As a Memphis school board member, Dorse-Coleman wants to use her grass-roots skills, and be ‘approachable’

When Joyce Dorse-Coleman learned that Shelby County Schools planned in 2017 to close Dunbar Elementary, the school that her seven children attended and several of her grandchildren were attending, she and others sprang into action to keep it from shutting down.

Their advocacy was successful, but throughout the process Dorse-Coleman said community members and school personnel she spoke with felt disconnected from the Memphis district’s central office and school board.

Joyce Dorse-Coleman (Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat)

“That kind of sealed it for me” to run for school board, said Dorse-Coleman, 53, who is retired from pediatrics. “I put my hat into the ring so people would know that they had somebody to support them. Somebody that was there. Not just a politician. Just somebody there that felt like they felt. I’m a parent. I’m a grandparent. So, I can relate to them.

“I decided then and there if I was blessed to run everybody was going to know who I was,” she continued. “I want to be in the grocery store on Saturday mornings and they feel like ‘Hey, she’s approachable.’”

Dorse-Coleman and the others who won seats on the school board — Michelle Robinson McKissack, Shante Avant, and Billy Orgel — are scheduled to be sworn in 5 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 29, at the district’s central office. Dorse-Coleman will also host a celebration and meet-and-greet at 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 1, at 4011 Kingfisher Drive. Chalkbeat sat down with Dorse-Coleman to talk about the education issues most important her. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

You mentioned in your survey answers that you were worried about school zoning. Can you elaborate on your concerns?

There are kids living here in Orange Mound, right here in our neighborhood, who are being bused to outside schools and parents are complaining about it. The Melroses [high school in Orange Mound] of the world, they have low enrollment because we’re busing kids outside. They need to know there’s a school right here. My main goal is to find out why they’re being bused and if anything can be done to prevent them from being bused and they can go to their neighborhood schools.

There has always been resistance to school closures in Memphis. But the committee to spare Dunbar seemed very organized and determined. Can you talk about how that formed and your strategy?

School board member-elect Joyce Dorse-Coleman, center, visits with Dunbar Principal Anniece Gentry. (Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat)

First of all, this is our school; Dunbar is our school. We looked at all different reasons our school should not be closed. A lot of children in Orange Mound and the district come from single parent homes. And we’re looking at a child who had to go across Lamar Avenue or about two miles to Cherokee Elementary School when that was just not right in our eyesight. And if it was going to affect one child, it was going to affect all of our children.

So, we rallied together. We came together, came up with strategies, and made phone calls, and we did letters, and got petitions signed. Dunbar has been here years on top of years and hasn’t been closed. Some of these kids were upset because they had been together since kindergarten and our fourth-graders were looking at going into fifth grade and possibly not being with kids they had met in kindergarten. That bothered us. And it really bothered me.

Related: One school will close, one will stay open as Hopson alters plan to respond to neighborhood needs

We have a lot of single parents or children being raised by their grandparents. If the school closed and they got sick at school, grandmother has got to go get them: She’s got to walk across Lamar Avenue and bring home a sick child. Students who want to stay after school for extracurricular activities they have to walk home across Lamar Avenue from Cherokee in the dark, rainy days. Kids that didn’t have transportation would have to walk. Then we also have a lot of children whose older siblings attend Melrose High School and they can bring them and pick them up in the afternoon. But if they have to leave to go to Cherokee or Bethel Grove that was a lot on the other siblings also.

Can you tell me more about why you’re passionate about access to advanced courses?

Our kids are leaving their neighborhood schools, their community schools, and they have to go outside their community to get a lot of the Advanced Placement and college courses that they desire. I want to know if it’s because we’re not recruiting the AP teachers to the schools in some of the community and the criteria for getting some of the AP teachers in our neighborhood schools. It’s not fair that I’ve got to send them to an outside school because they want or need an AP class as opposed to just one or two in certain schools.

Related: Memphis students from poor families less likely to have access to advanced coursework

How do you think Shelby County Schools could improve communication with parents?

In the last five years, they have improved their communication. What they can do to improve is continue and meet parents where they are. Instead of expecting parents to come to the school all the time, meet them at events going on in the community or sponsor events. Make it available when parents are available.

All people want is to be heard. Give them a voice. If you’re going to change something, go out and listen to parents before a vote. Make sure parents are heard upfront instead of at the end. Instead of making up their mind and then telling parents, give parents the time to give input. Because without the parents, we don’t have the children.

Also, make parents feel like they’re a part of the school, not that it’s a business. Make them feel like they’re a cherished part of the school. Don’t give them the runaround. That’s one of the most frustrating things: needing help and you leave more frustrated than when you came in because no one took the time to get to the bottom of their situation. Even if there isn’t an answer, let them know that someone will work on it.

What do you think should be done about the culture of over-testing you talked about in your survey?

Change the way the testing is administered. I know a lot of that has to go through the state, but instead of teaching our children for test taking teach them for education. What I mean by that is give them something they can retain, not memorizing because it’s going to be on the test. Teach our children simple things that we were taught like multiplication facts, reading, and writing your name in cursive. If they can’t do the basics, then modern technology is not helping at all.

Be sure to check out our Q&A with the other newest member of the Shelby County Schools board, Michelle Robinson McKissack.