Memphis 13

Students who broke color barrier in Memphis schools 55 years ago say there’s still work to do

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
From left: Harry Williams, Dwania Kyles and Michael Willis, who now goes by Menelik Fombi, were honored at Bruce Elementary for being among the "Memphis 13" who helped integrate the city's public schools.

In October of 1961, three children with police escorts became the first black students to attend the previously all-white Bruce Elementary School in midtown Memphis.

Fifty-five years later, the same three people, now in their early 60s, revisited the historic school on Monday amid cheers and celebration, but also an awareness that education equity remains elusive in public schools.

The school honored three of the 13 men and women, known as the ‘Memphis 13,’ who bridged the racial divide beginning with four elementary schools in the former Memphis City Schools on Oct. 3, 1961.

“The Memphis 13 is a great indicator for why Black Lives Matters is important still for our community,” principal Archie Moss Jr. said in introducing the honorees. “The Memphis 13 made a statement that we will not sit by idly, but we will advocate for what our students need.”

Bruce Elementary Principal Archie Moss Jr. speaks with one of the Memphis 13, Michael Willis (Menelik Fombi).
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Principal Archie Moss Jr. speaks with Memphis 13 member Menelik Fombi.

Bruce Elementary is a very different school from the one that Dwania Kyles, Harry Williams and Michael Willis entered as first-graders. In 1961, Bruce was pristine, the books were new, and its students were mostly from higher income families — a school that Moss, as a black man, acknowledged “wasn’t originally designed for me.” Today, it’s a majority black school, and almost all its students are considered economically disadvantaged.

The families of Kyles, Williams and Willis, who now goes by Menelik Fombi, were recruited to integrate Bruce seven years after the historic Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared state laws unconstitutional in establishing separate public schools for black and white students. The transition happened without violence, but members of the Memphis 13 recall that the experience was challenging every day.

“It was very difficult to find 12 black families (one family had two children in the 13) who were willing to send their 5- and 6-year-olds through that,” Kyles told the crowd. “Our families were fearless. I’m honored to be here today … to be recognized for what we did 55 years ago.”

Moss elaborated after the ceremony that he hopes education equality becomes a main focus of Black Lives Matter, which has had a national focus on police brutality, and has incited debate on whether or not the movement belongs in education reform.

“What the Memphis 13 did was so brave and significant, but it just gets us in the door,” Moss said. “I want to make it so that every child in Memphis and across the nation has access to equal education, regardless of their zip code.”

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a Democrat from Memphis, spoke to the assembly about America’s growing disparity in income, which he called the “racism of today.”

“Even though doors are no longer closed because of race, they are closed because of income inequality,” said Cohen, who is white.

Though students of color now attend any school in the city, all schools are not equal, Fombi told Chalkbeat later. “For students living in great poverty, there is a great lack of resources,” he said. “This still falls on African Americans disproportionately.”

Bruce Elementary choir students perform in honor of the 55th anniversary of the Memphis 13.
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Bruce Elementary choir students perform in honor of the 55th anniversary of the Memphis 13.

The Memphis 13 were recruited by the NAACP with the promise of attending schools closer to their neighborhoods.

They were honored last year with historical markers placed at Bruce, Gordon, Rozelle and Springdale elementary schools. The group garnered renewed interest five years ago, when Daniel Kiel, a Memphis School of Law associate professor, directed a 45-minute documentary film about the students.

“It’s important to honor people who made progress possible, even at a time when we’re not satisfied with the progress,” said Kiel, who was present at the celebration. “It shows where we are, and how far we’ve come, and what there is still left to do.”

Top teacher

Former Tennessee teacher of the year wins prestigious national award

Cicely Woodard, an eighth-grade math teacher in Franklin, receives the 2019 NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence. (Photo courtesy of NEA)

Former Tennessee teacher of the year Cicely Woodard has received the nation’s highest teaching honor through its largest teacher organization.

The eighth-grade math educator in Franklin accepted the Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence from the NEA Foundation. The honor, which includes a $25,000 prize, was presented Friday at a gala in Washington, D.C.

“Teaching can be time-consuming, challenging, and sometimes overwhelming,” said Woodard. “But the impact that we make on the lives of students — and that they make on us — is powerful, life-changing, and enduring.”

A graduate of Central High School in Memphis, Woodard has been a teacher since 2003. She taught in Nashville public schools when she was named Tennessee’s top teacher in 2018 and has since moved to Franklin Special School District in Williamson County, south of Nashville, where she teaches at Freedom Middle School.

Woodard was among 46 educators nominated for the NEA Foundation award by their state education associations and was one of five finalists who received the Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence, which carries an additional $10,000 prize. The Member Benefits Award winner was announced at the finale of the gala attended by 900 people.

“Cicely has been selected for this award by her peers not only because of her mastery as an educator, but also because of the empathy and compassion she shows for her students,” said Harriet Sanford, president and CEO of the NEA Foundation.

