Chief of Tennessee education group SCORE to step down and pass baton to colleague

Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is flanked by David Mansouri and Jamie Woodson. Frist founded the State Collaborative on Reforming Education in 2009, and Woodson has since 2011 served as its CEO, a role that Mansouri will assume in 2019. (Photo courtesy of SCORE)

The longtime leader of one of Tennessee’s most influential education advocacy organizations is stepping down and will be succeeded by her chief lieutenant.

Jamie Woodson will leave her job as CEO of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, also known as SCORE, to become the group’s senior adviser.

David Mansouri, SCORE’s president for the past three years, will take over as both president and CEO with the new year.

The transition was announced Thursday in an email to SCORE’s supporters from former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, chairman of the nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy and research institution that he founded in 2009.

Frist said Woodson requested the change after eight years at the helm. He credited the former state lawmaker, who championed public education during her 12 years in Tennessee’s General Assembly, for helping SCORE to become “one of the nation’s best-in-class, policy-focused nonprofits” advocating for students, families, and communities.

Earlier this week, the group’s board of directors voted unanimously to name Mansouri as SCORE’s new leader.

Mansouri joined the organization in 2010 and has had roles in communications, outreach, management, policy, and research, stepping increasingly into the limelight on SCORE’s advocacy work in recent years.

“He is uniquely positioned to lead SCORE as we support the transition of so many state and local leaders,” Frist wrote supporters, “and he will also launch and lead SCORE’s new strategic planning process to quickly set the course for where our organization will lead moving forward.”

Frist founded SCORE the year before a massive overhaul of Tennessee’s public education system in conjunction with the state’s $500 million federal award in 2010 from the Obama-era Race to the Top competition. At the time, Tennessee ranked near the bottom on national tests and was considered a laggard in public education.

SCORE produced a roadmap for improvement and convened state, local, and national partners to promote policies and practices aimed at greater student success. Since that time, Tennessee has become one of the nation’s fastest-improving states in student achievement.

Woodson, 46, recently was appointed by Gov. Bill Haslam to the board of trustees at the University of Tennessee, her alma mater, and also serves as national co-chair of the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy, which seeks to restore civic discourse and public trust in leading democratic institutions.

She has been mentioned as possible state education commissioner under gov.-elect Bill Lee, but told Chalkbeat that she’s not a candidate for that job. She said the timing of the handoff at SCORE is “purely coincidence.”

“My goal right now,” Woodson said, “is to make sure that the next governor and the next commissioner get off to a great start and continue the momentum that’s been created by partners all across Tennessee and the nation to help Tennessee students achieve their full promise and potential.”

Mansouri, 34, previously worked in political consulting and public relations and once was an aide to the late U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee. He attended Tennessee public schools and earned degrees from Rice University and Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management and also is a founding board member of Nashville Classical Charter School.

He told Chalkbeat that he comes into the CEO job at a “unique moment,” as SCORE approaches its 10th year and as a new governor and General Assembly take office.

“Our No. 1 priority over the next six months will be making sure that the new administration and new members of the legislature and new leaders in public office have the right support, knowledge, and context about how we have made so much improvement in Tennessee, “ he said.

SCORE, which has a 20-member staff and offices in Nashville, is funded by private donations from foundations, corporations, and individuals. Among its supporters in Tennessee are the Hyde Family Foundation, the Ayers Foundation, and the Benwood Foundation. National supporters include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation. (Chalkbeat, which is an independent and nonprofit news organization, also receives funding from some of these groups. You can find our full list of supporters here.)

The group’s engagement work includes the SCORE Prize to celebrate high-performing schools and districts and the Tennessee Educator Fellowship, which has developed more than 185 teacher-leaders across the state.

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.