who's who

Here are the players helping to draft Tennessee’s transition plan to the new federal education law

PHOTO: Amanda Lucidon/The White House
President Barack Obama signs the Every Student Succeeds Act in December 2015, surrounded by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and other champions and supporters of the new law.

An array of educators, researchers and advocates will help the State Department of Education plan for a new era in Tennessee education dictated by the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

While most of Tennessee’s existing laws and practices are already in line with ESSA requirements, the law provides flexibility for the state to reinvent, or at least tweak, its education system. Department officials say they’re eager to take that opportunity.

“Tennessee’s schools and students have made tremendous strides over the past few years to become the fastest improving state in the nation,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a press release Wednesday announcing the list of stakeholders. “We believe bringing a broad set of perspectives into that conversation — and ultimately keeping students at the center of every decision — will help us refine and capitalize on what is working.”

The department established six working groups focusing on standards and assessment, accountability, support for English learners, educator support and effectiveness, school improvement, and student support.

Among group members from Shelby County Schools are Chief Academic Officer Heidi Ramirez and Innovation Zone leaders Brad Leon and Sharon Griffin. Achievement School District Superintendent Malika Anderson is also on the list.

In addition to feedback from the six new panels, the Tennessee Department of Education last month launched a new listening tour to gather feedback from educators across the state related to key components of ESSA, as well as a website where the public can provide input on the state’s new plan.

This department will share a draft of the ESSA transition plan for further public feedback in the fall, and finalize it next spring. All provisions of ESSA will go into effect in August 2017.

Here is the list of working group leads and members recruited:

Standards and Assessment

State leads:

  • Laura Encalade, director of policy and research, State Board of Education
  • Nate Schwartz, chief research and strategy officer, Tennessee Department of Education

Working group members:

  • Tracey Beckendorf-Edou, executive director of teaching and learning, Oak Ridge Schools
  • Michael Cohen, president, Achieve
  • Patricia Griggs-Merriweather, principal, Sheffield Elementary, Shelby County Schools
  • Brad Leon, chief of strategy and innovation, Shelby County Schools
  • Cindy Massaro, parent, Rutherford County Schools
  • Mary Cypress Metz, chief of staff, State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE)
  • Philip Oldham, president, Tennessee Technological University
  • Eddie Pruett, director of schools, Gibson County Special School District
  • Robert Sharpe, assistant superintendent, Hamilton County Schools
  • Cathy Whitehead, third-grade teacher and 2015-16 Tennessee Teacher of the Year, West Chester Elementary School, Chester County School System
  • Maria Zapata, family engagement manager, Conexión Américas


State leads:

  • Mary Batiwalla, executive director of accountability, Tennessee Department of Education
  • Nakia Towns, assistant commissioner of data and research, Tennessee Department of Education

Working group members:

  • Lyle Ailshie, director of schools, Kingsport City Schools
  • Ashley Aldridge, principal, Jack Anderson Elementary School, Sumner County Schools
  • Dawn Bradley, special education supervisor, Wilson County Schools
  • Maya Bugg, chief executive officer, Tennessee Charter School Center
  • Karla Coleman Garcia, policy manager, Conexión Américas
  • Corey Kelly, principal, Sherwood Middle School, Shelby County Schools
  • Shawn Kimble, director of schools, Lauderdale County Department of Education
  • Phyllis Nichols, president and chief executive officer, Knoxville Area Urban League
  • Sharon Roberts, chief strategy fficer, State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE)
  • Clint Sattler, supervisor of research and evaluation, Knox County Schools
  • Ronald Woodard, principal, Maplewood High School, Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • Daniel Zavala, state policy director, StudentsFirst Tennessee

Support for English Learners

State leads:

  • Jan Lanier, director of English learner, immigrant, and migrant programs, Tennessee Department of Education
  • Joann Runion, coordinator of English learner instruction and intervention, Tennessee Department of Education

Working group members:

  • Eben Cathey, advocacy director, Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC)
  • Laura Delgado, program director for Increasing Teacher Diversity, Lipscomb University
  • Nona Hall, Title III director, Rutherford County Schools
  • Dale Lynch, director of schools, Hamblen County Department of Education
  • Gini Pupo-Walker, senior director of education policy and strategic Growth, Conexión Américas
  • Angela Rood, ESL teacher and interventionist, Dyersburg City Schools and Board Member for Tennessee Teachers of Speakers of Other Languages (TNTESOL)
  • Sarah Sandefur, associate professor in the School of Education, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
  • Dana Siegel, ESL teacher, Sycamore Elementary School, Collierville Schools
  • Samantha Singer, English teacher and chair of the English department, John Overton High School, Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • Kevin Stacy, executive director of the Office of English Learners, Metro Nashville Public Schools

