Movers & shakers

Three things Willie Herenton has to say about Memphis education today

PHOTO: Larry Robinson
Willie Herenton (at left), former Memphis City Schools superintendent and the city's first black mayor, records a podcast at LPI Studios.

Since Willie W. Herenton left the helm of the former Memphis City Schools in 1991 after 12 years as its superintendent, the city’s education landscape has changed dramatically.

No Child Left Behind Act. Race to the Top. The advent of charter schools. A historic school merger — and subsequent de-merger. The arrival of the state-run Achievement School District.

A former Memphis mayor who is now CEO of his own charter network, Herenton says the community is not supporting its public education system as much as it can or should to lift its schoolchildren out of poverty.

Herenton spoke about the challenges during a Funky Politics podcast, which aired this week. At 76, he is now the CEO of W.E B. Du Bois Consortium of Charter Schools, which operates six schools in Memphis and one in Atlanta. Four of the Memphis schools are among the state’s bottom 5 percent of low-performing schools.

(Disclosure: Chalkbeat Tennessee is partnering with The Funky Politics on a podcast series exploring national education reform and its impact on Memphis.)

As Memphis’ first black mayor, Herenton is a trailblazer and also a mammoth personality in local politics. He remains a powerful figure in the city and is revered in many neighborhoods. Born in 1940, he also is the product of a racially segregated school system, where books were often hand-me-downs from white schools in the city.

Here are three things Herenton had to say about the state of Memphis education today:

1. Charter schools are not anti-traditional schools.

As a charter school operator, Herenton said freedoms afforded to charter schools bolster efforts to close achievement gaps between poor and affluent white, black and Hispanic students. That goal has yet to be realized.

“There is a direct correlation between economic status and academic achievement. That has not been broken,” he said.

Still, Herenton said taxpayer money siphoned off from school districts to charter schools should not be held to the same scrutiny as money allocated to private schools if vouchers were to pass in Tennessee.

“There’s a prevailing belief that charter schools take away funds from public schools,” he said. “It’s exercising the right of a parent to send their child to any school they want to send them and the funds will follow the child. … Charter schools were designed to give parents more options in the marketplace.”

PHOTO: The Commercial Appeal
Willie Herenton

2. A good education is important, but is only part of the equation to break students out of poverty.

“Back in the old days, we had a burning desire for education. We just believed education was the passport out of … the slums,” Herenton said. “It produced a lot of us who were first-generation college graduates. I was a first-generation college graduate.”

Now, he said, wraparound services such as health, mental health and community development are necessary to help.

“What I’m finding out now is how many African-American families engage in a holistic kind of way to break the cycle of poverty. How do we create more opportunities for African-American kids who may be in impoverished conditions — who may, like me, not have a father in the home? How do we get them to break out of the poverty cycle so that they get to college, so their children (can)?” he asked.

In recent years, Herenton has aimed those questions toward the intersection of education and juvenile justice systems. In June, Shelby County’s governing body endorsed Herenton’s plan for a juvenile rehabilitation facility in the city’s Frayser community to provide medical and mental health care and educational and vocational training.

Herenton opened a school with a similar mission in 2013 but had to abruptly close it a few weeks later. He said not enough students were being redirected from the juvenile justice system.

3. Re-engaging the black middle and upper class is crucial to the success of public education.

After school integration efforts and the steady population shift of wealthy black and white families to the suburbs, the city’s black community lost power, Herenton said. To reverse that trend, black people who are more affluent must actively provide opportunities to others seeking to break the cycle of poverty.

“Now, some brothers and sisters that get in the middle class and make six digits, they become oblivious of their past and history. They forget why, how they got there, and what they were supposed to do when they get there,” he said.

Herenton said he was criticized for intentionally providing opportunities to African-Americans during his political career. But he insists that black people in positions of power must provide those opportunities.

“My purpose was to educate but to empower people who had been left out. … People don’t do that now as a mission,” he said. “That was what I was supposed to do: create opportunity for my people.”

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.