Five ways White House Director David Johns wants to help black students succeed

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN

White House Director David Johns admittedly gets a little emotional when he talks about improving educational opportunities for black students he affectionally calls “babies” – a nod to his Twitter hashtag #TeachTheBabies.

“Excellence is absent when talking about black kids in education,” said Johns who leads the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans. The two-year-old initiative seeks to spark a conversation between school districts across the country on ways to educate low-income black students. “We live in a society where we believe black students aren’t smart. We hear that more black men are in prison than in college and that’s not true. We need to do a better job of policing what’s said about our babies.”

Johns was one of several guest speakers during the U.S. Department of Education’s “Partners in Progress” back-to-school bus tour who stopped in Memphis Monday.

The visit came shortly after Mayor A C Wharton announced plans to raise the quality of life and achievement for the city’s young African-American and Hispanic men through an initiative called “Inspiring Young Men of Color.” The program will bring together leaders from Memphis non-profits, businesses and schools to study the literacy, health and criminal justice barriers non-white students face.

Johns visited Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, Ford Road and Freedom Preparatory Academy and met with Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson II and Elliot Smalley, chief of staff for the state-run Achievement School District.

Johns participated in an “education rally” where he encouraged students to commit to earning a two- or four-year degree.

“You must pursue your purpose, and what God has for you…” he said.

Here are five takeaways from  Chalkbeat TN’s conversation with Johns.

1.  Black parents must be meaningfully engaged in their child’s eduction.

“We don’t give the black family enough credit,” Johns said. “I have yet to meet a parent who didn’t want a better life for their child. Educators need to be a conduit for helping make the change. They need to distill complex education jargon and turn it into information parents can use. A student’s achievement level can be directly correlated to their parents’ income and level of education.”

2. Throw away the argument that black students don’t test well.

“No Child Left Behind doesn’t mandate the kind of high-stakes teaching to the test that that no parent or educator wants to see our children endure,” Johns said.  “Assessment in its purest form is essential.  There are many ways it happens, from informal, formal and summative.  It’s important for educators to recognize the stereotype threat research in testing (black students).  The key is to not over-test or teach to the test.”

3. Acknowledge that black teachers can have a positive impact on black students.

“I taught kindergarten in New York City,” he said. “I was the only black male classroom teacher. Diversity in the workplace has its benefits.  Research shows that having a black teacher gives affirmation for black students.”

4.  Quality pre-kindergarten through higher learning opportunities is a necessity.

“More energy needs to be put in place to form collaboration between pre-K through 12th grade and higher education so that students are prepared to go to college,” Johns said. “I’ve seen in some cities where there’s a focus on pre-kindergarten, but the work is ensuring that investments are cradle-to-career.”

5. Pre-kindergarten factors into the development of a black student.

“We have to make sure early learners are in a high-quality program,” Johns said. “For example, Latino students are sometimes kept at home and are least likely to be enrolled in a program.  When they are enrolled, it is a quality program.  The work for the African American community is in improving program quality.  Black students may be enrolled in a program, but they are not always in a quality one.”

Read more about the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans here.

Contact Tajuana Cheshier at tcheshier@chalkbeat.org and (901) 730-4013.

Follow us on Twitter: @TajuanaCheshier@chalkbeattn.

Like us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/chalkbeattn.

Sign up for our newsletter for regular updates on Tennessee education news: http://tn.chalkbeat.org/newsletter/


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 cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

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

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”