Celebrating Tennessee’s Top Teacher Cicely Woodard, Metro Nashville Public Schools

YAAAAAASSSSSSSS!

Cicely Woodard, a middle school math teacher at West End Middle School and Metro Schools 2017-18 teacher of the year has been crowned Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year! See TN Education Commissioner Candice McQueen’s announcement at last night’s ceremony.

In addition to being an amazing educator, Ms. Woodard is also a leader among leaders eager to share her talents with other educators across the state. We are so proud to have a Metro Schools educator as the state’s top teacher! (I’m beaming and I don’t even know her!)

I want to thank Ms. Woodard for putting in the hard work and serving as a source of inspiration for her students and their families. Ms. Woodard is now the standard-bearer for excellence across the state, making her one of the best in the country.

Education in Nashville needed a win and Cicely Woodard’s win is something everyone can celebrate.

Congratulations!

“The classroom presents a unique chance for young people and caring adults to build positive relationships with each other. It’s the place where teachers and students motivate each other to be their best selves. In the classroom we have a chance to help students to fall in love with learning and to understand the power of education.” – Cicely Woodard

To My Beloved School District: It’s Time We Have a ‘Come to Jesus’

Here’s what’s not going to happen: we are not about to be that school district. You know that district that shirks its responsibility for weaknesses by conjuring up ridiculous excuses, assigning blame, and withholding responses?

So far, the district has masterfully tap-danced around issues of water quality, dismal test scores, and sexual assaults. It’s time to stop dancing. These are mammoth issues that must be addressed proactively and earnestly.

Water is Life

I am dedicating this post to the two-year-old water quality issue. For as long as I’ve been in and around Metro Schools, I’ve never known the district to drag its feet on a matter that could harm the health of students. According to reports from NewsChannel 5 investigative reporter Phil Williams, many schools have had and still have dangerous amounts of lead in the water. This after the school district celebrated the fact they lead the state in testing for lead in the water.

Williams has expended an unbelievable amount of time on this issue and if I was still working at MNPS I’d be miffed at his unrelenting meddling. Still, his most recent report, Some MNPS Students Still Drinking Lead Contaminated Water, is revealing in that it exposes a school district with misplaced priorities. Even though the district tested fountains in every school, there are still schools with unsafe levels of lead in the water. Parents were not informed and, worse, our babies are still drinking the water.

So much time is spent on charging charter schools with taking money from traditional public schools, efforts to curb marketing to families, disputing building agreements, downplaying stellar testing results, attacking school leaders, and, yes, having fake parents. Meanwhile, a sort of environmental racism and classism is taking place in schools with the most poverty and children and color.

Y’all gotta stop playing with our kids, man.

Shout out to Phil Williams and blogger Thomas Weber for sticking with this story. Also, mad love to another MNPS parent who was so outraged she created a Facebook page Get the Lead Out dedicated to informing families about water quality issues in our schools.

Where I’ve been willing to give the district a pass, Weber always been very clear about the current administration’s handling of certain issues, water quality leading the list. I don’t regret giving the administration time to get acclimated to their new digs. but that grace period has long since passed.

Check out Weber’s most recent post No, The Water At MNPS Is Not Safe.

MNPS took the commendable action of having the water tested in its oldest buildings 2 years ago. Predictably, results came back that showed high levels of lead in several of our older schools. Schools that are made up of children from immigrant and impoverished homes. Schools like my children’s school.

Instead of taking these numbers, acknowledging the problems, and rectifying them, the district chose to issue a press release that disclosed none of the results and served as a congratulatory letter for merely testing the water. When they were challenged on the results and the lack of action, they issued another statement that claimed “The drinking water in the district’s oldest buildings meet all federal and state lead drinking water standards.” Sounds great, huh?

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. 

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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.

A Nashville Charter School Shares the Love With District Teachers #RelationshipGoals

Starting in the fall Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools will add coding to its middle school curriculum. Coding is the language of the digital world we all find ourselves, especially our youth, and now middle schoolers will be experts in what it takes to make computers and phones communicate, putting them at a great advantage.

In addition to stepping outside the traditional offerings of reading and math (and variations thereof), I appreciate the effort the district is making to curb the predictable fourth-grade leap. Historically, Metro Schools suffers a huge loss of middle to upper-class families at the end of fourth grade and another enrollment drop just before high school.

While coding alone will not keep the middle class from rolling out in search of high-performing magnets and private schools, it is a step in the right direction. It is also worth noting the urgency with which the district is implementing the classes, offering coding at all middle schools as opposed to a few at a time – as it’s known to do.

But, perhaps, the most thrilling part of this story is the collaboration between the district and a charter school. You read that right. In Nashville, where we have a few issues on the subject of charters, there is collaborative work happening and our children will benefit greatly (because they get it –it’s about the babies).

RePublic Charter Schools has been teaching coding classes for three years and recently started offering classes to the public free of charge. In a politically risky, but brilliant money-saving (even peace-making) move, the district is tapping into the expertise right in its front yard. More of this, please!

more please

This is a perfect illustration of why charters even exist. These schools are allowed to operate on the premise of offering innovation in exchange for greater accountability. They are simply a non-traditional option to move students toward greater success. The goals of traditional public schools and charter schools are the same, only the methods differ. So working together not only makes sense it’s expected.

I’m proud of RePublic and the powers at Metro Schools with the foresight to forge this collaboration. I’d love to believe this is beginning of a beautiful relationship, but I know better. In the meantime, I’ll bask in the glow of this shining example of how it should be. #RelationshipGoals

Check out the NPR story on RePublic and Metro Schools

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. 

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…

 

Nashville (and Memphis) School Choice Advocates Make Appeal to School Board – Vote No Moratorium on Charters

The pro-school choice community in Nashville and even Memphis has spoken! We understand that charter schools are providing a need and without them as viable options we are hijacking opportunities from families in vulnerable circumstances.

Check out these voices for choice in Nashville:

Thank you, Memphis!

But we are listening. And we are praying. And we are standing tall with our fellow Tennessee families in Nashville.

Maya M. Bugg, CEO Tennessee Charter School Center

It is exaggerated to call this growth “unabated” when MNPS has been nationally recognized for their careful and considerate management of charter school approval and has only approved an average of approximately two new public charter schools per year since 2014.

We are fortunate in Tennessee to have strong charter school accountability policies, many great schools and an active support base of education partners that even the local NAACP leadership has agreed is a leading positive example.

 

Zack Barnes, Nashville Education Blogger

 

Miranda Christy, Nashville Attorney and former School Board candidate

  • Over 10,000 students currently exercise a choice to attend a charter school, which as of 2015 comprised six of the district’s 14 highest performing schools.
  • Our board is voluntarily proposing to eliminate the possibility of additional choices for families and take the option for future charter schools out of its toolbox despite our city’s rapid growth in both population and diversity and a persistent increase in achievement gaps.
  • All families have a right not only to receive adequate public notice of this discussion under the law, but also to have the opportunity for their voices to be heard and to grapple with the purpose and implications of this type of action by the board, e.g., its fundamental legality, whether it will practically achieve its purported purpose, or most importantly: how this action will improve the quality of the education currently available to 87,000 MNPS students.