Known for her inquiry-based approach to mathematics, Woodard holds a bachelor’s degree in math from the University of Memphis and a master’s degree in secondary math education from Vanderbilt University.

She has had numerous state-level roles, including serving on the education department’s teachers cabinet and on the testing task force created by former Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. She also is on the steering committee for the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a Nashville-based education research and advocacy organization.

You can watch Woodard in her classroom in the video below.

Penny Schwinn

What we heard from Tennessee’s education commissioner during her first week

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn (right) speaks with students during a visit to LEAD Neely's Bend, a state-run charter school in Nashville. (Photo courtesy of LEAD Public Schools)

From students in the classroom to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Penny Schwinn introduced herself as Tennessee’s education commissioner this week by praising the state’s academic gains over the last decade and promising to keep up that momentum by supporting school communities.

Schwinn toured seven schools in Middle and East Tennessee during her first three days on the job to get a firsthand look at what’s behind the academic growth that she’s watched from afar as chief accountability officer for Delaware’s education department and more recently as deputy commissioner over academics in Texas. She plans to visit schools in West Tennessee next week.

The goal, she said, is to “listen and learn,” and she told a statewide gathering of superintendents at midweek that Tennessee’s successes can be traced to the classroom.

“It has to do with the hard work of our educators … every single day getting up, walking in front of our children, and saying ‘You deserve an excellent education, and I’m going to be the one to give it to you,’” she said.

On policy, she affirmed Tennessee’s decade-long blueprint of setting rigorous academic standards, having a strong assessment to track performance, and holding school communities accountable for results.

“If we can keep that bar high … then I think that Tennessee will continue to improve at the rate that it has been,” she told legislators during an appearance before the House Education Committee.

Schwinn was the final cabinet member to start her job after being hired by Republican Gov. Bill Lee just days before his inauguration on Jan. 19. Her whirlwind first week began with school visits on Monday and concluded on Friday by attending a policy-heavy session of the State Board of Education.

But perhaps the biggest introduction came on Wednesday before district leaders attending a statewide meeting of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, also known as TOSS. These are the local administrators she’ll work with most closely to try to improve student performance.

The superintendents group had stayed neutral about who should succeed Candice McQueen in the state’s top policy job but hoped for a leader with extensive experience both in the classroom and as a Tennessee school superintendent. Schwinn is neither, having started her career in a Baltimore classroom through Teach For America and later founding a charter school in her hometown of Sacramento, California, where she also was a principal and then became an assistant district superintendent.

She appeared to wow them.

“Our job at the state Department of Education is to figure out what you all need to help your teachers be the best that they can be for our students. My job is to lead this department to ensure that this happens,” she told the superintendents.

Schwinn shared a personal story about adopting her oldest daughter, now age 6, and the “powerful moment” at the hospital when the birth mom said she loved her baby but couldn’t provide her with the future she deserves. “I think you can,” she told Schwinn, “and so I’m giving you my baby.”

Penny Schwinn speaks to the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents. (Photo courtesy of TOSS)

“When I think about my responsibility as a teacher or a principal or as commissioner of the state of Tennessee, I think about all of our parents … who pack up lunches, pack up backpacks, drop them off at the door and they give us their babies,” she said.

“That is the most powerful and important responsibility that we have as educators,” she said, “and I take that very, very seriously.”

Several superintendents stood up to thank her.

“I am encouraged. I feel like you have the heart that we all have,” said Linda Cash, who leads Bradley County Schools in southeast Tennessee.

“What she did most is she listened,” said TOSS Executive Director Dale Lynch of his earlier meeting with Schwinn. “As superintendents and directors, that’s very important to us.”

Here are other things we heard Schwinn say this week:

On whether Tennessee will continue its 3-year-old literacy program known as Read to be Ready:

“It is incredibly important that we have initiatives that stick and that have staying power. I think we’ve all had the experience of having … one-and-done initiatives that come and go. … From [my early school] visits, it was underscored time and time again the importance of initiatives like that.”

On the role of early childhood education:

“I think that early education — and that’s both academic and social development — is incredibly important to ensure that we get kindergartners who are ready to learn and ready to be successful.”

On the state-run turnaround district for Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools:

“High expectations are the vision of the Achievement School District, but I think there’s a lot of work to be done candidly. There are good conversations to be had and some questions to be asked. But I will say that I am committed to ensuring that our lowest-performing schools achieve and grow at a much faster rate than they have been.”

On Texas’ academic growth in the 1990s that later flattened:

“They got very comfortable. It was, ‘We’re just doing just fine, we’re doing a great job,’ and then slowly some of the big reforms that they put into place in the ’90s started peeling back little by little. … It’s hard to get things done, but it’s really hard to hold the line.”

Here are six other things to know about Penny Schwinn.