Education Pioneers recruits talent to work behind the scenes in Memphis schools

PHOTO: via Education Pioneers
Education Pioneers fellows at the National Civil Rights Foundation.

Tavie Clay is not a teacher anymore. She arrived in Memphis ten days ago to work as the human resources director for Freedom Preparatory Academy, a group of charter schools. Clay will likely spend more of her time interacting with adults than with children. But she sees her work as deeply connected to the classroom, to kids, and to the community.

Since she’s arrived, “I drive around,” she said. “I’m trying to get an understanding of what I’m doing, why I’m here. I go to where I’m going to go—where my kids are going to be from. I’m hiring teachers, but they’re still my kids.”

Clay came to Memphis through Education Pioneers, a nonprofit that recruits and places professionals in leadership and management jobs in education organizations. She is one of 21 graduate fellows who began their program this month, as part of the group’s second cohort in Memphis. Education Pioneers officially launched in Tennessee in 2013 with ten fellows, and it has already more than doubled in size: This year, in addition to the graduate fellows, between five and eight analyst fellows will be working in Tennessee districts and schools.

Fellows work in education, but outside of the classroom. “We want to make education the ‘best-led sector,'” said Maya Bugg, Education Pioneers’ Tennessee director. “We’re filling a niche. There are people focused on the talent side for teachers and for principals. But talent outside the classroom also needs to be top-notch in order to help move initiatives and reforms along.”

There are three program tracks for fellows: A ten-week program, which tends to focus on a single project; a yearlong placement, which often leads to longer-term jobs; and an analyst fellowship, aimed at people who have experience working with data and numbers. The organization is specifically focused on schools and organizations that serve underprivileged children and communities.

“It’s helpful to have their national network,” said Roblin Webb, the executive director and founder of Freedom Preparatory Academy. Freedom Prep has hired a data analyst fellow last year who has since been hired full-time in addition to Ms. Clay. “It’s difficult to find talent in certain areas in Memphis. So it’s helpful to tap into a national network of strong professionals who are mission-aligned.” Webb said it also helped that Education Pioneers candidates have been vetted by the organization.

A diversity of perspectives

Education Pioneers recruits and places fellows, and provides professional development and networking throughout their placements. The organizations, in turn, contract with the group for placement and pay the salaries or stipends for their fellows. Education Pioneers also receives some funds from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and from local Memphis foundations. (Chalkbeat receives funds from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.)

Many fellows are career-switchers. Others may be ambitious teachers or school-level employees. “We help people take their skill set and translate it to education,” Bugg said. “The partners have to be able to provide a strong supervisor, so there’s mentorship and support.”

Chantavia Burton, a former fellow who now works at the state-run Achievement School District, said, “I’d call it a bridge. It took me from being minimally knowledgeable about the world of education and the landscape in my city and the state to being able to talk about education. It introduced me to the key players in the city.” Burton is a native Memphian with degrees in both law and business.

A panel at an Education Pioneers event discussing education in Memphis.
PHOTO: via Education Pioneers
A panel at an Education Pioneers event discussing education in Memphis.

The group, which celebrated its tenth anniversary last year, works with 180 education organizations in 20 cities. In Tennessee, Education Pioneers has partnered with school districts (Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Public schools), the state-run Achievement School District, other talent recruitment and training agencies (Teach For America, TNTP), charter schools (Freedom Preparatory Academy, Cornerstone, LEAD Public Schools, Yes Prep, Green Dot, Scholar Academy, and Aspire), and the office of the mayor in Memphis.

The projects vary: This year, the mayor’s fellow will help create a program connected to president Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative in Memphis, focused on supporting and mentoring young African-American boys. Burton’s project with the ASD focused on RyeCatcher, a technology that connects schools with after-school and out-of-school providers.

Fellows receive professional development on topics ranging from technology and education, school district structures and governance, and closing the “opportunity gap.” Fellows also train each other through a series called Education Pioneers Unplugged. For instance, a former teacher plans to lead a session on Common Core. “They’re learning through the program, but they also have a lot of expertise to offer,” Bugg said.

The goal is for the fellows to stay in education, and in Memphis. “The goal is to grow and to do so alongside the organizations that are also growing here,” Bugg said. Nationally, the organization hopes to have 10,000 alumni by 2023, up from some 2,000 last year, according to Education Week.

Bugg said that overall, 73 percent of alumni stay in education. But in Tennessee so far, closer to 90 percent of alumni have stuck around.

Freedom Prep’s Clay already had a long resume of education administration jobs, most recently in the Houston Independent School District. But she said she valued the range of experiences in her cohort. “People are from all over the country, but there are also a few native Memphians. There’s a diversity of perspectives. You have bank examiners, software engineers, biologists. You can just learn from them and pick their brains.”

Clay plans to stay in Memphis longer than a year. “I’m a year-long fellow, but in taking on the role, Ms. Webb wanted to make sure that I’m committed to Memphis for longer than a year,” Clay said. “This could be my new home.”

She said the program was helping her learn about Memphis’ history and education landscape. She said she was already thinking about how race, poverty, and history connect to her work. “Maybe people like us coming to Memphis from outside the city can help incite that desire to turn that love for the city into, I love this city so much I’m going to do something to improve it,” she said.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”