Educator Support and Effectiveness

State leads:

  • Paul Fleming, assistant commissioner of teachers and leaders, Tennessee Department of Education
  • Sylvia Flowers, executive director of educator talent, Tennessee Department of Education

Working group members:

  • Kasar Abdulla, director of community relations, Valor Collegiate Academies, Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • Robert Blair, president, Greater Nashville Alliance of Black School Educators
  • Bethany Bowman, director of professional learning, Professional Educators of Tennessee
  • Tim Haney, principal, Peabody High School, Trenton Special School District
  • Mark Hogan, professor and Education Department chairman, Belmont University
  • Jeanine Johnson, chief human resources officer, Clarksville-Montgomery County School System
  • Chris Marczak, director of schools, Maury County Public Schools
  • Bill O’Donnell, coordinator of instructional advocacy, Tennessee Education Association
  • Heidi Ramirez, chief academic officer, Shelby County Schools
  • Shannon Streett, sixth-grade English and science teacher, Woodbury Grammar School, Cannon County School District
  • Mike Winstead, director of schools, Maryville City Schools

School Improvement

State leads:

  • Malika Anderson, superintendent, Achievement School District
  • Rita Fentress, director of school improvement, Tennessee Department of Education

Working group members:

  • Tait Danhausen, school director, Cameron College Prep, Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • Sharon Griffin, iZone regional superintendent, Shelby County Schools
  • Joey Hassell, principal, Ripley High School, Lauderdale County Department of Education
  • Shannon Jackson, executive director of curriculum and instruction, Knox County Schools
  • Beverly Miller, supervisor of curriculum and instruction 9-12, Maury County Public Schools
  • Cardell Orrin, Memphis director, Stand for Children
  • Elaine Swafford, executive director, Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy
  • Greg Thompson, program officer, The Pyramid Peak Foundation
  • Cindy White, principal, Vine Middle Magnet School, Knox County Schools
  • Clarissa Zellars, director of school improvement strategy, Metro Nashville Public Schools

Student Support

State leads:

  • Mike Herrmann, executive director of conditions for learning, Tennessee Department of Education
  • Danielle Mezera, assistant commissioner for college, career, and technical Education, Department of Education

Working group members:

  • Brian Bass, principal, Renaissance High School, Williamson County Schools
  • Laura Brimm, principal, Dyer County High School, Dyer County Schools
  • Nicole Cobb, executive director of school counseling, Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • Nancy Dishner, president and chief executive officer, Niswonger Foundation
  • Kelly Drummond, chief administrative and human resources officer, Boys and Girls Clubs of the Tennessee Valley
  • Elaine Jackson, coordinated school health director, Stewart County Schools
  • Troy Kilzer II, director of schools, Chester County School System
  • Theresa Nixon, director of instructional technology, Knox County Schools
  • Greg Wallace, supervisor of safety and mental health, Johnson City Schools

the one to watch

Inside the three-candidate battle for northeast Denver’s school board seat

File photo of student at Marrama Elementary School in northeast Denver. (The Denver Post)

Of the Denver school board races on the November ballot, none packs more intrigue than the fight for District 4.

The three-person slate of candidates features an appointed incumbent who’s never run for office and supports the district’s current path, an outspoken recent high school graduate who sharply disagrees, and a former charter school educator with a more nuanced view and — in what on its surface may seem surprising — the endorsement of the teachers union.

The seat represents a large swath of northeast Denver with a wide range of income levels, including areas that are gentrifying quickly and others that have been home to some of the district’s most aggressive school improvement strategies.

The Nov. 7 election is high stakes. Four of the seven seats on the Denver school board are up for grabs. If candidates who disagree with Denver Public Schools’ direction win all four races, they’ll have the political power to change key policies in the state’s largest school district and one nationally recognized for its embrace of school choice and autonomy.

Tay Anderson is one of those candidates. The 19-year-old graduated from Denver’s Manual High School last year and is now a student at Metropolitan State University. On the campaign trail, he has doggedly criticized the district for what he describes as weak community engagement efforts and a move to “privatize” public education by approving more charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run (in Denver, by nonprofit operators).

