real-world experience

Meet the Memphis educator leading the charge to take down her city’s Confederate monuments

PHOTO: Andrea Morales
Tami Sawyer and Earle Fisher lead a rally in response to a white supremacist march in Charlottesville last weekend.

UPDATE: On Dec. 20, the Memphis City Council voted to transfer ownership of the city’s two Confederate monuments to a nonprofit, which allowed for the removal of both the Nathan Bedford Forest and Jefferson Davis monuments from public parks. Read more here

Hours after white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Tami Sawyer’s phone was abuzz.

Some Memphis teachers wanted to talk over their plans to discuss the weekend’s violence with their students. She was also fielding questions from local news outlets about efforts to remove Memphis’ own Confederate statues — the issue that drew white supremacists to the Virginia college town.

The first messages were part of Sawyer’s role at Teach for America, where she serves as the local director of diversity and cultural competence. The others came out of her own activism — and her flurry of responses illustrate what life looks like for many educators stepping outside of the classroom to advocate for social justice.

“It’s a constant wheel,” she said. “I will go to bed probably about 1 a.m. because I stay up on social media and firing off emails and I wake up and I do it all over again tomorrow.”

Sawyer, a 35-year-old Memphis native, is the face of #takeemdown901, the newest campaign to remove two Confederate monuments from parks in downtown Memphis.

It’s a messy fight: The city owns the land, but can’t remove the statues on its own. State officials, angered by a 2015 Memphis city council vote to remove one, took control over what the city can do with its monuments.

And though the city has vowed to sue the state if it blocks the removal of the other monument, Sawyer and others aren’t satisfied with that pace.

“Jefferson Davis is known to have said that it is the duty of the white Christian man to own black people because they are unintelligent,” Sawyer said. “So, why is it important for me? It’s because a man that told me that I was dumb and needed to be picking his cotton can’t stand in my city. My nieces can’t come up under that shadow.”

But the fight against the Confederate monuments is just the latest facet of a longer, and personal, campaign for Sawyer.

She grew up in Memphis and went to St. Mary’s Episcopal, a private school. After graduating from the University of Memphis and spending about a year in law school at Howard University, Sawyer worked for U.S. Navy in Washington focusing on diversity hiring practices.

She returned to Memphis in 2013, as the uproar surrounding the merger and subsequent de-merger of its suburban and city schools was at its height. But local activism, she thought, seemed to be too much talk and too little action.

When 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, she decided to organize a local protest.

“Next thing I knew, I had a lot to say and people listened,” she said. “And I didn’t know what to do with that except to keep talking and keep organizing.”

PHOTO: Andrea Morales
Memphis reacts to the white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville and the violence against counter protestors by gathering at the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue.

In 2015, Sawyer organized a vigil for a black Memphis teen, Darrius Stewart, who was killed by a white police officer. About 200 people gathered, including a large contingent of Teach for America teachers.

TFA teachers “came of their own accord,” Sawyer recalled, “and that was just impressive to me.”

Earle Fisher, a Memphis pastor and activist who is always within arm’s length of Sawyer at rallies or press conferences, noted that day was when the two “met on the battlefield.”

“As has been the case ever since, she was directing me on how things were meant to go at the rally she had organized,” he said. “There’s a reason we call her Tami Lou Hamer.”

Soon after that vigil, Sawyer joined TFA, overhauling the local chapter’s curriculum to help teachers understand how racism and poverty affect their students and their community.

Teach For America is not affiliated with Sawyer’s activism, but her work to remove statues of Jefferson Davis and Nathan Bedford Forrest is in keeping with organization’s recent efforts to connect more with the black and Hispanic communities they serve in.

Athena Turner, the group’s executive director in Memphis, came to the city 11 years ago when 85 percent of the city’s public school students were black and 88 percent of the TFA teachers working in the city were white. Now, about half of TFA teachers are people of color.

“From when I was a corps member to now, the organization has gotten a lot more explicit about the ways in which our commitments and values of diversity and equity and inclusion play out in all aspects of our work,” Turner said. Sawyer’s work, she said, “demonstrates those values pretty explicitly.”

TFA, like many other education organizations, has also grappled with how to help teachers address racism in the classroom in the years following the death of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager killed in 2012. The organization has deep ties to the Black Lives Matter movement that has emerged since: Prominent activists, including DeRay Mckesson and Brittany Packnett, were TFA teachers and later worked for the teacher training organization.

Sawyer herself sees helping teachers understand students’ culture and the broader fight for equity in Memphis as deeply connected. That desire fueled her decision to run, unsuccessfully, for state representative last year.

More recently, just after Sawyer launched an online petition to remove the Confederate statue — a petition that came out of a goal-setting exercise at a TFA summer staff retreat — Sawyer spoke to a group of students at GRAD Academy, a local charter school.

The conversation quickly turned from issues in the classroom to problems in their city.

“I told them you have to self-advocate,” Sawyer recalled. “And then someone said, ‘Is that what you’re doing with these statues?’ And I said yes. We have to advocate for ourselves. No one is going to take these statues down for us, right?”

The next week, several teens from that program showed up at a community meeting she organized.

“I don’t understand why we still have statues of people who didn’t want us to be anything,” 15-year-old Beyonce Cox said. “They didn’t want us African-Americans to have power, they wanted us to stay down.”

Helping students gain that sense of citizenship and agency — for Sawyer, that’s the point of her work.

“You raise an engineer in South Memphis who can figure out how to run a metro through Memphis because he’s going to remember how his mom and grandma couldn’t get around and carrying groceries in the rain,” she said.

“In the grand scheme of things, taking down the statues won’t change transportation. It won’t change access to fresh foods or economic justice. But it will teach us how to advocate for ourselves.”

End of an era

After leading the Memphis district through a turbulent time, Hopson thinks student achievement will ‘accelerate’

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Dorsey Hopson is leaving Shelby County Schools after nearly six years at the helm.

Attorney Dorsey Hopson took over Tennessee’s largest school district when it was in turmoil — what he described as “a mess.”

Not many would argue with his perspective. Shelby County Schools was in the midst of the nation’s largest merger of city and suburban school districts when Hopson started full-time work as superintendent in 2013. Students were leaving the district. The divide between affluent families and poor ones was growing.

But by the end of his tenure, the state department of education held up Memphis as a model of school turnaround efforts, particularly the district’s Innovation Zone. Test scores in every subject are up, even though Hopson knows they still have a long way to go.

“But now, and I think with the right attention, and the right special attention, you can see student achievement accelerate at a much more rapid pace,” he told Chalkbeat.


Related: City leaders say Hopson was the ‘right leader for a fragile time’


Now, almost six years later, Hopson is headed to a new challenge at health care giant Cigna. We sat down with him during his final days in the district’s top job to discuss his work and hope for the future.

(This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.)

You often talk about the poverty experienced by students and families in Shelby County. Do you think the rest of the state gets this?

No, because I think it’s one thing to hear about poverty. It’s another thing to see it. I think about when I got back to Memphis, we had a case and we had to go up to North Memphis. Kimberly (executive assistant) had given me, back then, a MapQuest to a house and I pull up. And I pull up and I’m thinking, like the house is boarded up and the stairs are falling down, maybe it’s the wrong house. I’m getting ready to call Kim and they say come on in. So, I go inside and it was literally like seven or eight mattresses on the floor, a bunch of fans going. You could see roaches walking around and all over the place. This is where our kids live! This is just me the lawyer who had been back four or five months. So, that just hit me like a ton of bricks.

As you go forward, when I took this role and was looking at some of the data that 40,000 kids live in households with less than $10,000, it dawned on me that’s what that looks like. I think when people think about poverty — there’s poverty, and then there’s Memphis poverty. We are one of the poorest districts and communities in the country. That is suffocating poverty.

If you’re a legislator in East Tennessee and you see a stat around poverty, it’s easy to start talking about bootstraps and all these different kind of things when your vision or thinking around poverty is not seven mattresses on the floor and a bunch of fans. I don’t think it resonates. The reality of it doesn’t smack people in the face like it should or like it does if you’re here. It presents very big challenges for everybody if you have that many kids. It’s not insurmountable, but it’s tough.

How did you take a district operating in the red to investing millions in the classroom?

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson in 2015 discusses the district’s school funding lawsuit against the state of Tennessee as former board members Chris Caldwell and Teresa Jones offer their support.

A lot of stuff. An example is obviously school closures. I think also most importantly is really pushing people around their budgets. People say I’ve got all these different heads and they say here’s my budget and here’s what I can cut. When Lin [Johnson, chief of finance] got here, we would sit down for hours, upon hours, upon hours with people going through all their budgets. It’s a lot when [a district chief] has a $200 million budget. We said we’re going to spend the next three days in my conference room — me and Lin and this person — and you got to explain to me why this is. A lot of the chiefs didn’t really understand what was in their budget. So, when you really go line by line and challenge and push, and prod, and then encourage people, and suggest to people alternative ways to do things, that makes a difference.

