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.

If You Believe Education Is A Civil Rights Issue Don’t Just See About It, Be About It

I had the great pleasure of attending an education summit here in Nashville located on the beautiful campus of Fisk University in the historical Jubilee Hall. The summit host was the year old Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition, a group of education service providers from across the state seeking to support and advocate for equity.

But responsible for the Coalition is the very successful Conexión Américas, an organization founded by Renata Soto in an effort to support Nashville’s growing Latino population. Soto made a splash onto the scene 15 years ago and her “little” organization is now an integral part of the Nashville landscape providing a myriad of services to the largest Latino population in Tennessee.

Further, Soto identified gaps for other members of the international community and created Casa Azafran which can best be explained as the safe space for Nashville’s immigrant population. According to its website:

Casa Azafrán is both a beautiful event space and home to a collective of nonprofits who offer services in education, legal, health care and the arts to immigrants, refugees and the community as a whole.

The textbook definition of BE ABOUT IT!

Tennessee Has What It Takes to Be About It

There is no shortage of education advocates in Nashville and throughout Tennessee. There is no better illustration of this than the resource-rich attendees attending the two-day Summit. We are richer than I ever imagined.

The event’s keynote speaker, Kaya Henderson, former chancellor of Washington D.C. public schools, even noted in her keynote presentation to the coalition membership, “If you can’t do it Tennessee, I’m not sure it can be done.” It’s true. The partners in that room could propel Tennessee’s students into the education stratosphere forcing the world to come take a look at us.

Though, I can’t tell you how many coalition, collaborative, convening convener meetings I’ve attended over the past couple of decades, I can tell you, this one was different.

Here’s how:

In the tweets above: Kaya Henderson, Dr. Heidi Ramirez, Shelby County Schools; Dr. Nakia Towns, TN Department of Education, and Maya Bugg, Tennessee Charter School Center. Black and Brown women, highly accomplished in their respective areas, brilliantly doling out knowledge based on their successes. What?!

So now, the people publicly speaking out on behalf of Tennessee’s most vulnerable student populations are beginning to look more like the students in these groups. Let’s be clear, I am not presuming these leaders have intimate knowledge of being a member of a historically failing group, but the mama’s and daddy’s and grandparents in these groups will recognize them. And it matters.

A Different Kind of Hope

This is why I’m hopeful. I left yesterday’s Summit with a hop in my step because we are recognizing that black and brown women in this state have something to say, that they are thought leaders who can make it happen. And as Ms. Henderson so brilliantly quoted, “If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together.”

I believe the coalition will be going far. I believe they will do more than just sit on platitudes and watch from the margins. I believe they will be about it.

Thank you Renata Soto and Gini Pupo-Walker for kicking off this thing, this browning of education thought leadership in Tennessee. A brilliant example of “I can show you better than I can tell you.”