Bully pulpit

Next Nashville mayor will help shape city’s schools

A view of downtown Nashville from above Tennessee's second-largest city, which is also the state capital

For a period in 2008, Nashville Mayor Karl Dean appeared poised to take almost complete control of the city’s schools, allowing him to handpick school board members and the superintendent. Due to timing and student achievement gains, that didn’t come to pass — but Dean has had a huge impact on the city’s schools anyway.

In August, Nashville will elect a new mayor. Officially, he or she will be responsible for how much money the city allots to Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. Unofficially, the city’s new leader will have a platform from which to direct the schools and community, possibly in an entirely different direction than the course taken by Dean, who focused primarily on expanding Nashville’s charter school sector.

“The mayor has a bully pulpit from which to talk about education,” said Pearl Sims, who worked in the mayor’s office in the 1990s, when Phil Bredesen was mayor, and is now a professor at Lipscomb University’s civic leadership institute. “He or she can have really the power to build strong relations with the community and community providers.”

Through words alone, the mayor can reframe the educational conversation in the state’s second largest school system. During the 1950s, Mayor Ben West advocated for the end of de jure desegregation in Nashville’s schools. Most recently, Dean has been a strong proponent of charter schools and of Teach for America, which places elite college graduates in teaching positions in low-income neighborhoods.

One means of starting conversations is by creating task forces. Wendy Tucker, Dean’s education advisor and a member of the State Board of Education, believes the outgoing mayor’s crowning educational achievement is not his work with charter schools, but a set of recommendations around special education that came out of a task force he convened. The recommendations were implemented later by the school system.

"The mayor has a bully pulpit from which to talk about education."Pearl Sims, Lipscomb University civic leadership institute

Metro Nashville Schools used to have almost exclusively self-contained special education classes, meaning that, despite research suggesting that the practice isn’t ideal, most special education students were cloistered in separate classes from their peers. Based on recommendations from the task force, the district moved to integrate special education students into mainstream classrooms.

“Because of the work of the task force and his leadership, the district basically got rid of the vast majority of those classes,” said Tucker, who is also the parent of a special education student. “That made a huge difference in the lives of students.”

Historically, Nashville mayors also have had an indirect impact on how much money the district gets from the state. Bill Purcell, Dean’s predecessor, often testified to the Tennessee legislature about the need for more school funding. During his tenure, the legislature passed BEP 2.0, a revised state funding formula that put significantly more money in district coffers.

Since then, the state again has fallen behind on funding. Nashville’s school board has ruled out a lawsuit against the state, but board members wouldn’t mind the next mayor going directly to lawmakers to plead the case for more funds.

“The mayor could beat that drum loudly,” says Will Pinkston, a board member who also advised Bredesen on educational issues during his subsequent governorship.

Mayor Karl Dean
PHOTO: Nashville.gov
Mayor Karl Dean

Mayors’ words can be especially potent when paired with money. As mayor, Bredesen had his hand in every Nashville classroom when he raised money for the “core curriculum,” which has no relation to the Common Core standards and focuses on specific academic skills designed to avoid gaps in basic knowledge. That curriculum was gutted after Bredesen left office, however.

Dean’s major education initiatives — starting a charter school incubator that has brought seven charters to Nashville and establishing a relationship with Teach for America, which has about 200 corps members in 70 Nashville schools and 480 alumni in the area — will far outlast his tenure.

The new mayor also will be paired with a new school superintendent, which the district expects to name later this month. How the mayor navigates that relationship will impact school system policy.

Jesse Register, who was Nashville’s superintendent until his retirement from the job in June, sat down with Dean at least once a month to talk about the state of the city’s schools. Register said the two often had different views on education policy — they notoriously clashed on charter school expansion — but that the conversations were fruitful.

“He and I haven’t agreed on everything, but that’s OK,” Register said, crediting their conversations with leading to the expansion of pre-kindergarten programs in Nashville. “The support we’ve had from Metro Council is amazing. We went through tough economic times and (Dean) kept education as a top  priority.

Though it’s unlikely the next mayor will handpick school board members, Dean’s successor might be more involved in working with the district’s board of education.

Pinkston said he hopes to see more collaboration among the next mayor, the school board and the city council.

“The more we three can plan together, the more we can make the school system a better place,” Pinkston said.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.