I think about our transportation for example. We had these routes that we had been running forever. We cut $9 million out of transportation and it wasn’t a lot of pushback and there wasn’t a lot of issues with it either.

My leadership style was such that you got to inspect what you expect. I think the legal training helped me to be very inquisitive in areas even if I didn’t really know and some people may just take for granted. And not to say people were giving you fluff or not being honest. I just think people have to be pushed to think different.

I think about when we were first starting this, we were just cutting because of the merger. If we had time to be more thoughtful like we learned to do over time, we probably could have caused a whole lot less pain.

We’ve got to talk about grade tampering. When that emerged in 2016, in the end only two people were fired and the investigation was closed because of lack of documentation. Are you satisfied with its outcome, and why should stakeholders have confidence in the integrity of the district’s grading practices now?

I can talk about what we’ve done afterward. I think that it depends on what you mean with ‘satisfied with the outcome.’ I’m still disappointed and mad that any educators would engage in stuff like that because ultimately, it cheats kids. For many of our parents and our families, the school district is that institution that represents hope. And so when you have anybody who undermines that, particularly for selfish and stupid reasons, illegal reasons and unethical reasons, I’m still deeply offended and upset that happened.

"For many of our parents and our families, the school district is that institution that represents hope. And so when you have anybody who undermines that ... I’m still deeply offended and upset that happened."Dorsey Hopson

But also having said that, when you find out something happens, all you can really do is try to figure out what happened and then, most importantly, I think in these situations put processes in place to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. Or if it does happen, you can quickly detect it. And then finally, when you find out there were wrongdoers, I think you have to take appropriate action.

The people from the auditing firm said we can keep digging and we can take your money, but it’s not likely that we’re going to find anything. So, our recommendation is to lay out these recommendations that we’ve given you to make sure this stuff doesn’t happen anymore. And we followed all those recommendations.

So, why did you not want Shelby County Schools staff to continue digging deeper on that if you didn’t want to pay the outside firm to do it?

It’s the same processes. The issue was: changing a grade isn’t, on its face, anything wrong with that. It’s just that is it a legitimate reason for a grade change? And the best way to determine whether there was a legitimate reason was the documentation. So, if you go back five years for these schools and you can’t validate the documentation, then you’re not going to ever know.

If they couldn’t do it and they’re the experts, I wouldn’t expect our people to know how to do it.

Plus, one of the things that I was comfortable with was the objectivity that happened with the whole grading thing. We didn’t do it. We had outside people do it. We had a former U.S. attorney do it. We had a forensic accounting firm do it. So, I think that if we start taking those files and taking it to our people, I don’t think that we’d be objective if we did that.

Your facilities plan presented last month was a pretty big mic drop moment. Why now?

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson with students at A.B. Hill Elementary School in Memphis celebrating academic progress.

I wanted to make sure that it was something that I could at least produce before I left because I had been working on it with the team for so long. I didn’t think it was fair to ask (interim superintendent) Dr. Ray or anybody else to lead that.

At the end of the day, whatever the combination of schools are, whatever the right places to build are, you got to do something. You cannot continue to carry on these underutilized facilities that are in bad shape. Not if you expect to be able to continue the momentum.

But that’s going to require resources. You can do that when you have a plan that would help you have more money for your operating budget, reduce your deferred maintenance and then put kids in new schools. So, that seemed to me, it will go a long way, probably at least for the next 15 or 20 years in terms of stability or sustainability.

Over your time as superintendent, you closed nearly 20 schools. Do you think it’s led to better academic outcomes for kids?

I think in some instances. You get better over time, right? I think that certainly we think about Westhaven. That was the model that we’re trying to go for now. At first, keep in mind, there was the transition planning commission [during the historic merger of city and county school systems] that says you need to close 50 schools. And they made the case to close the schools to save money to close the budget gap. So, I think that initially Dorsey Hopson, a lawyer-turned-superintendent had been doing this for three or four months and has this plan that says let’s go close schools. And then you get so much backlash because it’s so much more than about the money — it’s the community hub many schools are, it’s the blight that happens if you don’t properly dispose of the building. So, you get to realize it’s not even worth it if it’s just about money.

But on the flip side, if it’s going to be about student achievement, then it does become worth it.


Related: What happens to student achievement when Memphis schools close? District report offers some answers.


So, I think about when we closed schools like Northside and Carver that literally had right around 200 kids. So, you just could not offer academic coursework, Advanced Placement classes and stuff like that at a high level when you have so few kids. And plus, you have so much extra dollars just to supplement so they can have a whole slate of teachers. So, I think the focus there was we are closing schools and take these kids to a school that is bigger with more kids where we can do more offerings.

