From advocacy to IPS: Deb Black's hiring signals change

PHOTO: Provided by Stand for Children

When parents at Indianapolis Public School 93 gathered signatures on the sidewalk and came to school board meetings pushing for change at their school, it wasn’t entirely a coincidence that many of them knew Deb Black.

Working with Stand For Children, a non-profit group that advocates for change in IPS, Black had taught several of them in Stand’s “parent university” how to advocate for their children. When the School 93 parents heard from Black that two IPS teachers had made dramatic gains at other schools through a program they created called Project Restore, they wanted it too.

As they launched a bumpy, but ultimately successful, campaign to convince the school board, Black offered support and advice.

In the not so distant past, such outside agitation by someone from a group with a stated goal of changing IPS might have been viewed as hostile by the district. But in the rapidly changing environment under Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, it got Black noticed, and then hired.

The district’s interest in hiring Black, who started last week, as its first parent involvement coordinator, was sparked when deputy Superintendent Wanda Legrand witnessed Black’s enthusiasm for parent engagement firsthand while attending Stand’s parent university graduation ceremony.

Black’s new job is to advocate on behalf of parents to ensure that their concerns “stay at the front of our minds,” Legrand said.

“Everyone talked about how she was able to give them knowledge and that helped them to advocate for their kids,” she said. “We want our parents to be totally involved.”

Black, whose career has spanned the education, social services and consulting sectors, said she applied for a job at the district because she wanted to make an impact on more Indianapolis families. Parent involvement, she believes, paves the way for student success.

“No matter where you are in your educational attainment, you have to have someone along the way who’s motivated you, who’s pushing you,” Black said. “The first teacher you have is in your home. Watching parents become motivated about the possibilities for their children because they are better educated is highly motivational for me.”

Black’s hiring at IPS is one element of what some in the Indiana education policy world see as a marked shift in the school district when it comes to friendliness toward education reform ideas and the advocacy groups that support them. Since he joined the district in September, examples include Ferebee working with Republican legislators and the mayor’s office on a bill to allow partnerships with charter schools and hiring an outside firm to help plan an overhaul of teacher pay.

Stand for Children Executive Director Justin Ohlemiller said he hates to lose Black but is optimistic that it is a sign of more collaboration to come between the two entities.

“It’s a great sign of Dr. Ferebee’s leadership and commitment,” Ohlemiller said. “School improvement can and should be done in a way that involves partnerships. This does not have to be an adversarial process. It shouldn’t be.”

Ferebee took over the district last September from former Superintendent Eugene White, who often resisted calls for the district to be more cooperative with charter schools or groups pushing IPS to move toward more efficiency, autonomy and accountability.

Stand for Children, a national organization that advocates for school choice, high academic standards and other education changes, opened its Indiana chapter in 2012. It had the support of The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based education non-profit that promotes educational change. White’s relationships with Indianapolis advocacy groups like Stand for Children and The Mind Trust soured as those groups grew more critical of his leadership, citing what they called a bloated central office and too much spending outside the classroom.

Deputy superintendent Legrand, who came to Indianapolis from North Carolina with Ferebee, said the district values its relationships with groups like Stand.

“We have a good relationship,” Legrand said. “I can’t say if it’s improved (compared with past administrations), but for us, they have come to the table being willing partners to help IPS.”

Black’s role at the district will involve directing and coordinating parent involvement activities that happen at each school. She envisions a more robust parent presence throughout the district and unified, clear messaging.

Black said it is important to make it easier and clearer for parents to find ways to get involved in their childrens’ education. Too often, Black said, parents are blamed when children struggle. But she said many times they don’t know how to help.

“I don’t think any parent sets out to not be supportive of their child,” Black said. “We should say, ‘Come on parents, let us help you know what to do.'”

Stand also plans to continue its parent engagement and education services, including the parent university. In that program, parents learn skills like creating a home environment conducive to learning, how to analyze school data, strategies to get more out of parent-teacher conferences and how to mobilize around an issue to create change. It will expand to three new IPS schools this fall.

Ashley Thomas, parent of an incoming IPS first grader, thanked the district at a school board meeting earlier this month for hiring Black. She said it was a signal that district officials were being serious when they thanked the parents involved in advocating for Project Restore at School 93.

“I’m just really glad to hear that she’ll be working with more parents,” Thomas said. “You meant that. You really meant that.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede