Movers & shakers

Principal of community school promoted to help spread the model in Memphis

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Lori Phillips speaks at a Stand For Children panel event in February 2018. She will oversee spreading the community schools model in Memphis.

The founding principal of Memphis’ first “community school” has taken a new position leading efforts to engage families across the entire school district.

Lori Phillips became Shelby County Schools’ director of family and community engagement earlier this month, in a move that underscores the district’s commitment to expanding the community schools model.

District leaders said last summer that they plan to expand the model, which aims to meet students’ social and family needs as well as their academic ones, to up to 15 schools in the next three years. Spokeswoman Natalia Powers said last week that the district plans to convert three schools to community schools this fall but has not yet chosen them.

In her new role, Phillips will be responsible for leading that expansion. She’ll be able to draw on her experience at Belle Forest Community School, the elementary school in southeast Memphis that Phillips founded five years ago.

In keeping with the community schools model, Belle Forest houses a medical clinic and offers computer and financial literacy classes for parents. It also partners with local businesses and organizations to mitigate the impact of poverty seeping into the classroom. About 70 percent of students at Belle Forest are from low-income families.

It’s an approach that has grown in popularity as school districts across the country have recognized that more narrow efforts to improve student learning have not paid off. New York City has turned more than 100 schools into community schools, with mixed results. Colorado lawmakers are working to define and expand the model there. And in Tennessee, the approach has the backing of gubernatorial candidate Randy Boyd, who called community schools “one place to start” in improving low-performing schools.


Do community schools and wraparound services boost academics? Here’s what we know.


Shelby County Schools officials have lauded the work at Belle Forest but questioned the model’s cost. Community organizations and business would chip in for resources for the new community schools, but the district estimates its cost at about $100,000 per school. While that would represent a substantial new cost, it also would be one of the least expensive school improvement models that Shelby County Schools has replicated in recent years.

“We now have enough data that it’s a selling point,” Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin said at a panel event last fall. “And so we just need some advocates and people to help us replicate it. It’s an amazing school.”

Exactly what the district sees as the school’s successes is unclear. The school outperformed the district in math on last year’s state tests but saw its reading and science scores fall slightly. (The community schools model often helps in student learning, but in some cases show no effect, according to research on the topic.)

Griffin cited the school’s diversity and vibrancy when she praised Belle Forest in November. “It’s really like a melting pot,” she said. “It’s so diverse; they do some awesome and amazing things.”

She also said replicating the school — the task now on Phillips’ plate — would be a challenge, particularly because the school started fresh in a new building in 2013.

“As we talk about the best practices that have really impacted the student achievement, then we’ll be able to support that a little bit better,” Griffin said. “Because remember, that school is built from the ground up. It’s always been a community school.”

Phillips’ move means a leadership change for Belle Forest. Dinah Taylor, who had been an assistant principal, has replaced Phillips, according to the school’s website.

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.