Movers and shakers

Community organizer named leader of Nashville parent engagement group

PHOTO: Project Renaissance
Parents collaborate at a 2016 Nashville Rise training event.

An education group backed by former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean has tapped a community organizer from a national black advocacy group to spearhead its parent engagement efforts in Nashville.

Neonta Williams will be the new director of Nashville Rise, according to an announcement Monday by Project Renaissance, a nonprofit group formed in 2014 with the goal of increasing the number of Nashville students in high-performing schools.

Williams has worked for two years in Alabama and Tennessee as a community organizer with the Black Alliance for Educational Options, or BAEO, which promotes school choice. She moved to Nashville last February and stayed with the national group after its Tennessee chapter broke off in June to form the Memphis-based Campaign for School Equity.

Neonta Williams

In Nashville, Williams has focused on building relationships with clergy and said Monday she’s excited to reach out to families across Davidson County. “Parents should be informed and engaged about what’s going on in their child’s education,” she said. “Our goal is for parents to be the child’s first advocate.”

Project Renaissance started Nashville Rise last year and reports that its parents group now has 100 parent leaders and 500 members. As its director, Williams will help oversee parent advocacy trainings and build relationships with community partners.

Parent advocacy organizations are a growing part of the public education landscape across America, where research increasingly ties parental engagement with academic improvement. Many groups are aligned with the school-choice movement, advocating for charter schools and, in some cases, tuition vouchers to attend private schools.

Memphis has Memphis Lift, which kicked off in 2015 with the help of Natasha Kamrani, director of Tennessee’s chapter of Democrats for Education Reform and the wife of Chris Barbic, founding superintendent of the state-run Achievement School District.

petition drive

School chiefs in Memphis, Nashville join education leaders urging protection of ‘Dreamers’ under Trump

The superintendents of Tennessee’s two largest school districts are among 1,500 education leaders to sign a petition asking for continued protection from deportation for “Dreamers,” young people brought to the U.S. as children.

Dorsey Hopson

Dorsey Hopson of Shelby County Schools and Shawn Joseph of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools are among chiefs of at least 15 urban districts to sign the letter. Also joining the campaign are at least 30 educators from mostly Memphis and Nashville, as well as leaders from charter and nonprofit organizations and teacher’s unions from across the nation.

The petition was released this week before Donald Trump’s inauguration on Friday as the nation’s 45th president. During his presidential campaign, Trump vowed to do away with the federal policy known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Policy, or DACA, as part of a crackdown on illegal immigration. However, he recently told Time magazine that he would “work something out” for people known as “Dreamers,” so named for the failed DREAM Act legislation that would provide a path toward citizenship.

The petition calls DACA “crucially important to public education across the country” and also urges passage of the DREAM Act. The drive was organized by Stand for Children, a nonprofit group that advocates for education equity in 11 states, including Tennessee.

Cardell Orrin, director of Stand for Children in Memphis, said the signatures show that “leaders in Nashville and Memphis care about what’s happening with our kids and want to see the dream continue for Dreamers.”

He added that school leaders are mobilized to work together in behalf of students if Trump attempts to do away with DACA.

“There may not be as many undocumented students here as in some of the others states (such as) Texas or Arizona. But this could still have great impact on kids in Tennessee,” Orrin said.

Among other Tennesseans signing the petition as of Friday were:

  • Marcus Robinson chief executive officer, Memphis Education Fund
  • Maya Bugg, chief executive officer, Tennessee Charter School Center
  • Brian Gilson, chief people officer, Achievement Schools, Memphis
  • Sonji Branch, affiliate director, Communities in Schools of Tennessee
  • Sylvia Flowers, executive director of educator talent, Tennessee Department of Education
  • Ginnae Harley, federal programs director, Knox County Schools

Read what Trump’s inauguration means for one undocumented Nashville student-turned-teacher.