"(Closing schools is) so much more than about the money — it’s the community hub many schools are, it’s the blight that happens if you don’t properly dispose of the building"Dorsey Hopson

But I don’t think that was the right approach either because there’s so much under the hood before you get to improving achievement.

And then the next round, we said let’s truly if we’re going to do these combinations, let’s truly invest in the school. And I think the best example is Westhaven. We’re going to invest in human capital there, we’re going to invest in additional operational dollars and give the leader more flexibility. I think that’s been great. (The state has recognized the school as having some of the highest academic growth both years it has been open.)

Let’s talk about Destination 2025, the district’s ambitious plan to improve education by 2025. Out of 39 academic goals, nine were met in the most recent annual report. What happened?

I think the new state standards were a wake-up call. Our graduation rate has increased since I took the job, but the college readiness has not. So, when you are testing college-ready standards starting in ninth grade that’s hard when kindergarten through eighth grade you weren’t being prepared for those standards and all of a sudden you show up. And not to mention, even under the old standards, people were falling behind.

Even though we did our K-8 standards-based curriculum, we still don’t have a standards-based curriculum for high school. I suspect we’ll make a recommendation around that this year.

That’s just going to be some hard work of years, rolling up the sleeves and getting better and better and better.

How would you describe your legacy?

I think that’s for other people to describe. I would hope to be remembered as a servant leader. And I think that the characteristics of a servant leader is first you got to be humble. I think this was a very humbling experience for me and I approached it from a humble standpoint because I’m a lawyer. I knew I couldn’t come in here and say I knew everything.

I think too probably more specifically around legacy, I think we’ll be remembered for fixing a lot of the operational challenges that came with the [merged] district. People forget: when we merged, it was a mess. Literally a mess.

I think that started with being able to fix the finances. We started in the red every time. There’s no wiggle room. So, I think just being able to put together consistent plans to address that stuff — part of which required buy-in from the community and getting more dollars from the county commission — but then also doing the work to get the money in order. I would hope that’s part my legacy.

Any political aspirations in your future?

No. I have people all the time saying I was running for Congress, I was running for mayor, I was going to be the next education commissioner.

When I think about all the different public roles here in Memphis, I don’t think there’s any more high-impact public position that you could have than superintendent. What you’re doing, it affects so many folks. I just know the fishbowl and the constant public grind and the board meetings and the politics and all that. I can safely sit here and say I have no desire to ever be involved in a public role.

It will be so good to be able to send an email and not have somebody ask for it. It will be good not to eat, breathe and sleep something that becomes a part of who you are. You don’t get to be off as superintendent. I can’t be in the grocery store and say sorry I’m off. You’re superintendent regardless. So, just to have some sense of normalcy will be awesome.

New leader

Lee picks Texas academic chief Penny Schwinn as Tennessee’s next education commissioner

Penny Schwinn will be Tennessee's education commissioner under Bill Lee's administration. Lee announced her hiring on Thursday, two days before his inauguration as governor. (Photo courtesy of Bill Lee Transition Team)

Fast facts about Schwinn

  • Age: 36
  • Hometown: Sacramento, California
  • Bachelor of Arts, University of California-Berkeley, 2004
  • Master of Arts in Teaching, Johns Hopkins University, 2006
  • Ph.D. in Education Policy, Claremont Graduate University, 2016

An educator who began her career with Teach For America and has been the academic chief for Texas will be Tennessee’s next education commissioner.

Penny Schwinn was tapped Thursday by Gov.-elect Bill Lee to join his administration in one of his most important and closely watched cabinet picks.

She will leave her job as chief deputy commissioner of academics for the Texas Education Agency, where she has been responsible since 2016 for school programs, standards, special education, and research and analysis, among other things.

Lee praised Schwinn’s experience as both a teacher and administrator, and his announcement touted her work in Texas to repair the state’s testing program and expand ways to get students ready for college and career.

“Penny leads with students at the forefront,” Lee said, “and I believe her experience is exactly what we need to continue improving on the gains we have made in the past few years.”

Schwinn is one of Lee’s last cabinet hires before he’s sworn in on Saturday, and she will be one of his highest-profile commissioners. The governor-elect pledged to improve public education in a state that has seen gains on national tests in recent years, even as it has struggled to transition to online exams with its own testing program.

Schwinn is viewed as a student-focused reformer but also has been criticized for the changes that she shepherded in multiple states.

“Whenever you’re talking about school improvement, that is a very difficult conversation because we’re talking about our kids and we’re often talking about change,” she told Chalkbeat. “At the end of the day, our work is about the students and what we do for them.”

