Education endorsement

Memphis schools superintendent backs Republican Bill Lee for governor

PHOTO: The Tennessean,
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson, right, has endorsed Bill Lee, the Republican nominee for governor.

The leader of Tennessee’s largest school district is throwing his support behind Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Lee.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said Lee would be “open-minded and solutions-oriented” on issues important to him such as “improving testing, raising teacher pay, supporting students’ social and emotional needs and adopting multiple strategies to improve public education in Tennessee.”

“We both believe that all kids should have access to a quality education and that we have to continue to find ways to better support teachers,” Hopson told Chalkbeat. “We also believe in the turnaround efforts happening in our iZone and that districts should continue to search for innovative ways to support chronically underperforming schools.”

Hopson’s endorsement is the first for the Memphis education leader, who was also superintendent when Gov. Bill Haslam ran for re-election in 2014. Memphis reliably votes Democrat in an otherwise Republican state and has been at odds with the Republican legislature and administration on several education issues, but Hopson has in recent years attempted to thaw the often contentious relationship.

Lee, a businessman and farmer, touted Hopson’s support during a debate Tuesday against his opponent Karl Dean, a Democrat and former Nashville mayor.

Lee praised the Innovation Zone, a school improvement program of Shelby County Schools’ design that has boosted test scores for students at chronically low-performing schools in impoverished neighborhoods.

Lee noted that in the last five years (Hopson’s tenure as superintendent), the school district has gone from 69 schools on the priority list to 27 — some were taken over by the state, others were closed, but nearly 20 were improved by the district.

“There’s been profound improvement by addressing changes in the model,” he said referring to the iZone. “When I’m governor I want to go to every struggling school district and say, ‘What is your idea of your innovation zone to transform your educational system?’

Hopson said Lee reached out to him to meet about a year and a half ago when Lee was considering running for governor.

“We routinely discussed faith, family, government and education issues,” Hopson told Chalkbeat. “I appreciated the thoughtful and humble way that he sought my input.”

Hopson recently accepted Lee’s request for him to be in his West Tennessee group to advise him on education issues. However, the five-year leader of the Memphis district was quick to point out he was not positioning himself for a state role if Lee is elected in November.

“I am not angling for a job and I certainly am not planning on running for public office,” he said. “We have a lot of positive momentum at Shelby County Schools right now and have lots of work to do.”

There are still a few diversions between Lee and Hopson on education issues. Hopson re-emphasized his yearslong stance against public funding for private school tuition, a measure Lee supports and that some lawmakers have pushed to approve for nearly a decade.

“I am unaware of any statistically significant evidence that demonstrates that vouchers improve student outcomes for low income students,” Hopson said. “Along with our (school) board and other districts, I have advocated against vouchers for years.”

Lee said recently he was hesitant about expanding prekindergarten unless it is high quality and effective. Hopson has touted pre-K as a big driver in the district’s recent gains in literacy among young students.

On arming teachers with guns, Lee supports the idea, while Hopson said that would not be a viable prevention against school shootings in Memphis.

Bureau chief Jacinthia Jones contributed to this story.

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.