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McKissack brings a statewide view and experience building schools from the ground up

McKissack drops off her daughter, Bliss, every morning at Downtown Elementary School.
McKissack drops off her daughter, Bliss, every morning at Downtown Elementary School.
Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Michelle Robinson McKissack thinks of her decision to run for Shelby County Schools board as a “slow drip.” There wasn’t a singular moment that convinced her, but she saw a lot as a parent organizer in Downtown Elementary School’s inaugural class 15 years ago.

McKissack drops off her daughter, Bliss, every morning at Downtown Elementary School.
McKissack drops off her daughter, Bliss, every morning at Downtown Elementary School.
Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

She was one of the parent leaders who raised money to hire local artists to take turns teaching art to young students when the school opened but could not afford an art class. And she still helps lead the annual Turkey Trot walk to raise money to replace computers and bring in more technology, such as interactive Wii video game systems for physical education classes.

“I just put my heart and soul in Downtown Elementary,” she said. All four of her children have gone through the school.

“I know challenging environments,” she said. “I know what students are having to deal with just from my time at Downtown Elementary; it’s a great school because of its diversity in terms of economic background. When you walk through those doors, you don’t know who has and who has not.”

McKissack went on to serve as the president of the school’s parent-teacher organization, help develop curriculum for a high school marketing and business class, and serve on the state’s parent advisory council to give feedback on state education policy. Most recently she was a founding board member for one of Shelby County Schools’ newest charter schools, Crosstown High School. She is stepping down from that role this week and is also leaving Memphis Parent Magazine, where she has been editor since 2016.

McKissack, 49, turned heads during the school board election because of the outpouring of campaign funds from TennesseeCAN, a Nashville-based education advocacy organization. Altogether, the organization spent about $56,000 on campaign mailers, canvassing, phone calls, and text messages in support of McKissack. She had gone before the county commission in 2011 to be appointed to the school board, but Chris Caldwell, the incumbent she beat in the election earlier this month, won the seat.

McKissack and the others who won their races — Joyce Dorse-Coleman, Shante Avant, and Billy Orgel — are scheduled to be sworn in at 5 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 29, at the district’s central office. Chalkbeat recently talked with McKissack about why she ran and what she hopes to see change. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

McKissack’s mother-in-law, Patricia C. McKissack, authored several children’s books available at Downtown Elementary School’s library.
McKissack’s mother-in-law, Patricia C. McKissack, authored several children’s books available at Downtown Elementary School’s library.
Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Tell us more about yourself.

I’m one of five children and attended Campus Elementary, where I was one of a few black students. I went on to White Station Middle, and graduated from White Station High School in 1987. I love to write and my parents never tried to steer us into what they thought we should do. They observed what our interests were and shaped it around that. When it was time to go to college, my Dad, who is an accountant, got the big, thick Peterson’s Complete Guide to Colleges and made a spreadsheet for me to compare where I wanted to go. I went to Northwestern for my bachelor’s and master’s degrees and eventually came back to Memphis for a job in TV news after I got married. I knew what I had and what Memphis offered to me, and I thought that would be a good environment for my children.

While you were on the state’s parent advisory board what were some things that stuck out to you?

It just gave me a lens into what education is like outside of Shelby County and what’s happening in Middle Tennessee, East Tennessee on the other side of the state, and what’s happening in rural school districts. When you’re in a bubble and you’re so immersed in that, it’s hard to see that as much as our environments may be different, a lot of the challenges we are facing are the same. So, that was a big concern about bringing equity across the state because I learned there are children in rural districts that didn’t have access to computers. Literally, to prepare for the online testing that TNReady was supposed to be, they created keyboards out of cardboard to simulate what these kids would face until they got the equipment. The shortcomings we have here in Shelby County Schools – they still have more access to computers than a cardboard cutout. So, that was really interesting.

But the number one concern was TNReady testing, and what we believed to be too much testing. That was a commonality across the board from all of the parents from every single district. We wanted to see less teaching to the test and more old-fashioned teaching so students could learn and contribute to their communities.

You said in one of your survey answers that you want Shelby County Schools to take a more proactive approach when it comes to state testing problems. What do you think that should look like?

I was so pleased to see Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and [Nashville] Director Shawn Joseph write that very strong letter to the Tennessee Department of Education. So, that’s what I’m thinking. Instead of waiting until testing time rolls around and deal with all the problems we’ve had for the last three years — it seems like forever — to say “Hey, we’ve reached our limit here. We’re not going to go along and get along.” That letter was very encouraging to take that proactive step of laying out expectations. That’s an important first step. What that could look like going forward I think — and I’m still on the outside looking in at this point — with all these mandates and state laws for testing, at the first red flag to push back a little bit.

Related: Declaring ‘no confidence’ in TNReady, Memphis and Nashville superintendents call for pause in state testing

How did your experience helping to shape Crosstown High School, a charter school that focuses on project-based learning, influence your desire to run?

It wasn’t until I became really involved with Crosstown High School that I said I want to bring more of this perspective to the broader education environment in Shelby County Schools. It was thrilling to help develop a school from the ground up. With Crosstown, I helped in discussing curriculum, I was in the interview process for the executive director, for the principal, for the teachers to a lesser degree. It was completely shaping a school from zero. I feel like coming to Shelby County school board with my background — I came up through public schools in Memphis, I got a great education, my children are currently getting a great education, my son has gone on to Yale University — I have something to contribute to Shelby County Schools that could impact so many students. It wasn’t a school that’s exclusive to being in the optional program; it was open to all students. That is something we can do more of in Shelby County Schools.

Related: Designing diversity: How one Memphis charter school set out to recruit its students

Be sure to check out our Q&A with the other newest member of the Shelby County Schools board, Joyce Dorse-Coleman.

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