Before taking her job in Texas, she was an assistant education secretary in Delaware, and previously served as an assistant superintendent in Sacramento, California, where she grew up and was an elected school board member.

She started her education career in 2004 with Teach For America, one of the nation’s largest alternative teacher training programs, and taught high school history and economics for Baltimore public schools. Returning to her hometown, she founded Capitol Collegiate Academy, a K-8 charter school serving low-income students similar to those that her mother taught for four decades.

Last year, she was the youngest of three finalists to be considered for Massachusetts’ education commissioner, a job that went to Jeffrey Riley, a native of the state.

In Tennessee, Schwinn will execute Lee’s vision on policies affecting about a million public school students, a third of whom come from low-income families.

She said that she and Lee are committed to providing all Tennessee children with access to a high-quality education and share values of transparency and honesty in reporting how students are progressing — all priorities of the previous Republican administration under Gov. Bill Haslam.

“Tennessee is a bellwether state in our country right now. The growth and improvement that we’ve seen here is impressive, and it needs to be built on,” Schwinn said.

With his choice, Lee has gone outside of Tennessee and traditional classroom training, so she will have to work steadily to build trust with the state’s numerous stakeholders in public education. Groups that represent superintendents and teachers had urged the Republican businessman to choose homegrown talent with a deep knowledge of education policy in Tennessee.

Schwinn spent much of Thursday in Nashville meeting with educators and school advocates and was welcomed with optimism.

“Schwinn shares Governor-elect Bill Lee’s commitment to support teachers, reduce our testing burden, and improve the working invironment, including more compensation,” said JC Bowman, executive director of the Professional Educators of Tennessee, an organization representing teachers.

Several leaders noted that her work to troubleshoot test administration problems in Texas should be an asset as Tennessee works to resolve its own online challenges with TNReady, now in its fourth year.

“Assessment delivery must become first in class, and Dr. Schwinn has experience administering assessment programs in two states,” said David Mansouri, president and CEO of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education.

In her first Tennessee interview, Schwinn said that TNReady will be her first priority as spring testing approaches on April 15. “Our job is to think about how to get online testing as close to perfect as possible for our students and educators, and that is going to be a major focus,” she said.

PHOTO: TN.gov
As outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam looks on, Gov.-elect Bill Lee speaks at the state Capitol the day after being elected the 50th governor of Tennessee.

Schwinn follows two education commissioners under Haslam — Lipscomb University Dean Candice McQueen and Teach For America executive Kevin Huffman — who were also reform-minded leaders hired following national searches. In particular, Huffman was a frequently divisive leader who left after three years of clashing with teacher groups, superintendents, and state lawmakers over policies ranging from teacher licensing and evaluations to charter schools and academic standards.

Setting and overseeing public education policy is among the biggest responsibilities of state government, which spends $5 billion of its $37.5 billion budget on schools and is required under federal law to administer annual tests to assess student progress.

During his campaign, Lee said that education would be one of his top priorities, promising a renewed focus on career, technical and agricultural education; more competitive pay for educators; a closer look at the state’s testing program; and more education options for parents to choose from.

Schwinn’s job will be to help Lee implement that vision, according to McQueen, who calls the state’s top education job “a unique opportunity.”

“You’re also making sure that public education is being supported well around resources and human capital and that you have high expectations for all students, not just certain groups. You have to elevate equity in every single thing you do,” McQueen told Chalkbeat last month before stepping down to become CEO of a national group focused on teacher quality.

Among Schwinn’s first tasks will be overseeing the transition to one or more companies that will take over TNReady beginning next school year. McQueen ordered a new request for testing proposals after a third straight year of problems administering and scoring the state’s assessment under current vendor Questar and previous vendor Measurement Inc. Questar officials say they plan to pursue the state’s contract again.

In Texas, a 2018 state audit criticized Schwinn’s handling of two major education contracts, including a no-bid special education contract that lost the state more than $2 million.

In Tennessee, an evaluation committee that includes programmatic, assessment, and technology experts will help to decide the new testing contract, and state lawmakers on the legislature’s Government Operations Committee provide another layer of oversight.

Schwinn also will work with the governor’s office to allocate resources for education in accordance with the first state budget pounded out by Lee and the legislature. For instance, the governor-elect said frequently he wants a greater emphasis in career and technical education in schools — an idea that is popular with legislators. But legislators also want money to hire more law enforcement officers to police schools. And despite increased allocations for teacher pay, salaries for the state’s educators continue to trail the national average.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information.