Who Is In Charge

How a Memphis lawmaker quietly passed a law that may have kept your school from state takeover

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Rep. Raumesh Akbari

State Rep. Raumesh Akbari sits at ease in principal Monekea Smith’s office at Hamilton High School, down the road from Graceland, across the street from Akbari’s grandmother’s house — and nearly four hours and a world away from the state Capitol, where she spends much of her time.

When Smith speaks with a school colleague on her walkie-talkie and signs off “Love Hamilton,” Akbari instinctively offers up the appropriate response: “Absolutely!”

Only someone familiar with the storied Memphis school and its culture would know that “Love Hamilton, Absolutely!” is Hamilton’s longstanding motto, emblazoned on the school’s walls and often exchanged by alumni.

Akbari has both a deep knowledge of the community she represents and a deep appreciation for policy, enabling her to straddle two worlds and connect them in a way that leads to meaningful change.

“If you cannot identify with people or with a problem, then it’s difficult for you to create policy that can solve it,” Akbari says later, explaining how she’s been able to find impactful legislative solutions to public education challenges in Memphis.

In the last five years, the legislature has passed a slew of laws targeting the state’s lowest performing schools, many of which are in Memphis.

Against that backdrop this spring, Akbari shepherded into law a policy change that ended up protecting 10 struggling-but-improving schools from state intervention. It also brought clarity to the complex and often contentious school turnaround process under the Tennessee Achievement School District.

In so doing, the Memphis Democrat managed to build consensus among lawmakers and state leaders, including founding ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic, in favor of the school turnaround game-changer.

“Her just reaching out initially and having a conversation before it even got to the point of a bill was great,” Barbic said. “That doesn’t always happen.”

Rep. Raumesh Akbari
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Rep. Raumesh Akbari

At age 31, Akbari (her name rhymes with blackberry) is the youngest member of the legislature and also an attorney. She has quickly risen to become one of the legislature’s most effective voices on educational issues — despite rarely raising her voice in House Education meetings or on the House floor.

In addition to holding public office, she works for Akbari Corp., started in 1981 by her Iranian-born father and Memphian mom. Most of Akbari’s mother’s family attended Hamilton. She jokes that someone from her family graduated from the school every year during the 1970s.

Like many of the schools in Akbari’s district, Hamilton is a priority school, meaning it ranks academically among the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide. Hamilton also is part of Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, the local district’s own school turnaround initiative.

During her recent school visit, Akbari and Hamilton’s principal enjoyed an instant rapport based on mutual acquaintances and a fluency in Memphis institutions, especially schools. Because of Akbari’s roots, she understands Memphians’ intense loyalty to neighborhood schools, and why the suggestion of state intervention unleashes feelings of confusion, frustration and even anger.

Akbari herself is a product of Memphis-area schools. She attended Chimney Rock Elementary, Cordova Middle and Cordova High schools before receiving her college degree at Washington University in St. Louis and a law degree from St. Louis University. But she always knew that one day she would return home. In high school, she had participated in the Memphis Challenge program encouraging students with high ACT scores to settle eventually in Memphis to serve their city.

Because of her 12 years in Memphis City and legacy Shelby County Schools, Akbari has a nuanced view of public education.

“I’m a product of the city and county schools, and I know what public schools can do,” she says. “It will be a disservice if we don’t invest in these schools.”

She also knows firsthand the schools’ weaknesses.

“When I got to Wash U, I did not feel as prepared as other students. I had a high ACT score, a high GPA, but other students were a little bit more prepared,” she recalls.

Akbari didn’t expect to become politically involved at such a young age. But the House seat in her district suddenly opened up when longtime Rep. Lois DeBerry died in 2013. Then 29, Akbari claimed 89 percent of the vote to defeat an independent candidate. She successfully retained the seat the following year in a regular election.

During her campaigns, the state’s new Achievement School District was a top concern among constituents worried about the state encroaching on neighborhood schools, even those that are chronically underperforming. Because the ASD had not been in existence during her school years, Akbari had to do her homework.

One of the schools in her district, Alcy Elementary, was being considered for ASD charter conversion because of low performance, or to be closed by Shelby County Schools because of declining enrollment. However, when Akbari visited Alcy and talked with the principal, she saw a school that was improving — and test scores bore that out.

“If a school is on the priority list, but they’re making changes, it’s not worth it to take them through the stress of turnaround,” she said. “That’s not a good use of  the ASD’s resources.”

Akbari drafted a bill that would let a school try its own turnaround, rather than being taken over by the statewide district, if the school received top-level TVAAS value-added growth scores of 4 or 5, replaced the principal, or was designated a community school that offers non-academic services such as physical and mental health services.

School motto "Love Hamilton Absolutely!" adorns the walls of Hamilton High School.
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
School motto “Love Hamilton Absolutely!” adorns the walls of Hamilton High School.

Armed with feedback from her Memphis constituents and Shelby County school board members, she workshopped the bill with Barbic and the Tennessee Department of Education. She knew if they gave the nod, she’d get other lawmakers’ support.

“If I don’t get something people are willing to support, then I’m going to be failing at the starting line,” she said. “I could file something to prove a point or raise awareness, but it’s not going to be able to pass.”

The bill eventually was streamlined to include the TVAAS provision. And, of the 22 bills filed in 2015 aimed at changing ASD operations, it was the only one to pass. In fact, it cleared both chambers unanimously.

The seemingly innocuous bill has had a surprisingly tangible impact in the state’s two largest cities. Because of the new law, when the ASD unveiled its newest targets this fall for takeover and conversion, seven schools in Memphis and three in Nashville were no longer eligible and instead were given time to improve on their own.

“It is tremendous,” said Shante Avant, a Shelby County Schools board member of the new law, which she said gives local educators and students a sense of empowerment. “It means to them that they have come together as a community and made things happen.”

Barbic said the law has helped state turnaround efforts, too — by making the criteria for state intervention clearer. That, in turn, has made the ASD more transparent.

“Before, we could explain all we wanted and I think [the criteria for turnaround] was objective, but folks felt it lacked transparency,” he said. “Now, it’s clear. It’s black and white.”

choosing leaders

Meet one possible successor to departing Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As Denver officials wrestle with how to pick a replacement for longtime superintendent Tom Boasberg, one insider stands out as a likely candidate.

Susana Cordova, the district’s deputy superintendent, already held her boss’s job once before, when Boasberg took an extended leave in 2016. She has a long history with the district, including as a student, graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School, and as a bilingual teacher starting her career more than 20 years ago.

When she was selected to sit in for Boasberg for six months, board members at the time cited her hard work and the many good relationships they saw she had with people. This time around, several community members are saying they want a leader who will listen to teachers and the community.

Cordova, 52, told Chalkbeat she’s waiting to see what the board decides about the selection process, but said she wants to be ready, when they are, to talk about her interest in the position.

“DPS has played an incredibly important role in every aspect of my life. I’m very committed to making sure that we continue to make progress as an organization,” Cordova said. “I believe I have both the passion and the track record to help move us forward.”

During her career, she has held positions as a teacher, principal, and first became an administrator, starting in 2002, as the district’s literacy director.

Just before taking on the role of acting superintendent in 2016, Cordova talked to Chalkbeat about how her education, at a time of desegregation, shaped her experience and about her long path to connecting with her culture.

“I didn’t grow up bilingual. I learned Spanish after I graduated from college,” Cordova, said at the time. “I grew up at a point in time where I found it more difficult to embrace my Latino culture, academically. There were, I would say, probably some negative messages around what it meant to be Latino at that point of time.”

She said she went through introspection during her senior year of college and realized that many students in her neighborhood bought into the negative messages and had not been successful.

“I didn’t want our schools to be places like that,” she said.

In her time as acting superintendent, she oversaw teacher contract negotiations and preparations for asking voters for a bond that they ultimately approved that fall. Cordova’s deputy superintendent position was created for her after Boasberg returned.

But it’s much of Cordova’s work with students of color that has earned her national recognition.

In December, Education Week, an education publication, named her a “Leader to Learn From,” pointing to her role in the district’s work on equity, specifically with English language learners, and in her advocacy to protect students under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Cordova was also named a Latino Educator Champion of Change by President Barack Obama in 2014. Locally, in 2016, the University of Denver’s Latino Leadership Institute inducted Cordova into its hall of fame.

The Denver school board met Tuesday morning, and again on Wednesday to discuss the superintendent position.

Take a look back at a Q & A Chalkbeat did with Cordova in 2016, and one in 2014.

saying goodbye

Here’s how the local and national education communities are responding to Boasberg’s exit

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As the news of Tom Boasberg’s departure ricocheted through the local and national education community, critics and champions of the Denver schools superintendent sounded off.

Here’s a roundup of comments from teachers, parents, school board members past and present, elected officials, and some of Boasberg’s colleagues.

Alicia Ventura, teacher

“I am shocked! I understand his decision as I have one (child) grown and out of the house and one in middle school. Time with our children is short and precious! I will always remember how fun and open-minded Tom was. He would do anything for children and truly lived the students first vision! We will miss you!”

Michael Hancock, Denver mayor and Denver Public Schools graduate

“I am saddened that DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg will be stepping down but full of gratitude for his close partnership with the city on behalf of Denver’s kids and families. As a DPS graduate and a DPS parent, I know firsthand that Tom has led DPS with integrity and commitment. His focus on success for all kids has greatly improved our schools and provided better opportunities for all students to live their dreams.

“We have much work still to do in DPS, but we have an incredible foundation for moving forward and we are committed to continuing in partnership with the next DPS leader.”

Corey Kern, deputy executive director, Denver Classroom Teachers Association

“We were a little surprised by it ourselves. For us, we obviously wish Tom the best. The big focus for us is making sure the selection process for the next superintendent is something that is fair and transparent and open to the public; that it’s not a political appointment but talking to all stakeholders about who is the best person for the job for the students in Denver.”

Anne Rowe, president, Denver school board

“He has given … 10 years to this district as superintendent, and it is an enormous role, and he has given everything he has. … My reaction was, ‘I understand,’ gratitude, a little surprised but not shocked, certainly, and understand all the good reasons why he has made this decision.

“With change, there is always some uncertainty, and yet I look at the people here and their dedication to the kids in DPS and I have full confidence in these folks to continue driving forward while the board takes on the responsibility to select the next superintendent. We won’t miss a beat, and we have a lot of work to do for kids.”

Jeannie Kaplan, former school board member critical of the district’s direction

“I was very surprised. … I wish Tom well. I still do believe that working together is the way to get things done. I’m sorry we weren’t able to do that.

“My one hope would be that one of the primary criteria for the next leader of the district would be a belief in listening to the community – not just making the checkmark, but really listening to what communities want.”

John Hickenlooper, Colorado governor and former Denver mayor

“Tom Boasberg has invested a significant part of his life into transforming Denver Public Schools into one of the fastest-improving school districts in America. As a DPS parent, former mayor, and now governor, I am deeply grateful for the progress made under Tom’s leadership. I applaud Tom and Team DPS for driving the innovations that are creating a brighter future for tens of thousands of young people in every corner of the city.”

U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, who preceded Boasberg as Denver superintendent from 2005 to 2009 and has known him since childhood

“As a DPS parent, I thank him for his commitment, his compassion, and his extraordinary tenure. As Tom always says himself, we have a long way to go, but his transformational leadership has resulted in extraordinary progress over the past 10 years. Our student achievement has substantially increased, the number of teachers and other school personnel serving our children has grown tremendously, and the school choices available to children and their families have never been greater.”

Bennet also penned an op-ed in The Denver Post with this headline:

Ariel Taylor Smith, former Denver Public Schools teacher and co-founder of Transform Education Now, a nonprofit that focuses on improving schools through parent advocacy

“I was a teacher during Tom’s first half of his tenure at DPS and was amazed at how often he would walk the halls of North High School during our turnaround. Tom has dedicated 10 years to this work and for that I am grateful. I also believe that we have a long way to go to getting where we need to be. I believe that we are ready for new leadership who operates with the sense of urgency that we need to see in our city. There are 35,000 students who are attending ‘red’ and ‘orange’ (low-rated) schools in our city right now. One out of every three third-graders is reading on grade level. We need a new leader with a clear vision for the future and an evident sense of urgency to ensure that all our kids are receiving the education that they deserve.”

Brandon Pryor, parent and member Our Voice Our Schools, a group critical of the district

“You have a number of people he works with that are reformers. They think he’s leaving an awesome legacy and he did a lot to change and meet needs of the reformist community. You ask them and I’m sure his legacy will be great. But if you come to my community and ask some black folks what Tom Boasberg’s legacy will be, they’ll tell you something totally different.

“I think he has time with this last three months in office to follow through with some of the promises he’s made us (such as upgrades to the Montbello campus) to improve his situation.”

Jules Kelty, Denver parent

“He personally responded to an email that I sent him about my school. I appreciated that.”

Van Schoales, CEO of the pro-reform advocacy group A Plus Colorado

“On the one hand, I’m not surprised. And on the other hand, I’m surprised.

“I’m not surprised because he’s had a track record of pretty remarkable service for a decade, which is amazing. Nobody else has done that. The district has improved pretty dramatically. He deserves a great deal of credit for that. …The surprise is that we’ve all become so used to him being the superintendent, it’s just a little weird (to think of him leaving).”

Lisa Escárcega, executive director, Colorado Association of School Executives

“Tom’s longstanding commitment and service to DPS have made a significant impact on the district. He is strongly focused on ensuring student equity, and the district has seen improvement in several areas over the last 10 years under his superintendency. Tom is a strong and innovative leader, and I know he will be missed by the DPS community and his colleagues.”

John King, former U.S. Secretary of Education

“Under Tom Boasberg’s leadership for the past decade, Denver Public Schools has made remarkable academic progress and has become one of the most innovative school districts in the country. Tom has brought tremendous urgency and a deep commitment to closing both opportunity and achievement gaps for students of color and those from low-income backgrounds. For many school districts throughout the country, Denver’s innovative and collaborative approaches serve as a valuable model.”

Katy Anthes, state education commissioner

“I’ve appreciated working with Tom over the years and know that his personal commitment to students is incredibly strong. I thank Tom for his service to the students of DPS and Colorado.”

Mike Magee, CEO of Chiefs for Change, a national group of district and state superintendents 

“Tom Boasberg is an extraordinary leader who has dedicated his life to expanding opportunities for all of Denver’s children. During his tenure, the district has made remarkable gains on virtually every measure of progress. Denver Public Schools is a national model for innovation, district-charter collaboration, and teacher and school leader support. Every decision Tom has made over the course of his career has been focused on helping students succeed. No one is more respected by their peers. As a member of the Chiefs for Change board and in countless other ways Tom has supported education leaders across the nation. He leaves not just an impressive legacy but an organization of talented people committed to equity and excellence.”

David Osborne, author of the book “Reinventing America’s Schools,” which included chapters on Denver’s efforts

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