He also has led the charge in attempting to tie the current school board and the incumbent candidates to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose stance on school choice — and especially private school vouchers, which DPS does not support — have made her a controversial figure.

    This is the first of a series of articles profiling this year’s Denver school board races. You can read about where candidates in all the DPS races stand on issues here, in Chalkbeat’s candidate questionnaire. Check out our coverage of the campaign’s first campaign finance reports here.

When DeVos came to Denver in July to give a speech to a group of conservative lawmakers from across the United States, Anderson organized a protest against her. In front of a crowd of hundreds, he called out the current Denver school board members.

“We can tell them, ‘Screw you. You’re fired in November!’” he said.

Anderson has a compelling personal story. The teenager struggled in high school before becoming a leader at Denver’s Manual High. He was student body president, chairman of the Colorado High School Democrats and a member of the Student Board of Education.

Anderson was also homeless for a time and has said his own challenges give him valuable insight into the lives of other Denver students living in difficult situations. About two-thirds of the district’s 92,000 students qualify for subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty.

“I have had nobody in my corner when I was a homeless student and when I was in and out of foster care,” Anderson said at a recent televised candidate debate. “And now it is my turn to turn to our students and say, ‘I am going to be your champion.’”

His candidacy has attracted more local and national press attention than is usual for a school board race. But while Anderson has said his young age would bring a fresh perspective to the board, his opponents have questioned whether he has the experience to serve.

“It’s one thing to swing a hammer at a frustration, but it’s another to know where to swing it,” said candidate Jennifer Bacon, one of Anderson’s two opponents.

Anderson is running against Bacon, 35, and incumbent Rachele Espiritu, 48. Espiritu was appointed to fill a vacancy on the board in May 2016. The appointment process was long and marked by controversy. The first appointee, MiDian Holmes, stepped aside after details about a misdemeanor child abuse conviction and her mischaracterization of it came to light.

Both Espiritu and Bacon were among the finalists for the position. But Bacon withdrew, explaining at the time it was “in consideration of my need for growth and readiness for this position, as well as my interests in supporting the board.”

Asked recently to elaborate, Bacon said she withdrew because she sensed she wasn’t going to be appointed. She said she, too, had an arrest in her background: for stealing a necklace from Macy’s when she was in college. Bacon said the charge was dropped and she was not convicted. (No charges showed up in a background check done by Chalkbeat.)

Bacon, who attended college in Louisiana, said the arrest was a turning point at a time when she was struggling to find her purpose. She went on to join the Teach for America corps, teaching for a year in New Orleans and a year in Miami.

After teaching, she went to law school and then moved in 2010 to Denver, where she worked first as a dean for the city’s largest charter school network, DSST, and then in alumni affairs for Teach for America. She is now a regional director with Leadership for Educational Equity, a nonprofit organization that trains educators to advocate for policy changes.

Bacon said she wondered whether her positions on key issues also made her an unlikely appointee. For instance, she has said she’s not opposed to charter schools but believes Denver has reached its threshold and should focus on shoring up its traditional schools.

“People ask me if I’m pro-charter,” Bacon said in an interview. “I’m pro-community.”

Since Espiritu was appointed, she has largely voted in line with the rest of the school board. But she chafes at the idea that the board is monolithic or a rubber stamp for the administration. Much back-and-forth occurs before a decision, she said in an interview, and each board member brings a unique background and set of life experiences to the table.

Espiritu often says on the campaign trail that she’s the only immigrant to serve on the board in the last century. She was born in the Philippines and came to the United States as a toddler. She holds a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Colorado Boulder and helped found a small business called Change Matrix that assists organizations with planning, putting into place and monitoring change. She and her family moved to Denver in 2012.

Espiritu has two sons. Her oldest goes to DSST: Stapleton High, a charter school. Her youngest goes to William (Bill) Roberts School, a K-8 district-run school. She has said that in choosing schools for her children, she focused on quality and not on type.

As a member of the board, Espiritu has paid particular attention to efforts to improve student mental health. She recently encouraged DPS to become a “trauma-informed school district.”

“I want us to be a district that addresses student and educator trauma in a proactive or preventative way that’s culturally sensitive and systematic in fashion,” she said at a September board meeting. “…We need to shift our thinking from asking what is wrong with a child to what happened with a child.”

