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.”

Nashville Charter Schools Discussion Sends Dark Message, Fuels Fear and Acrimony

The charter school conversation in Nashville continues to erode. There are a plethora of issues that plague a district our size, yet increased attention is dedicated to blasting charter schools.

Last evening, the Board of Education discussed the viability and future of the seven year old district-charter school compact. Once hailed as a national model of collaboration and symbol of good intentions, dissolving the compact would make a pretty strong statement to current and prospective parents as well as current and prospective charter school leadership. I suspect this is the goal.

Ironically (or perhaps not so much), this little discussion takes place almost one month to the day 374 charter schools parents signed a letter to the editor demanding respect from the school district and the school board. I am just cynical enough to believe the dissolution talk is a warning shot to these parents and their “meddling” charter school leaders.  Note: it has been recommended that charter schools prohibit the act of “meddling”, among other things. 

So if the environment is not already hostile enough, hold on to your hats!

Speaking of hostile…

Daily, I get messages from someone expressing their frustration at the tone of the charter school discussion or the disproportionate amount of energy directed to charters and therefore, away from the majority of district schools. Because of the hostility-laden landscape, almost every message begins or ends with “please keep this confidential.” It’s sad that parents and other community advocates live in fear of speaking out about a basic civil right. When did we become this?

Last night I received a letter requesting amplification on my blog, but only on condition of anonymity. The content of the letter tells a sad story about how we do education, but the conditions by which the author must share his/her truth is a tragic narrative about who we are.

I was lucky to sit beside two wonderfully well-behaved children whose mother spoke at tonight’s MNPS board meeting. They sat quiet and wide-eyed as she told board members about the difficulty she and other Arabic speaking families have obtaining special education services in some schools because of language barriers – though not at Nashville Classical Charter School, where her son now attends.
Eight mothers – the majority of whom were non-white – attended tonight’s board meeting to tell the board how grateful they are for the public charter school their child attends. Four of them mentioned the board’s lack of response to a letter several hundred parents signed and sent to the board over a month ago.
Sadly, the powerful stories and voices of these women collectively seeking answers from their elected officials about attacks on the schools they love by elected officials were acknowledged neither by the board chair nor by any members of the media covering the meeting.
We can be sure, however, that if each of those mothers had come to share their problems with – instead of their praises for – their public charter school, all of us would have “Breaking News” notifications on our phones and it would be all over local news and social media like fleas on a dog.
This is in no way a dismissal of other injustices shared at tonight’s meeting – what we pay our teachers is shameful, for example. There is more than enough unfairness and never enough money to go around. But failing to address attacks on existing public schools that are producing great outcomes for some of the most vulnerable of our population, when asked by constituents, in writing and also in person, is grossly unfair. How unfortunate for our growing city that leadership is in even shorter supply than taxpayer dollars.
In her State of Metro address two weeks ago, Mayor Barry said, “In Nashville, we build bridges, not walls.” I generally agree. But with respect to MNPS, which comprises 50% of the city budget, it’s just not true. Walls have been erected, complete with catapults, used to assault our own. Worse still: when hundreds collectively wave a white flag and ask for peace, their request is ignored and the attacks only intensify.
Over the last few months, it’s become popular to show up at protests – surrounded by people with similar beliefs – to express disdain and march in solidarity. Try being female, non-white, and a non-native English speaker, standing alone in a roomful of strangers, and finding the courage to tell an unpopular truth –  but your truth – about the thing that matters most – your children. That takes just about the bravest woman I’ve ever seen. And when she finished, the glowing faces and enthusiastic hugs said that’s who her children saw, too.


It’s Charter School Season in Nashville and You’d Better Watch Your Back

Or perhaps I should say, GET OUT. The political landscape gets scary around the time charter organizations submit their proposals to operate in Nashville. So, it’s not surprising to see the attacks launch a month before the application deadline. What’s troubling, though, is how charter haters are doing it.

The tactics are well-timed, comprehensively planned, and merciless, which would be just fine if the anti-charter people were attacking issues instead of people. It’s the most troubling thing in education I’ve ever witnessed. It seems we are held hostage by a few, Nashville’s tight little family, who are allowed to run roughshod over desperate families by shredding the leaders of schools that seek to fill a need in the community. The tragedy is that many recognize the ruthlessness and do nothing out of fear or silent consent. Or both.

Rules for Radicals

Since entering the throes of charter school season, I have been reminded of Saul Alinsky’s little book called Rules for Radicals, written in 1971. Alinsky was a mastermind at community organizing, deploying tactics with little to no regard for ethics. As a matter of fact, he argued “the most unethical of all means is the non-use of any means.” Everything is fair game, by any means necessary.

It is known that Hillary Clinton wrote about Rules for her senior thesis upon graduating from Wellesley. There are also rumors linking President Obama to Alinsky’s rules. I was introduced to Saul Alinsky as an undergrad, but was so stunned by his mercilessness I completely blocked it out. Since venturing onto the ed reform battlefield, I recognize the Rules and wonder if there is a secret society of anti-charter Alinsky-ites who are dead set on taking out charter leaders by any means necessary.

“Pick a Target, Freeze It, Personalize It, Polarize It”

‘Pick a target, freeze, personalize and polarize’ is far down Alinsky’s list, but it happens to be the one that is most visible in Nashville. In 2015, John Little, a charter school advocate, went head-to-head with school board member Will Pinkston in an epic battle on Facebook. John was leading a mayoral campaign at the time, and for reasons that still elude me, was pounced upon by Pinkston—who at some point had supposedly been his friend.

It got ugly, y’all. We all watched Pinkston unleash personal attacks and served up private information about John. We watched while John’s years of hard work take hit after hit by a privileged elected official with tons of political capital on a mission to erase him.
Now, two years later, the target is Shaka Mitchell, leader of two Rocketship charter schools in Nashville. It seems this all began when Rocketship applied to open a third Nashville public school last year. After the school board denied the application, Mitchell and his team appealed and were denied a second time. So Mitchell took his case to the state board of education, but received a third denial.

Wait… Rewind… Let’s not forget the 2013 bloody battles on Twitter and Facebook between Pinkston and Ravi Gupta, founder of the Nashville Prep charter school. Legendary.

Fair enough, some people don’t want more charters. But just because these school leaders want to reach more kids and families, that shouldn’t make them a target for trolling and personal attacks.

Not to Play the Race Card, But…

Maybe I’ve experienced too many stories as of late about the black man in America. The movie “Get Out” and the documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” are at the top of the list. The killing of Jocques Clemmons in East Nashville running from Nashville police also comes to mind. Or maybe it’s because I’m married to one and gave birth to another. But I see a disturbing pattern in this targeting men of color, in general, and black men, in particular.

Hey, maybe it has little to do with the fact John and Shaka are black males. To be honest, I hope like hell I’m wrong about it. But here’s what I know, what I’ve seen countless times—Nashville’s black voices again are silent or silenced. And a brilliant political strategist like Pinkston understands this and, no doubt, uses it to his advantage. After all, “ridicule is man’s most potent weapon” (yes, Alinsky). And those who lack loud representation are positioned to be the perfect scapegoats for a political axe-grinding.

‘Silence is Betrayal’

Conventional wisdom says never go to a gunfight with a knife. I suppose the safe thing would be to keep my thoughts to myself. Eighty-six the rabble-rousing. But check this: I’ve spent my entire adult life silently sitting on the sidelines watching injustices slide; so damn scared, too scared to breathe. I’ve been making myself too invisible to be someone’s target. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “there comes a time when silence is betrayal.”

So, it’s charter school season and the games have begun. If you’re not against them, you’re with them. Take cover.