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Tennessee has an upward mobility problem. Can schools help?

Despite significant investments in education in recent years, Tennessee isn’t successfully moving its citizens up the ladder of opportunity.

The numbers are clear:

Only 2.6 percent of Memphians born into the bottom 5 percentile in wealth will rise to the top 5th percentile.

And the average salary for Tennesseans who entered high school in 2008 and didn’t matriculate to any sort of college program is only about $9,000 a year — far below the poverty level.

Entrenched inequality, and schools’ role in reversing it, was the topic of a panel discussion Tuesday in Nashville sponsored by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, also known as SCORE, an education advocacy and research institution founded by former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee. The forum featured Gini Pupo-Walker, education director of Conéxion Americàs, a nonprofit organization supporting Tennessee’s immigrant population; Mike Krause, director of Tennessee Promise, the state’s program to allow nearly all Tennessee students to attend community college tuition-free; and Mike Petrilli, president of the Thomas Fordham Institute and author of Education for Upward Mobility, which explores the role of school and education policy in helping children born into poverty enter the middle class in adulthood.

The panel highlighted the mantra “all means all,” meaning that students of all races, economic backgrounds and ability levels should be prepared to succeed after high school.

“… Tennesseans should have a shot (at success), and the reality is a lot of them don’t,” Krause said.

Prescriptions offered up included providing undocumented immigrants with in-state tuition and the Tennessee Promise scholarship, bolstering career and technical education, and even teaching Tennessee high school students more comprehensively about effective birth control. (That suggestion, offered by Petrilli, was met with laughter from the audience.)

Focusing on policy, Petrilli, a strong advocate for “school choice,” applauded Tennessee’s charter school movement as an instrument to level the playing field. He said the state should be looking closely at how Tennessee’s new assessment and standards serve students in preparing them for further education and successful careers. And he suggested Tennessee work with third-party organizations to ensure the standards and test are properly measuring skills and knowledge that students need to succeed.

Pupo-Walker, who recently spearheaded a statewide network to advocate for students of color, emphasized school culture, noting that many parents are disenfranchised. She said they often feel uncomfortable entering schools and talking with teachers. Meanwhile, students without parents being active in school often face lower expectations.

“We’ve seen for too long our lowest-performing schools and our poorest students have … less rigorous course work, less options, less opportunities, and folks [who] are teaching them don’t necessarily understand the communities they come from and … how to provide the right supports.”

Former Metro Nashville superintendent Jesse Register attended the panel discussion and advocated for pre-K as a means to increase equity.
Former Metro Nashville superintendent Jesse Register attended the panel discussion and advocated for pre-K as a means to increase equity.
Grace Tatter

The audience included school superintendents, former Nashville director of schools Jesse Register, State Board of Education members, and representatives from various education advocacy groups, many of whom also had ideas to support students living in poverty. Register spoke up to advocate for increasing access to early education, a push he made during his tenure at the helm of Nashville schools.

SCORE CEO Jamie Woodson, who moderated Tuesday’s discussion, encouraged more focused discourse and collaboration on how schools can be the engines of upward mobility.

“How do we make sure educators receive the support that they need, schools receive the support that they need, and that we change the level of expectation?” Woodson asked. “Those kids need a bright future.”

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