Team USA

Teaching makes me a better athlete, says Memphis educator bound for the Olympics

PHOTO: Carter Malone Group
Sable Otey, a 31-year-old physical education teacher for Shelby County Schools in Memphis, is a member of the U.S. bobsled team at the Winter Olympics in South Korea.

Sable Otey is both a teacher and an athlete, striking a synergy that motivates her students as well as herself.

And soon, the physical education teacher from Memphis will head to South Korea to support her teammates competing in the Olympics as a member of the U.S. bobsledding team.

Perseverance, discipline, hard work, and being a lifelong learner — they’re qualities that Otey has developed in both endeavors and now seeks to pass along to her students at Lowrance K-8.

But her path to international competition started in impoverished circumstances, similar to that of many of her students.

Otey grew up in Memphis’ Binghamton neighborhood, where she was raised by a grandmother who struggled to make ends meet. Her track and field coach at East High School, Danny Young, often dropped off food with her family when money was low. And her high school Spanish teacher, Malika Collins, was so influential in Otey’s life that she now calls Collins her godmother.

“She saw that this girl struggling; she saw my grandma, a single mom, working hard. She saw this girl needs some help; this girl needs some guidance,” said Otey, who graduated from East in 2005. “She’s always motivating. She’s always inspiring. … I don’t know what I would have done without her.”

Otey went on to become a track and field star at George Mason University in Virginia and was on track to compete in the 2012 Olympics when she became pregnant with her son. In 2015, her Olympic dreams were rekindled when a friend encouraged her to try out for the U.S. Olympic bobsledding team. Now a member of the U.S. team, she fell short of qualifying for the top spots to compete in the 2018 Games, but decided to travel to South Korea anyway to support her teammates.

Otey, 31, spoke with Chalkbeat about how teaching has influenced her as an athlete and how she’s sharing Olympic dreams with her students.

What’s your typical day like?

It’s a lot of work. The support of the school, the support of the principal does help; it plays a major role. It’s tough, though. Most lunch breaks I take a nap because I’m tired from training. I train before work and then I teach, take a nap at lunch, and then train after work and pick my son up and try and spend time with my family. The next day, I start the same thing over again. I have a plan, a daily plan, and I just try to get everything done on my plan. It’s exhausting, but you’re motivated so you find your “why” and keep pushing because of that.

So, what is your “why”?

My thing was I was trying to find my purpose. I told my goddad, who is a pastor, “What’s my purpose?” He said, “You’re living it!” But I realized I have been an inspiration to so many people, so many kids, so many adults even in my community. Just coming from Binghamton being told some of the things that some of the kids are being told now that they’re not going to be anything. They’re not going to get a college degree. I’ve overcome all of those obstacles. I have a master’s degree in education. I’m a world-class athlete, wife, and a mother. I’ve overcome so many barriers.

I think it’s my job to do that because it’s a village. Back when villages were raising people, a village actually raised me: my principals, my teachers, people in my community. All of those people helped me become who I am today. I don’t know my biological dad. My goddad stepped in and has taken care of me, treating me like one of his own kids. My grandma took care of me because my mom had me when she was 15. My mom was around, but my mom was young, so my grandma took on that duty.

I deal with a lot of kids and they explain their issues to me. So, I said the same stuff you’re going through, I went through the same thing. And had I let my circumstances determine who I was going to be or had I let those situations put those limitations on my life, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

How has your school been involved in your Olympic pursuits?

PHOTO: Courtesy of Sable Otey
Otey pushes several students in a makeshift bobsled.

I get so much energy from the kids. They’re so excited about this. They’ll say, “What’s our workout today, coach?” They’re excited to be in P.E. Most kids these days, they don’t want to be in P.E. They don’t want to sweat their hair out; they don’t want to mess up anything, mess their clothes up. They give me a great deal of motivation, just to talk to these kids and build personal relationships with these kids.

I keep them up to speed with everything. They’re really into the actual training so they always ask me so many questions about my workout and what they can do. But the kids are still growing and they’re not ready to do weightlifting training, so I show them alternative things they can do instead of lifting weights. And then I show them videos of what it is that I do. (Otey plans to take short videos to send to her students while she is overseas.)

What are some of the things about being a teacher that have made you a better athlete, or vice versa?

PHOTO: Courtesy of Sable Otey

Perseverance both ways. Being a teacher, pressing through no matter what. No matter all the adversities that I face, just constantly pressing through. And being able to share that with the kids. When you can actually talk to them and actually relate to them as a real person they take well to that. They’re excited to see you, they’re excited to listen and actually do what the lesson requires. So, it just kind of piggybacks off of one another. I learn from both aspects as a teacher and a world-class athlete because I was never the best athlete. I’ve always had to work to get there. My cousin wouldn’t even work that hard at practice and then go to a track meet and she’d be great. For me, I had to work three times as hard to get to that level and maintain. A lot of times I got to places because my coach saw my work ethic. He saw how hard I tried and how dedicated I was. And I tell that to my kids too. You might not even be the best, but we see you if you’re actually trying. We’re not going to overlook that. And people in the real world will see that. They see this person is a hard worker. He’s coachable. He’s going to try his best and give you 110 percent. You’re not going to get overlooked because you’re not a Michael Jordan.

