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.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

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