election time

Here’s who’s running for Memphis school board in August

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Fifteen people are vying for four seats on the Memphis school board. The election is Aug. 2.

After a relatively quiet school board race in Memphis two years ago, this year’s run promises a lot of action as 15 people vie for four seats.

Shelby County Schools, Tennessee’s largest school system, is stabilizing its finances and setting a course for how schools are managed, so the winners will have significant impact on how the district proceeds.

The election, set for Aug. 2, is likely to draw in hefty funds from organizations that favor charter schools and more school autonomy as the Memphis district decides how to bolster low-performing schools and manage several school types.

Some board members and the superintendent they hired, Dorsey Hopson, say they support a transition to a system where school districts operate schools more like charters, giving them more autonomy. But they have at times worked to undermine such a transition, often referring to charter schools as negative competition.

And the school board has often been at odds with the Tennessee Department of Education, which has in recent years handed over about two dozen Memphis schools to charter operators.

In the midst of that, the district is recovering from years of severe budget cuts. Last year, for the first time since the merger of county and city school districts, Shelby County Schools started its budget process without a shortfall.

Of the five seats that were open in 2016, only one was contested, but incumbent Stephanie Love won it. The school board race is non-partisan and therefore does not have a primary election.

Here are the candidates running in district 1, which covers downtown and parts of Midtown:

  • Katherine Ayers is a cancer education program manager at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital who previously taught seventh grade science at Hutchison, an all-girls private school. Her work at St. Jude includes programs that focus on reducing health and education disparities in the Memphis area. She also has two children in Shelby County Schools.
  • Chris Caldwell, the incumbent, is a financial consultant and vice president at Raymond James, a financial services firm. A White Station High School graduate, he was originally appointed to the board in 2011, and was elected in 2012 and 2014. He serves as the budget committee chair and was chairman of the board last year, helping to oversee the investigation into improper grade changing in the district. He has three children; two have graduated from Memphis public schools and one is a junior at Central High School.
  • Michelle Robinson McKissack is editor at Memphis Parent Magazine and is on the board of directors for Crosstown High School, a charter school opening this fall focused on project-based learning. She is also an inaugural member of the state Department of Education parent advisory council created in 2016. She’s a graduate of White Station High School and has four children in Shelby County Schools.
  • Michael Scruggs, a Central High School graduate, is a social studies teacher at W.E.B. DuBois Schools, a charter school network, and was featured on The Ellen Show and others last year for his daily motivational chant with students.

Four candidates are running in district 6, which covers Whitehaven and southwest Memphis:

  • Shante Avant, the incumbent, is the board’s current chairwoman and a deputy director for the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis. Last year as chair of the board’s procurement committee, Avant oversaw the district’s disparity study for contracts with businesses owned by women and people of color. She has a daughter enrolled at Bellevue Middle School.
  • Roderic Ford is also running for a state House seat and formerly ran for county clerk.
  • Minnie Hunter (no further information available).
  • Percy Hunter, a Fairley High School alum, is the pastor of Christ United Baptist Church. He was recently the parent and community engagement coordinator for Green Dot Public Schools, a California-based charter network that operates four state-controlled schools in Memphis.

District 8, which includes East Memphis, Berclair, and Cordova, is the least crowded race with just one challenger for the incumbent:

  • Jerry Cunningham is a retired Memphis City Schools teacher and former commercial real estate broker and business owner. He has also taught at HopeWorks, a nonprofit adult education program, since retiring. He said the school board needs “a fresh group of citizens who are dissatisfied with the stagnant progress under [Superintendent] Dorsey Hopson’s guidance, and who believe our city’s students are capable of achieving proficient scores on standardized tests.”
  • Billy Orgel, the incumbent, is the CEO of Tower Ventures, a company that builds and owns telecommunication towers in Memphis. He has served on the board since 2012 and has served as board chairman twice. As chair of the board’s facilities committee, Orgel has overseen several school openings and closures, and helped guide the district’s facility maintenance needs. He attended Richland Elementary and is a graduate of the independent Memphis University School. He has three children.

Five candidates are seeking the district 9 seat, which includes Orange Mound and Parkway Village areas:

  • Rhonnie Brewer leads Socially Twisted Media and is the founder of Memphis Startup, a which provides resources and support to small businesses. She also co-hosts the “What’s Happening Myron Show,” a show about news, current events, and entertainment on Shelby County Schools’ radio station, 88.5 FM.
  • Alvin Crook is a special officer at Memphis Light, Gas and Water. He serves on the Downtown Parking Authority and is a representative for the Tennessee Young Democrats and a former president of the Shelby County Young Democrats. He has one son.
  • Joyce Dorse-Coleman is a secretary at Apostolic Pentecostal Temple Church and has served as an officer for several parent volunteer organizations at schools where her seven children and five grandchildren were students. She also served on a committee formed to successfully keep Dunbar Elementary School from closing.
  • Kori Hamner is a former Memphis teacher, teacher coach with Teach for America, and later a director of teacher support with Shelby County Schools during a time of massive changes in state standards. She now works for the Achievement Network where she advises school districts and charter management organizations around the nation on their curriculum, assessment, and professional development strategy. She has one daughter.
  • Mike Kernell, the incumbent, has served on the board since 2014. He is a Messick High School graduate and served in the state legislature for nearly 40 years. His two children attended public schools.

This story has been updated to include Rhonnie Brewer, whose approval from the Shelby County Election Commission was not reflected in the commission’s initial listing Friday morning.

Correction, April 6, 2018: One of Chris Caldwell’s children is still in high school. A previous version of this story said all three of his children had graduated from Memphis public schools. 

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.