Reflecting on the Year’s Education Scene and Honoring Nashville’s #EdChamps2017

Volume and Light is dedicated to amplifying and illuminating education issues and stories traditionally unavailable to readers. The mission is to offer a point-of-view of education utilizing my lens as a former public school district staffer, parent, and student. This blog seeks to inform families of the good, bad, and wrong, and because of the toxic environment for parent choice, 2017 saw dozens of posts defending parents of color in charter schools.

Taking on the role of defender means staying in constant battle-mode and it is exhausting! And in September of this year, I hit a wall. The events at Charlottesville from a month prior still weighed heavily on me, I learned the only parent organization independent of the school district was losing its funding, and more than one thousand charter school parents signed a petition demanding a little respect only to be greatly disrespected – again.

I was done.

To heal, I cut my blogging obligations down to a mere one-third of the content normally produced and began to slowly recuperate from the “crash”. Then TNReady scores. In October, the Tennessee Department of Education finally released the scores from the controversial standardized test administered six months prior. I spent the entire month with the data. I will never be able to un-know that in 2017, 86 percent of 3rd through 8th graders in low-income households were not on track to read at grade level. Eighty-six percent. Enter #FliptheScript, my effort to raise awareness about the literacy crisis facing our children. More to come in 2018.

EdChamps2017

I know I’ve devoted a lot of space to the bad and wrong, but I’ve also tried to recognize the good, to honor the real education MVP’s. While not every unsung champion made it to the blog, I think now is as good a time as any to recognize a few good women and men who have done and are doing the damn thing.

So here’s to Nashville’s #EdChamps2017 (another hashtag to save the world) who have served in the best interest of children, dared to think outside the box, and modeled quiet leadership and courage.

 

Dr. JoAnn Brannon, Christiane Buggs, Dr. Sharon Gentry, Mary Pierce

I’ve been around school board politics for a couple of decades – as an insider and disinterested observer – and the proposal to close Smithson Craighead Academy, Nashville’s first charter school, was a damned if you do and damned if you don’t situation. There would be no winners post-vote, the children lose whether or not the school’s charter was revoked and anyone in support of revocation gets the cold shoulder.

The school founded and shepherded by Sister Sandra Smithson is struggling academically and financially and has for some time now. The recommendation to revoke the charter was submitted after the director placed the school on probation in April 2017 citing serious financial and academic deficiencies.

So in November, the school board was faced with the nearly impossible task of neutralizing Sister Sandra’s legacy and love for her students in order to do the job they were elected to do– to objectively consider the merits of the recommendation as presented by the director of schools. Honoring the director’s recommendation meant closing Nashville’s first charter school. Rejecting the recommendation meant keeping open a school with longstanding dismal performance outcomes, unpaid vendors, and dwindling coffers.

“We have policies so we don’t make emotional decisions.” – Dr. Gentry

The brave group of four, faced with the hardest part of the job of a school board member, voted to forever close the doors to the city’s first charter school – led by a nun.

Though the school’s charter was renewed, these #EdChamps2017 served well their official capacity by considering the director’s recommendations and honored their moral obligation by responding as if their own children’s education was at stake.

 

ONE-THOUSAND TWELVE CHARTER SCHOOL PARENTS

School board work is a tough gig and the story above is a perfect example of its challenges. However, there is no excuse for mistreatment of a group of people and charter schools parents have been targeted for a few years now. And they are simply saying no more.

In September charter school parents wrote and signed their own resolution:

Some of us signed a letter last spring asking for the public charter-focused attacks from some of your members to stop and for you, our elected school board, to come together and focus on making all Nashville schools excellent.

Since that time we, along with many of our fellow public charter school parents, have been dismayed to see that on June 27, 2017, you were unable (or unwilling) to pass a resolution committing to treat us, our children and our public schools with the same respect as the rest of Nashville’s schools.

These parents, grandparents, and guardians deserve the #EdChamp2017 honors for courage. Signing their name to a public document of demands directed to a few school board members who work to make their lives miserable is pretty badass.

Jarred Amato

I can’t write enough about Project LIT (libraries in the) Community, the reading initiative launched by Maplewood High School English teacher Jarred Amato. I may have obsessed with this initiative a little and between this blog and fellow Nashville education blogger Thomas Weber, we’ve got Amato more than covered. In our defense, how can you not adore the idea of equipping book deserts with books covering topics and characters relevant to the students who actually live in these areas? GENIUS! And selfless.

According to Mr. Amato, “our mission is to inspire all Nashville children to become lifelong readers by making books more accessible and creating excitement about reading.”

If inspiring all of Nashville’s children was the Big Hairy Audacious Goal, the Community sorely underestimated their product. Project LIT is a now full-fledged movement with a steady flow of schools around the city and across the country joining in on the fun. As of this writing, Knoxville announced their participation.

Meanwhile, the unassuming, take-no-crap, grant-writing, book-shelving, Penguin Random House Teacher of the Year continues to teach, conducts weekly Twitter chats, and is constantly on the lookout for opportunities to promote reading and relevant content.

Jarred Amato deserves #EdChamp2017 honors for going beyond the call of duty and providing out-of-the-box services to students.

Singing Praises to the Unsung

There are education champions at every school and within every community. It is our responsibility to recognize unsung advocates like Thomas Weber, blogger at Dad Gone Wild, who has been a consistent voice for traditional schools and fierce supporter of teachers. The treasure trove of churches who partner with schools offering space for programs and events, tutoring, supplies, food, and volunteers. The silent resisters who by virtue of the school they’ve chosen send a powerful message. The vocal few with whom I may disagree but respectfully acknowledge the source fueling the stance.

May 2018 be the year for endless unpopular, uncomfortable, and uncompromising decisions and movements that seek to change the trajectories of thousands of marginalized children in our city. Happy New Year!

Enjoy more 2017 EdChamp behavior…

Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition – Spearheaded by Conexion Americas and has the TNDOE’s ear and respect. The coalition is growing into an education policy and advocacy powerhouse focusing on equity with an eye on students of color.

Nashville Charter School Leaders join other leaders across the country to fight against their own interests. March 2017

“But we cannot support the President’s budget as currently proposed and we are determined to do everything in our power to work with Congress and the Administration to protect the programs that are essential to the broader needs of our students, families, and communities.”

Nashville Teacher Residency – Teacher prep program that seeks to satisfy the need for teachers of color. May 2017

The Passage – Two Chattanooga teachers hop on a bus and meet their students’ educational needs wherever they are! June 2017

Cicely Woodard – Tennessee’s 2017-18 Teacher of The Year is a Metro Nashville Public School teacher and we are proud. September 2017


If you’ve made it to the bottom of this post – thank you. A heartfelt thank you to those who have lifted me by supporting this blog, by supporting me. Your advice, shares, RT’s, texts, calls, and coffees have carried me all year long. I’m eternally gratefully. 

2018 is looking up — so many BOSS plans in the hopper! Stay tuned and, as always, Stay Woke.

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!