 

moving on

Jeffco school board votes to launch search for new superintendent

PHOTO: Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post
JeffCo Public Schools Superintendent Dan McMinimee, at his office, in 2014 during his second week on the job.

Citing a desire to seek out a more effective leader and denying that politics were at play, Jefferson County school board members voted unanimously Thursday to launch a search for a new superintendent.

The vote comes a little more than a year after all five board members were sworn in after a contentious recall election that ousted the members that hired current superintendent Dan McMinimee.

The governing board of the state’s second largest school district expressed its desire to let McMinimee serve out the six months left on his contract.

Last month, the board met twice in executive session, including once at a conference in Colorado Springs, to talk about whether to renew McMinimee’s contract.

Board members on Thursday each made statements, some reading prepared remarks, before the vote. The board members, seeking to address the community, denied that any decision was made behind closed doors, outlined what they value in a leader and insisted their decision was not political.

“It’s true we’ve been through difficulties, but children in our schools can’t afford for adults to just let things settle,” said board member Brad Rupert. “We’ve got problems to solve.”

Board members said they needed to see if there was another leader who might be more effective. In outlining their desires for qualities of a new leader, they talked about looking for someone with experience as an educator, who is inspiring and a good communicator.

Board member Susan Harmon said she struggled with the decision but pointed out that although McMinimee has done good work, some people still don’t trust him or the district.

“How do you shake distrust? How do you change perception?” Harmon asked. “Perception unfortunately matters.”

After the vote, a district spokeswoman said McMinimee had signed up to speak during a public comment period near the meeting’s end. But he did not take the microphone. McMinimee left the meeting without speaking with reporters.

Of seven people who spoke about the superintendent during public comment, four were against launching a search for a new superintendent. Three who spoke in support of a new superintendent said it was not based on McMinimee’s performance, but based on the original process in which he was hired.

One woman who supported the search for a new superintendent, said she “condemned” the past process in 2014 because she said it was “predetermined.”

One speaker, Jim Fernald, who supported retaining McMinimee, said McMinimee succeeded despite being put in an “impossible situation,” and said that justifying looking for a new leader because of a search process three years ago is not appropriate.

“I find this to be an incredibly weak argument,” Fernald said. “Everyone knows if you vote against retaining Dan that you’re doing it to spite the previous board and their supporters. This board should go on record as rising above the pettiness.”

John Ford, president of the Jefferson County Education Association, the teachers union, spoke in favor of launching a search for a new superintendent, saying that the process that led to McMinimee’s hiring was “one of the failures of the previous board.”

“We need a fair and open process,” Ford said. “JCEA looks forward to ensuring and entrusting you with that mission. Listen to the voice of the classroom teacher to help provide input for what our students deserve.”

McMinimee, who was the sole finalist for the job, was hired in the summer of 2014 by a board majority made up of the three members that were the target of a recall in 2015. During his time leading the district, McMinimee, among other things, has helped lead the work on the district’s new strategic plan, reorganized two groups of schools on the district’s eastern boundary and increased school level autonomy over budgets.

On Wednesday McMinimee told Chalkbeat he was puzzled about why the board was considering looking for a new superintendent, saying he had not been given any indication that they had a problem with his work.

He did not speak during the board discussion Thursday.

According to McMinimee’s contract language, the board will not need a separate vote to end his $220,000-a-year contract. If McMinimee doesn’t receive notification of a contract renewal by the end of March, the contract will automatically expire June 30.

If the board wanted to part ways with McMinimee before his contract expires without attempting to fire him with cause, the district would need to pay him the amount of one year’s base salary, according to his contract. If the superintendent wants to terminate the contract, he would have to give the board six months notice or be charged for damages.

The board directed the human resources chief to find a search firm that will create a process that allows for community input in the search process.

The new district leader will face the challenge of the district’s budget after county voters rejected two tax measures in November.

Three of five Jeffco school board members are up for re-election in November, meaning it’s possible the board majority might change again after that election.