In this sport, I had to learn to be a student again. I’ve always been in a situation where people asked me for help. And for me to go to this sport, I had to learn to humble myself a little bit and actually listen. I realized you have to be coachable as an adult, as an athlete. This translates over to the real world as well. It’s not just inside of a classroom.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Sable Otey
Sable Otey practices with the U.S. Olympic bobsledding team.

Correction: Feb. 23, 2018: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that Otey is an alternate on the U.S. Olympic bobsledding team. She did not make the Olympic team but is a member of the U.S. national team and traveled to South Korea to support her teammates.

Movers and shakers

Success Academy COO leaving for another charter network

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Success Academy hosts its annual "Slam the Exam" rally at the Barclays Center.

A top official at New York City’s largest charter network is leaving for another network, Success Academy officials confirmed Monday.

Kris Cheung, the chief operating officer at Success Academy, is headed to Texas for an operations job at KIPP. Rob Price, Success’s chief financial officer, is also leaving his post. The moves were first reported by Gothamist.

“As Success scales to 100 schools, we have hired several new leaders this past year — general counsel, chief of technology and head of leadership and human resources,” Success spokeswoman Ann Powell said. “While Kris Cheung, who has spent seven years with Success, is leaving to work in Texas for another charter network, Rob Price will continue as a consultant.”

Cheung was promoted to oversee operations in the shake-up that followed a 2015 school-supply fiasco required network staff to work nights and weekend days sorting boxes and furniture on Long Island.

The moves leave the network, which has ambitions to grow to 100 schools, with key positions to fill. Dan Loeb, Success’s board chair, also stepped down recently (and was replaced by Steven Galbraith); founder Eva Moskowitz lost another key ally in Emily Kim, the network’s former top lawyer, in 2017.

The city’s 46 Success Academy schools are known for their high test scores, strict discipline, Moskowitz’s fights with Mayor Bill de Blasio, and controversies around pushing out students and a much-publicized video showing a teacher ripping student work.

KIPP spokesman Steve Mancini said Cheung’s precise role is still being decided. That network’s well-known co-founder, Mike Feinberg, was fired in February after a sexual misconduct investigation.

One year in

A year after Nikolai Vitti arrived in Detroit, a look back at his application shows what’s changed

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti interviewed for the job on March 30, 2017.

Next week will mark a full year since Superintendent Nikolai Vitti arrived in Detroit, taking on one of the most daunting jobs in American education.

As leader of the state’s largest district, he faced a long list of challenges: hundreds of vacant teaching positions, deteriorating buildings, dismal test scores, a total lack of systems for finances and hiring — the legacy, Vitti says, of the state-appointed emergency managers who ran the district for years before his arrival.

One year later, it remains to be seen whether Vitti will be able deliver the hopeful turnaround he promised in his 27-page application. It’s far too soon to look for real signs of progress — like higher test scores — because major changes to schools like a new curriculum won’t be implemented until next school year. But enrollment is up slightly, budgets have been balanced, and teacher salaries are on the rise.

Below, we return to his application — his blueprint for the district — to mark the things that have happened, the plans that have been made, and the work still left to do.

Click on the highlighted text to compare Vitti’s words with his actions and read our coverage of his first year in the district.


Candidate File for Nikolai Vitti

DETROIT PUBLIC SCHOOLS

COMMUNITY DISTRICT

Superintendent Search

2017-18

Please accept this letter as my official application to serve as the superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD), I am applying for this extraordinary challenge and opportunity because of my deep and unwavering belief in urban public education and my love for my home city of Detroit. The city’s voters have demanded and received an elected School Board, The School Board’s success will rest upon its decision to select the right leader who has the vision, track record, experience, commitment, strength, and perseverance for the job. I believe that I am that leader who is ready to collaboratively own the success of DPSCD’s future with the Board,

I offer the Board a child-centric and seemingly outside, objective perspective of how we can build the district into the best urban school district in the nation, while simultaneously doing that work with the empathy and sensitivities of a Detroiter. Growing up in Metro Detroit, my family and I have directly experienced the challenges of immigration, single motherhood, teenage pregnancy, unemployment, alcoholism, and foreclosures. My immediate and extended family represents the spirit and diversity of Detroit as we are a collection of ethnic Whites, African-Americans, Latinos, Whites, and Arab-Americans. From delivering the Detroit Free Press at 5 a.m. or parking cars on Michigan Avenue for the Tigers’ game to supplement our family’s income, to my grandmother working for Ford as an hourly cashier or my grandparents and father working in the factory at the River Rouge plant, to my mother earning her GED after dropping out of high school as a teenage mother and working to this day as a hairdresser, to my father eventually graduating from Wayne State University or my family running a pizzeria, Detroit is in my blood and I am eager to return home and serve the city.

