what happened?

Memphis parents demand answers on charter school principal’s abrupt departure

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
About 20 parents and parent supporters crowded a conference room at Memphis Academy of Health Sciences to demand answers about the high school principal's abrupt departure.

About 20 Memphis parents and their supporters lined a small conference room after being initially blocked from a charter school’s board meeting to learn more about why a beloved principal was gone eight days into the school year.

The answers were not clear, and after an hour of sometimes heated exchanges, advocates threatened to encourage parents to pull their children out of Memphis Academy of Health Sciences, the high school Reginald Williams ran for four years.

Williams’ last day was Friday, Aug. 10. Parents said a letter sent home with students on Monday, Aug. 13, announced the principal had resigned. But on a speaker phone during the meeting, Williams said he did not resign. Corey Johnson, the school’s executive director, said Williams’ departure was a “mutual agreement.”

“We cannot speak on what happened with Brother Williams, OK? So, let’s move on,” board chair Michael Dexter told parents.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
ACT prep teacher Patricia Ange shows off a wall of students with high scores on the college readiness test.

Parent Eric Jackson followed up with a question that was met with eight long seconds of silence from board members.

“Are we allowed the opportunity, or is he allowed the opportunity, without reprisal, to tell us, if I get in contact with him, what happened?”

Patricia Ange, a Memphis Academy teacher who prepares students to take the ACT college readiness test, then called Williams during the meeting and put him on speaker for everyone in the room to hear.

Williams said the board’s decision to fire him was their choice. But he said, “If I’d known in the summertime, I could have found another place.” Williams, a former principal at Kirby High School and assistant principal at Central High School, added, “Now I’ve got to draw unemployment.”

“So, you did not resign, sir?” Ange asked as parents hushed each other to listen for the answer.

“No,” Williams said to parents’ amazement.

Williams said he had planned to retire in May, and was not told why he was fired, but suspected negative state test scores were a factor.

TNReady test scores at the 15-year-old high school in North Memphis declined in every subject last school year. For example, 6.2 percent of students were considered on grade-level by the state compared to 33.6 the previous year.

Williams blamed the charter network’s late purchase of laptops, which prevented students from practicing online, and the myriad technical problems with the state test this spring. State lawmakers banned using the scores in decisions to hire, fire, or compensate educators, and only allowed school boards to use them for up to 15 percent of a student’s grade.

Johnson maintained the decision for Williams’ departure was mutual and that he “wanted to support him in his decision” to retire earlier than planned.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Memphis Academy of Health Sciences is a 15-year-old charter school in North Memphis.

Memphis Academy, which enrolls about 400 students, was one of the first schools chartered by the Memphis school district. It was founded by the nonprofit group 100 Black Men of Memphis. Inc.

Charter schools in Tennessee are funded by public money, but nonprofit boards of directors run the schools. The schools are overseen by local districts or the state — in this case, Shelby County Schools. State law states that board meetings are open to the public.

But Sarah Carpenter, leader of the parent advocacy group Memphis Lift, said the board blocked access to the regular quarterly meeting for about 30 minutes. Dexter said there was confusion about when to allow parents inside. He initially wanted to wait until after board members approved minutes from the previous meeting, but after reviewing the board’s bylaws, he allowed parents to enter.

Dexter said one of his goals for the school year was to form parent committees to work with the board. Parents present at the meeting said the effort was too little, too late.

“I can’t believe you don’t know what’s going on,” parent Golding Calix told board members through a translator. “You say you’re listening, but are you going to do something?”

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.