leader change

Memphis leader of Teach for America stepping down this spring

PHOTO: Teach for America Memphis
From left: Athena Palmer, executive director of Teach for America Memphis, Ayo Akinmoladun and Barbara Rosser Hyde.

The leader of Memphis’ largest alternative teacher training program is stepping down at the end of the school year after nine years at the helm.

Athena Palmer was in the first cohort of 48 Teach for America recruits to Memphis in 2006 and took over as executive director in 2010. Over the next six months, Palmer will hand over the program to Nafeesha Mitchell, a 2009 member of Teach for America in Charlotte who worked her way up to assistant principal before returning to lead the national organization’s chapter there.

In an email to colleagues Thursday, Palmer said she doesn’t know yet where she’ll go next.

“Someone really smart once told me that knowing when to leave is just as hard as knowing when to stay committed,” she said. “As our current strategic plan comes to an end and with our region in an incredible place from which to innovate in the sector, it became clear to me that this was a great time to embrace the feeling I have for my next adventure.”

PHOTO: Teach for America
Athena Palmer

The competitive national program places mostly recent college graduates in schools that districts have a hard time staffing. Teach for America has welcomed about 1,200 teachers over the past 12 years in Memphis with a commitment to stay in the classroom for two years. This year, 263 teachers are in 108 traditional and charter schools, including the state’s Achievement School District. That’s fewer than in previous years, keeping in line with national trends.

The program has consistently received high marks from the Tennessee Department of Education in its annual teacher preparation report card, and has enjoyed wide support from local and national philanthropies. Teacher unions have been wary of the program’s influence because the teachers have little training before going into classrooms that can be difficult to manage.

About 500 alumni of the program are still in Memphis, according to recent numbers from the organization, including 100 school administrators, 300 teachers, and five in charter network or district leadership roles. Among them is Brad Leon, a member of the top cabinet for Shelby County Schools who was the first regional director for Teach for America in Memphis.

PHOTO: Teach for America
Nafeesha Mitchell

Under Palmer’s leadership, the teachers recruited have more closely matched the students they serve in race and economic background. This year, 42 percent of recruits were teachers of color, and 42 percent came from low-income families. In the organization’s first year in Memphis there were three teachers of color, or 6 percent. By comparison, about 93 percent of Shelby County Schools were composed of students of color that year and 59 percent lived in poverty.

Mitchell, who will take over in June, is a vice president on the national organization’s leadership and engagement team. She starts as deputy director immediately and will be in Memphis full time in January, according to a statement.

“Memphis is regarded around the country as one of the model Teach For America chapters,” she said. “Athena and her team have built something incredible here, and I’m thrilled to be able to expand on her work and push all of us even harder to reach our goal of true and lasting equity for all children in this great city.”

Q&A

Testing, vouchers, and pre-K: Tennessee legislature’s new ed leader weighs in

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Rep. Mark White is the new chairman of Tennessee's House Education Committee, a legislative gatekeeper for hundreds of bills dealing with public education. The Memphis Republican has served in the House since 2010.

With a major shift in leadership happening at the State Capitol, the new chairman of Tennessee’s House Education Committee wants to make sure that the state doesn’t backslide when it comes to public education.

Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican in office since 2010, was tapped by House Speaker Glen Casada last week to lead the powerful committee, while Sen. Dolores Gresham of Somerville will continue to chair the Senate Education Committee.

White and Gresham believe that Tennessee’s gains on national tests beginning in 2013 stem from stronger academic standards in classrooms and test score-driven systems for holding students, teachers, schools, and districts accountable. Both have said they don’t want to see dramatic changes to the state’s school improvement policies.

“There’s always things you can tweak or make better, but we don’t want to kill the things that are working,” White said. “We’ve made so many positive gains in the last eight years under Gov. Bill Haslam that I want to make sure we don’t go backward.”

White, 68, holds an education degree from the University of Memphis and was a science teacher and principal in the 1970s at Harding Academy, a private high school in Memphis, before starting an event business

Before his appointment, he spoke with Chalkbeat about issues on the horizon, Tennessee’s testing dilemma, the buzz on school vouchers under governor-elect Bill Lee, and whether there’s an appetite to invest more money in pre-K. This Q&A has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

What are some of the big issues you expect to tackle this year in the legislature?

We need more alignment between K-12 and higher education with more opportunities for students to pursue dual enrollment [which enables students to take college-level courses while they’re in high school]. We also want more vocational and technical education courses so that students are being introduced to marketable skills during high school. We want more of our students to come out of high school with not only a diploma but also a certificate for a particular skill. If you can get them interested in a skill in high school, students much more likely to move on and, if they like working with their hands and have a certification, maybe go straight to work.

Tennessee has yet to cleanly administer and score its TNReady test during the last three years. Can the state restore the credibility of its testing program?

No superintendent has come to me and said we don’t like the test. They like the data that TNReady generates based on our higher standards. The issue has been online administration. I’m pleased that we’re just testing high school students online this year. I don’t know that elementary grades should ever test online. But for all grades, we’ve got to get testing right this year. We can’t afford another year of problems.

What about the amount of testing? Even with the elimination of two high school exams this school year, many teachers and parents are concerned that students test too much, especially in high school where Tennessee exceeds federal requirements.