Parts of northeast Denver have struggled academically. The region is home to the district’s biggest-ever school turnaround effort, as well as two of three schools the board voted unanimously last year to close due to poor performance.

The candidates’ disparate views on school closure offer a window into what differentiates them. Espiritu voted for the closures, though she noted at a subsequent board meeting that doing so was “a painful process … and such a difficult decision.”

Anderson has said he opposes closing any more traditional, district-run schools. Bacon, meanwhile, has said that while she doesn’t believe in “trapping kids in failing schools,” ideas about how to turn things around should originate with affected families.

Two local groups that traditionally endorse candidates and contribute large sums of money struggled this year with who to support in District 4. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association endorsed Bacon, but a progressive caucus of the union chose to separately support Anderson. The pro-reform group Stand for Children did not endorse any candidate, explaining that both Bacon and Espiritu surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Of the three candidates, Espiritu had raised the most money — $73,847 — as of Oct. 11, when the first campaign finance filing period ended. Bacon had raised $59,302, including $10,000 from the teachers union, while Anderson had raised $16,331.

Espiritu and Bacon have also benefitted from the support of independent expenditure committees. A union-funded group called Brighter Futures for Denver spent $139,000 on Bacon. Two other groups, Students for Education Reform and Raising Colorado, which is associated with Democrats for Education Reform, spent a total of $73,229 on Espiritu.

Sorting the Students

As Nashville heads to court over sharing student information with the state, here’s why Memphis probably won’t

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Nashville's Davidson County Chancery Court building where the state filed against Metro Nashville Public Schools over sharing contact information with charter schools.

Tennessee’s two largest school districts are often in lockstep on key issues. But in a recent tiff with the state about sharing student information with charter schools, the two districts are poised to part ways.

Leaders of Nashville’s school district have repeatedly defied an order from Tennessee’s education commissioner to share student addresses, phone numbers, and other information with the state’s controversial turnaround district, as required by a new state law. The state filed a lawsuit this week in response.

Meanwhile, leaders of the Memphis district have spoken out about the rule — but are preparing to comply. The district has given parents until Sunday, Oct. 22 to opt out of sharing their contact information with charter schools.

Instead of outright rejecting McQueen’s deadline last month like Nashville did, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson sought a compromise and the district has indicated contact information after the opt out window could be shared.

“… we respectfully request you extend your deadline until October 23, 2017 to allow our families the opportunity to make an informed decision regarding their rights and to give our board an opportunity to vote on the release of the data,” Hopson said in a letter to McQueen.

The state education department says it is holding off filing a similar suit against that district, for now. The Memphis district “is still deciding whether to comply, whereas Metro [Nashville] has made its decision already,” state spokeswoman Sara Gast said. “Given that, it is appropriate to file here and then review Shelby’s decision to decide if litigation is necessary.”

Shelby County Schools declined to share how many parents have chosen to opt out so far, but said it plans to share information with its board about the effort next week.

The fight has ignited long-simmering tensions around enrollment and the state’s influence in local schools, and comes on the heels of Metro Nashville Public Schools board voting to join Shelby County Schools in its landmark funding lawsuit against the state.

Memphis leaders have also said that the issue at hand is student privacy, though a robocall to Memphis parents indicated that the main goal of the opt-out process was not to lose students to charter schools.

Memphis’ compromise stance will be good news to groups like parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift, which says it has gathered about 1,200 parent signatures urging Shelby County Schools to release the contact information.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

The legal questions at stake are the first challenge to a slight, but significant, amendment to federal rules

The Nashville school board cited two reasons for defying the state’s order in late August: One is U.S. Department of Education rule that allows districts to have discretion on who gets student directory information. The second was that when state lawmakers crafted the law that requires school districts to share student information, they did not intend for that information to be used for recruitment.

According to Frank LoMonte, a First Amendment lawyer and director of The Brechner Center at the University of Florida, said the lawsuit could have national implications.

“What we’re about to see is the first test of whether the U.S. Department of Education amended rules in 2011 are enforceable or not,” he said. What it comes down to, he said, is if a federal rule can give local districts the permission to violate state law.

The Nashville board’s second justification reflects concerns from State Rep. John Forgety, who chairs a key House education committee. He says the state is misinterpreting the law he helped create.

The state said in a statement that Commissioner Candice McQueen is seeking to confirm her interpretation of the new state law, “ensuring that families can be informed of all public education opportunities available to them.”

Below is a copy of the state’s court filing: