Advocacy

Tennessee coalition organizes to advocate for students of color

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
From left: Tennessee NAACP President Gloria Sweet-Love, NAACP Treasurer Alicia Brooks, and Teacher Town Memphis advocacy director Tosha Downey participate in an organizational meeting in Nashville.

A new education advocacy coalition emerged this week and lobbied state lawmakers for policies aimed at improving education for Tennessee students of color.

The Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition formed out of a two-day meeting in Nashville of 100 educators and civil rights leaders from across Tennessee.

The group drafted a policy agenda and recommendations for state lawmakers to fully fund the state’s Basic Education Program, increase spending on programs for English language learners, extend in-state tuition to immigrant students, and incentivize teacher preparation programs to recruit and graduate diverse students.

On Wednesday, the coalition presented its recommendations to 32 legislators.

Coalition members ranged from Nashville high school students to officials with the Tennessee Department of Education. They were hosted by Conexión Américas, a Nashville-based nonprofit organization that advocates for Latino families who are new to the state. Conéxion brought the organizations together

Conéxion has long provided educational and support services to the immigrant community in Mid-Tennessee. But Conexión officials decided to organize an advocacy group because they felt the services they offer could not sufficiently address the scope of problems facing the communities they serve.

Group members shared personal stories about the importance of educational opportunities and resources for students of color as they honed their messages for lawmakers.

Desirée Jones, a Knox County assistant principal who is black, said a positive interaction with her teacher one day in the second grade transformed her life and inspired her to become a teacher herself. A shy child who moved frequently and never spoke up in class, she described mustering the courage to raise her hand when her teacher asked what fog is — and how her teacher praise her afterwards. That single experience affirmed Jones’ love for reading and school.

“What I want to talk to (legislators) today about is about how we can remove barriers our black and brown students may have that may cause them not to feel safe in school,” Jones said.

The group shied away from divisive issues such as school choice, tuition vouchers and charter schools.

“There are some things we don’t agree on,” said Gloria Sweet-Love, president of the Tennessee chapter of the NAACP, which opposes school vouchers. “But there are enough things we do.”

Earlier Wednesday, Tennessee Assistant Education Commissioner Stephen Smith urged the group to make their voices heard.

“Don’t assume that other people are speaking for you,” he said. “They will try to speak for you. They will tell legislators that they are speaking for this group or that group. Don’t let them try that. You have a voice.”

interview time

Four candidates left make their case before commission for open Shelby County Schools board seat

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Interim school board candidate Aubrey Howard presents before the Shelby County Commission.

Four remaining candidates for a vacated Memphis school board seat had their chance to tell the Shelby County Commission why they are the right person for the job on Wednesday afternoon.

They were the remaining viable candidates after six applicants were disqualified for living outside of District 2, the area the interim board member will represent in Shelby County Schools. Chalkbeat reported on Monday that six of the candidates live outside of the district. The appointee will fill the seat Teresa Jones vacated following her recent appointment as a municipal court judge, and will serve until the term expires in August 2020.

The four applicants are (We’ve linked to their full applications.):

  • Erskine Gillespie, an account manager at the Lifeblood Mid-South Regional Blood Bank.
  • Althea Greene, a retired Memphis educator and pastor of Real Life Ministries.
  • Aubrey Howard, the executive director of governmental and legislative affairs in the Shelby County Trustee’s Office.
  • Charles McKinney, the Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana Studies and associate professor of history at Rhodes College.

The interim member will join the school board at a crucial time, amid the search for a new superintendent to replace Dorsey Hopson, who left the district in December. Currently, Joris Ray is serving as interim superintendent.

Commissioners peppered the candidates with questions on big issues facing the district, including school choice, the budget process, managing the district’s aging buildings and underenrollment, and how they could improve the relationship between the district and the county commission, the funding body for schools.

In their pitches to commissioners, applicants touted their previous experiences with K-12 education, such as work with nonprofits and curriculum development, and their ties to Memphis schools. “I’m a product of Memphis schools,” was a phrase said again and again.

Most applicants expressed general support for charter schools, which have grown significantly in recent years in Memphis, but Gillespie said he believed “the influx of our charter school program is an issue that must be addressed.” McKinney sits on the board of a charter high school, and Greene and Howard said they had no issues with charter schools as a way to serve individual needs of students.

On the relationship with the county commission, Greene said: “I think it’s important that as a school board member, I’m at county commission meetings. And work as a bridge to educate children and give them the best education we can, and we know that costs money.”

Gillespie was asked by Commissioner Willie Brooks what he thinks of alternative schools, which serve students who have been expelled or suspended from traditional schools for behavioral reasons. There are several alternative schools in District 2.

“I think alternative schools are truly something necessary,” Gillespie said. “They can provide a trauma-informed response for our students.”

The questionnaire given to each candidate asked about TNReady, the state’s embattled testing system. Commissioner Michael Whaley, who chairs the education committee, asked Howard to expand on his answer that the test “didn’t work.”