We’re going to keep looking at that. Through the work of the state’s testing task force, we eliminated chemistry and English III this school year. But I believe that, if we’re going to test to the highest standards, we’ve got to test to make sure there’s been a full year of growth and that teachers are teaching effectively.


After years of school voucher rejections, backers consider another approach in Tennessee


School vouchers are a perennial issue in the legislature and, with a new governor wanting to give parents more education options, do you think this will be the year that some type of voucher bill passes?

There may be a lot of talk about vouchers or education savings accounts, but I don’t think it’s the right climate yet. With the Lee administration being new, I don’t know if they’re going to push it. And even if they do push it, it probably won’t be this year.

I believe in parental choice, but the problem with vouchers moving forward is accountability. We’ve worked so hard making sure the public schools are accountable with testing that if we just give a parent money to go to a private school of their choice or to choose other services and we don’t have any accountability, then I would be against it. If we’re talking about taxpayer dollars and we’re holding one group accountable, then we’ve got to hold everybody accountable.

You’ve been a point person on early childhood education. Is anything happening there?

I’ve talked a lot with Tennesseans for Quality Early Education, and they’re wanting to expand our pre-K programs. I don’t want to lose the conversation around pre-K dollars, but I do think it would be better to think in terms of pre-K through the third grade. Right now only a third of our kids are reading on grade level by third grade, so how do we invest our money up until that milestone grade? I think that would be an easier conversation.

I also think that these are the issues that really matter in Tennessee and are going to lead to improvements. This year in the legislature, I’d like to talk about the things that make a difference and not just sit there and debate whether you like TNReady or not. Those conversations don’t move the needle. It’s old news.

Rosters

Meet the Tennessee lawmakers who will shape education legislation this year

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Newly named committees for the 111th Tennessee General Assembly will soon begin reviewing legislative proposals.

Twenty-three legislators in Tennessee’s House of Representatives and another nine in the Senate will serve as the gatekeepers for hundreds of bills dealing with public education over the next two years.

The highly anticipated committee assignments were announced Thursday by House Speaker Glen Casada and Senate Speaker Randy McNally to close out the first week of the 111th General Assembly.

Sen. Dolores Gresham of Somerville will return as chairwoman of her chamber’s education committee, while Rep. Mark White of Memphis will lead a newly combined House panel.

Both Republican leaders are strong advocates of Tennessee’s score-driven accountability systems for students, teachers, schools, and districts. And with 24 years of legislative experience between them, their appointments are viewed as stabilizing forces as Tennessee transitions to a new administration under governor-elect Bill Lee and a large class of freshmen in the House.

The Senate lineup doesn’t look significantly different from the previous session, but the House panel is markedly changed in both membership and structure.

Casada consolidated two House committees that have handled education since 2015. He also named four subcommittees to manage the heavy flow of legislation related to K-12 and higher education, which last year numbered more than 400 bills.

“The purpose of the subcommittees will be to vet the bills from the beginning,” said White. “If a bill isn’t written well or it’s not a good idea, the subcommittee should get rid of it.”

With this year’s legislature under another Republican supermajority, the GOP dominates membership on all committees. For Senate education, Raumesh Akbari of Memphis is the only Democrat, while Democrats comprise only a fourth of the membership of the House committee.

Each legislator files preferences for committee assignments, but the speaker of each chamber makes the final call on membership and leadership.

Rep. Mark White

White’s elevation to chair the House panel was anticipated, since he was the only one of four education leaders in his chamber to return this year following the retirements of Harry Brooks and Roger Kane of Knoxville, and John Forgety of Athens. Last year, White chaired his chamber’s education subcommittee on administration and planning.

But the rise of Rep. David Byrd to chair a new subcommittee raised some eyebrows. A former teacher and principal, the Waynesboro Republican has been accused of sexual misconduct by three women when he was their high school basketball coach 30 years ago. Last fall, Casada defended Byrd, likening him to then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who was also facing allegations of sexual assault from decades earlier. Byrd eventually sailed past his Democratic opponent to secure a third term in office.

The committees will get to work the week of Jan. 28, and you can learn about their schedules on the General Assembly’s website.

Newly named members and chairs are:

House Education Committee

  • Mark White, R-Memphis, chair
  • Kirk Haston, R-Lobelville, vice chair
  • Charlie Baum, R-Murfreesboro
  • David Byrd, R-Waynesboro, chair, Administration Subcommittee
  • Scott Cepicky, R-Colleoka
  • Mark Cochran, R-Englewood
  • Jim Coley, R-Bartlett, chair, Higher Education Subcommittee
  • John DeBerry Jr., D-Memphis
  • Vincent Dixie, D-Nashville
  • Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville
  • Jason Hodges, D-Clarksville
  • Chris Hurt, R-Halls
  • Tom Leatherwood, R-Arlington
  • Harold Love, D-Nashville
  • Debra Moody, R-Covington, chair, Curriculum, Testing and Innovation Subcommittee
  • Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis
  • John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, chair, K-12 Subcommittee
  • Iris Rudder, R-Winchester
  • Jerry Sexton, R-Bean Station
  • Kevin Vaughan, R-Collierville
  • Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Lancaster
  • Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville
  • John Mark Windle, D-Livingston

Senate Education Committe

  • Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, chair
  • Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, first vice chair
  • Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, second vice chair
  • Mike Bell, R-Riceville
  • Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City
  • Steven Dickerson, R-Nashville
  • Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin
  • Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald
  • Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol