Future of Schools

Meet the Memphis lawyer who’s so upset about vouchers he’s running for office

PHOTO: Micaela Watts

When R. Price Harris, a Memphis attorney, headed to a rally against school vouchers Monday that his wife had told him about, all he wanted to do was show his support.

By the end of the day, he had decided to run for office.

In between, Harris heard local parents express deep fears about the effects of allowing families to use public funds to pay for private school tuition, saw paid advocates offer an opposing view, and got what he said was the cold shoulder from a local lawmaker with influence over a bill that would allow vouchers for the first time in Tennessee.

“The voucher bill will take more money out of this school system, and it will make them do more with what little bit that they have, and even less if this bill passes,” Harris said Tuesday after picking up a petition from the Shelby County Board of Elections. A resident of the Memphis area since he was 4, the 49-year-old is the father to a seventh-grader and high school senior who attend Germantown public  schools.

His experience suggests that debate over vouchers — the dominant education policy conversation in the legislature this year — is unlikely to abate even if the bill becomes law.

That debate centers on questions about whose interests vouchers serve.

Harris announced his candidacy on Twitter.
Harris announced his candidacy on Twitter.

Voucher proponents say giving new options to low-income students zoned to the state’s lowest performing schools — most of which are in Memphis — will help the students achieve more.

Critics charge that vouchers would drain funding from public schools — a crucial issue in Memphis, where local schools face yearly budget and enrollment pressures amid state-led efforts to overhaul low-performing schools. They also note that because private schools would not have to accept vouchers or provide transportation, vouchers would provide false hope for many families.

Harris, who already followed anti-voucher as well as anti-testing advocacy groups like “Momma Bears” on Twitter, said he was moved by parents and public school teachers at the rally who insisted that vouchers would harm their fragile school district — and disturbed by the presence of representatives from Black Alliance for Educational Options, a national nonprofit group that advocates for school choice, including vouchers.

Those representatives — about half a dozen, compared to about 30 anti-voucher activists — wore matching yellow scarves and held signs printed by the California-based advocacy group StudentsFirst.

“I was looking at the slick signs and the matching scarves and I thought, ‘What’s wrong with this picture? How many of those people actually have kids in public school? Do you have children?'” Harris said on Tuesday. “They’re not a parent. They’re not on the ground. If they had kids, they didn’t mention it.”

That’s a common critique, says Tennessee BAEO director Mendell Grinter. But he said his group had brought parents from low-performing schools to the rally — to listen, not debate.

“We try to give parents as much information as possible to help them make a decision (about schooling),” he said. “We never make a decision for them.”

Harris, who is white and has two children in Germantown’s school district, a more affluent district that exited Shelby County Schools in 2014, said he left the rally “feeling empty” after listening to impassioned community members talk about their opposition to vouchers, their fears on the impact of vouchers on public schools — and their fears that no one was listening.

He then tried to call his local representative, Steve McManus of Cordova — who serves on the panel deciding today whether vouchers should advance — and got no response. That’s what inspired him to file papers to run against McManus in the Republican primary this August.

“I can at least call people back,” Harris said.

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.

First Person

From ‘abandoned’ to ‘blessed,’ Newark teacher sees herself in her students

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Jennifer Palumbo

As I sit down to write about my journey to the USA, all I can think of is the word “blessed.”

You see my story to become Ms. Palumbo started as a whole other person with a different name in a different country. I was born in Bogota, Colombia, but my parents either could not keep me or did not want me. I was, according to my adoption papers, “abandoned.” Abandoned is defined as “having been deserted or cast off.” Not a great start to my story, I know.

Well I was then put in an orphanage for children who had no family. Yes at this point I had no family, no home, not even a name.
I spent the first 10 months of my life in this orphanage. Most children at 10 months are crawling, trying to talk, holding their bottles, and some are even walking. Since I spent 10 months laying in a crib, I did none of those things.

Despite that my day to be chosen arrived. I was adopted by an Italian American couple who, after walking up and down rows of babies and children, chose to adopt me. My title just changed from abandoned to chosen.

But that wasn’t the only thing about to change. My first baby passport to leave Colombia is with the name given by the orphanage to an abandoned baby girl with no one. When I arrived in America my parents changed that name to Jennifer Marie Palumbo and began my citizenship and naturalization paperwork so I could become an U.S. citizen.

They tried to make a little Colombian girl an Italian American, so I was raised speaking only English. Eating lots of pasta and living a typical American lifestyle. But as I grew up I knew there was something more — I was something more.

By fourth grade, I gravitated to the Spanish girls that moved into town and spent many after-schools and sleepovers looking to understand who I was. I began to learn how to dance to Spanish music and eat Spanish foods.

I would try to speak and understand the language the best I could even though I could not use it at home. In middle school, high school, and three semesters at Kean University, I studied Spanish. I traveled to Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Honduras to explore Spanish culture and language. I finally felt like the missing piece of my puzzle was filled.

And then the opportunity to come to Hawkins Street School came and as what — a bilingual second-grade teacher. I understood these students in a way that is hard to explain.

They are like me but in a way backwards.

They are fluent in Spanish and hungry to obtain fluency in English to succeed in the world. I was fluent in English with a hunger to obtain it in Spanish to succeed in the world. I feel as a child I lost out.

My road until now has by far not been an easy one, but I am a blessed educated Hispanic American. I know that my road is not over. There are so many places to see, so many food to taste, and so many songs to dance too.

I thank my students over the past four years for being such a big part of this little “abandoned” baby who became a “chosen” child grown into a “blessed teacher.” They fill my heart and I will always be here to help them have a blessed story because the stars are in their reach no matter what language barrier is there.

We can break through!

Palumbo is a second-grade bilingual teacher Hawkins Street School. This essay is from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.