“Those decisions about testing and teacher evaluations would be better met if they were local and not state controlled,” Howard replied. “For sure, the state wasted a huge amount of money with the companies they hired that failed us.”

Gillespie and McKinney described aging and often near-empty school buildings as a large issue facing the district. The interim board member would help analyze a massive district plan left by former superintendent Hopson that would consolidate 28 Memphis schools into 10 new buildings.

McKinney said the school board should be having regular conversations with the commission and the neighborhoods it serves on how demographic shifts have impacted the county, creating underenrollment in some schools.

“For the school board, those conversations need to be ongoing, so when it comes time to make a decision about whether or not to close a school, it’s not coming as a surprise,” McKinney said.

Three people from Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy group, spoke in support of McKinney. The group’s leader, Sarah Carpenter, said he’s been a consistent figure in her neighborhood of North Memphis.

Shelby County Commission
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Commissioner Willie Brooks (left) asked candidates about how they would work with the county commission.

“I’m tired of people coming to our community when they want a seat and we don’t see them anymore,” Carpenter said. “Our children’s lives are on the line.”

Commissioner Edmund Ford, himself a former teacher, said after the interviews he would like to see an educator on the board.

“There were a lot of things I saw as a teacher, when I would go to the school board to ask for their assistance, that I would not receive,” Ford said. “Personally, I would like to see someone who has been there and done that.”

After hearing from the candidates, the commission voted to move the item to its Monday meeting, where commissioners will vote on a successor.

For more details, see our Twitter thread from the hearing.

names are in

Ten apply for vacant seat on the Memphis school board, but six live outside of seat’s district

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Former Shelby County Board of Education Chairwoman Teresa Jones confers with then Superintendent Dorsey Hopson during a 2015 school board meeting. Jones' seat is now up for an interim appointment.

Ten people have put their name in to become the next board member of Tennessee’s largest school district.

The appointee will fill the seat Teresa Jones vacated following her recent appointment as a municipal court judge, and would serve until the term expires in August 2020, not October as previously reported.

The interim member will join the school board at a crucial time, amid the search for a new superintendent to replace Dorsey Hopson, who left the district in December. Currently, Joris Ray is serving as interim superintendent.

Jones’ district 2 serves neighborhoods including North Memphis, Binghampton, and Berclair. Chalkbeat found that six applicants live outside of the district. Shelby County Commissioner Michael Whaley said this would likely prevent them from an appointment, but the commission is seeking clarity from the state and election commission.

Whaley also said the interim appointment was extended to August 2020 because Tennessee law doesn’t specify that special elections are necessary for the school board, so the interim will finish out Jones’ term.

The county commission is scheduled to name a successor on Monday Feb. 25, a day before the school board’s meeting that month. The commission is slated to interview candidates Wednesday at 10 a.m., but Whaley said more names could be added by commissioners prior to the vote on Monday We’ve linked to their full applications below.

Applicants are:

Althea Greene

  • She is a retired teacher from Memphis City Schools and childcare supervisor with Shelby County Schools. She is currently Pastor of Real Life Ministries.

Arvelia Chambers

  • She is a senior certified pharmacy technician with Walgreens. She said she’s a “passionate aunt” of three children in Shelby County Schools.
  • Her listed address is slightly north of District 2.

Aubrey Howard

  • He works as the executive director of governmental and legislative affairs in the Shelby County Trustee’s Office. He formerly worked for the City of Memphis, and said in his application that he previously ran for school board and lost.

Charles McKinney

  • He is the Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana Studies and associate professor of history at Rhodes College. He is on the board of Crosstown High Charter School, and is the father of two Shelby County Schools students.

David Brown

  • He is the executive director of digital ministry at Brown Missionary Baptist Church and graduated from  Craigmont High School.
  • His listed address is slightly east of District 2.

Erskine Gillespie

  • Gillespie previously ran for City Council district 7 but lost. He is an account manager at the Lifeblood Mid-South Regional Blood Bank. He said in his application that he was one of the first students to enter the optional schools program in the Memphis district.

Kenneth Whalum, Jr.

  • He is a pastor at The New Olivet Worship Center and previously served as a school board member for the former Memphis City Schools; he was first elected in 2006. He has vocally opposed the process behind the 2013 merger of the city school system with legacy Shelby County Schools.
  • Whalum ran against school board member Kevin Woods in 2012 and lost.
  • His listed address is near the University of Memphis, not in District 2.

Makeda Porter-Carr

  • She is a research administrator at St. Jude Research Hospital.
  • Her listed address is in southeast Memphis, not in District 2.

Michael Hoffmeyer Sr.

  • He is the director of the University of Memphis’ Crews Center for Entrepreneurship in which he works with college and high school students. He graduated from Craigmont High School.
  • His listed address is slightly north of District 2.

Tyree Daniels

  • He helped found Memphis College Prep charter school. He lost to Jones in a school board race in 2012. Daniels is now a part of Duncan-Williams Inc. — the firm handling public financing for the project Union Row.
  • His listed address is in east Memphis, not in District 2.