An unbridled passion and drive to catch up to my peers, along with the work ethic and pride of my family, led me to focus my college experience exclusively on reading, studying, and writing to better understand myself and the world. Despite struggling through my K-12 experience due to undiagnosed dyslexia and a family home structure that did not always feel comfortable advocating for academic excellence, I quickly realized that my college education was a vehicle to my own self-actualization and empowerment. It was there where I also reunited with my father. However, empowerment did not mean more for myself, it meant building my capacity and confidence to empower others. After considering law, medicine, and even film, I decided that the greatest vehicle for social justice and transformation, at scale, was public education. I began that work as a teacher and eventually as a superintendent to assume greater responsibility and ownership for the learning environments that all of our children deserve.

Traditional public education is at a perceived crisis, whether that crisis is truly legitimate or exaggerated for political and ideological reasons, we must conduct our work with greater strategy, efficiency, and transparency in order to produce stronger outcomes. I offer the Board and community an expansive track record of success with transforming some of the most challenged learning environments at the classroom, school, district, and state levels that mirror those in Detroit. This work has occurred as a practitioner in the Bronx, Miami, in several urban communities in Florida, and most recently in Jacksonville, FL. I have only served in traditional public schools because of my deep belief that this is where our work is most important. The only way our nation can meet its professed ethos of equal opportunity is to ensure a strong public education system is ever present. Detroit can only restore its greatness with a strong public school system.

My initial contract in Jacksonville was from November, 2012 to June, 2016. It was renewed early on a 7-0 School Board vote for a three year extension. I am in the first year of that three year extension. I admit that our work in Jacksonville is incomplete but at the same time I can confidently state that I will leave the district in a better place than I assumed it four years ago. This is evidenced through historic achievement levels and improvement in graduation rates, the National Assessment in Educational Progress (NAEP), district grade, and post-secondary readiness among several other indicators.

Four years ago Duval County was seven percentage points from the state average, today it is nearly one percentage point away with an improvement of over Ti percentage points. Today our African-American graduation rate leads all large urban school districts in Florida, our achievement gap between White and African-American students is the narrowest in reading, math, and Algebra among the largest districts in Florida and one of the narrowest among the largest districts in the nation according to NAEP. We have increased post-secondary college readiness in reading by 11 percentage points from 73% to 84%, and a 17 percentage points in math from 55% to 72%. African-American post-secondary readiness for reading has improved from 67% to 81%, and in mathematics from 39% to 66% over the past four years. We have been a “B” district for consecutive years for the first time in years. The performance of nearly all groups of students have improved in the vast majority state assessments after the second year of new standards, and performance is due to improve again this year based on mid-year internal assessments.

I would leave Duval County with an infrastructure that has been solidified in the areas of technology, blended learning, budget alignment to a Strategic Plan, art and music programming, data systems, curriculum selection and adoption for the new standards, school programming with an emphasis on STEM, accelerated courses, and Career Academies, leadership development at the school and district level, alternative and over-age schools, schools avoiding state sanction, redesign of low enrolled and struggling schools, and the concentration of stronger leaders and teachers in struggling schools.

I apply for this position knowing that I am returning home and that the School Board and community need leadership sustainability. I have been asked to apply to several superintendent positions, charter networks, and private companies over the years; Jacksonville was the only district in which I applied for my first superintendency and I am now only applying for this opportunity. I fully embrace and would only request a long-term commitment with the School Board to begin the problem solving process to improve the school district.

The School Board is seeking a leader with the capacity, confidence, and experience to work with the State and local communities to turnaround lower performing schools. I have demonstrated this ability as a teacher, principal, assistant superintendent, chief academic officer, state administrator, and superintendent in several large urban school districts throughout the country. As a cabinet member who served three National Superintendents of the Year and as an essential member of a district team that won the Broad Prize in Educational Excellence while being highlighted for turnaround work by the USDOE and FLDOE, I will be able to provide the State of Michigan with the assurance that we can be trusted to improve student achievement and ensure financial transparency. We will regain the right to govern our school district independently.

I envision a school district where all students are college ready or well prepared for high level employment. This will occur because our students will learn to be critical thinkers, problem solvers, and leaders. We will support and develop our current and future leaders and teachers, and support them with the right tools, curriculum and data systems, and wraparound services to address our students’ socioemotional challenges. Our students will experience the expansion and exposure of an arts education while gaining a greater appreciation for their culture and community. We will expand business partnerships for internships, while building the capacity of our parents and respecting their voice. Our students will be safe and learn through their mistakes by ensuring a progressive discipline model. We will restore the confidence of parents and their children who will return from charter and private schools.

The resurgence of Detroit is underway. As a School Board and superintendent team we will accelerate that progress and ensure its success.

Read Vitti’s full application, including his resume and references, in the document below.