disabilities, or alternative schools, or CTE schools.”

I see two problems with this. First, ESSA gives states authority to allow districts the freedom to create warehouses specifically for hiding marginal to poor performing students — free from accountability. Second, and the most chilling issue, is the notion that the students most likely to be hidden under the ESSA provision are black students in general, and young black men, in particular.

What Gets Measured, Gets Done

Based on 2015 student data, nearly every student sent to a Nashville alternative school was black. Under ESSA, students enrolled in alternative schools will not be counted. That means it’s possible that within a couple of years, we could see larger swaths of our black students dropping off the radar for states. They won’t be in schools where the state will ever try to intervene. They won’t be considered when we talk about the academic progress of black students, and they won’t be celebrated when they do make progress. Conceivably, in two years, we could experience large swaths of black males missing from the state’s accountability framework.

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For me, there’s no obvious reason why we wouldn’t count these kids. Don’t they matter too? Yet federal law allows it and states like Tennessee, and many others, are all-too-happy to jump on board. Tennessee never explains in their state plan why it’s okay. That worries me. I worry that we’re building a system that creates a big dark hiding place for certain kids so schools can keep their reputations up and keep kids who probably need our attention the most out of sight and out of mind.

 

Saturday Morning reMIX: EdStories from March 13 – March 17

This week’s education landscape was all abuzz, but still took a back seat to #TrumpInNashville on March 15, 2017.  The Ides of March is still a thing.

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BEWARE of Charter School Season, y’all!!!!

 

#TrumpInNashville

 

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This Mom is The Definition of a Warrior

 

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Knitting and Math and the Path to STEM Careers

 

In other news:

Should we add another year of waiting before Kindergarten?

Coffee Talk about economic integration in schools

A look at how the president’s budget proposal will hurt Black and Latinx students

More budget talk: Detroit Mom Calls Foul!

Is closing schools a tool of gentrification in Atlanta?

Check out this cool teacher-led project that helps book deserts in Nashville communities.