Movers and Shakers

Newest member of Indianapolis school board says “I have two ears and I am willing to listen”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Dorene Rodriguez Hoops

As the newest member of the Indianapolis Public Schools board, Dorene Rodriguez Hoops has first-hand experience with many of the challenges families face. She is a first-generation Mexican American and a fluent Spanish speaker. She is the mother of a son with special needs. And she is the only current IPS parent on the board.

But Hoops, who was appointed to fill a vacancy, is reluctant to take on the mantle of spokesperson.

“I was appointed, and so I’m very aware of that too. I wasn’t elected by my district,” she said. “I am all these things, right — I am a parent; I am Spanish speaking; I am a parent with a special needs child; I am a woman. But more than anything, I have two ears and I am willing to listen.”

Hoops background reflects that of many in this country who feel their voices are not being heard by the new administration. But Hoops, who has long been interested in education, said President Donald Trump’s victory didn’t impact her decision to apply for the seat.

“My thinking is to try to be my best as a commissioner, and everyone else can decide how the different facets of me impact that,” said Hoops, who represents District 5, which runs along the the northwest corridor of the city.

Hoops’ interest in education stems from her own background as a student. She was raised by her mother, a single parent who emigrated from Mexico. As a child growing up in California, her mother worked 12-hour days at a restaurant to save up enough to buy a home and send her daughter to Catholic school. But Hoops always knew she would go to college.

“She really impressed upon me, school, school, school, even though she had at best a second- or third-grade education,” Hoops said. “To her, education was like my opportunity.”

Hoops did so well at University of California Davis that she won a full-ride scholarship for a masters in public policy at University of Michigan, and over a 13-year career in human resources, she rose to vice-president of a nonprofit with 600 employees. But when she and her husband realized their young son Cannon, who has cerebral palsy, would need dedicated care, Hoops decided to leave her job. Over the last decade, she has focused on raising Cannon, who is 12-years-old, and their four-year-old daughter, Avalon.

When Hoops and her family moved to Indianapolis in 2011, they enrolled Cannon at Center for Inquiry School 27. As the parent of a child with special needs, she has become an amateur expert at navigating the school system. She meets with a team of educators regularly to plan for his schooling and make sure he has the tools and assistance he needs to thrive. And she is so informed about the process that she has helped other parents access the resources available for students.

As a parent at School 27, Hoops has been an active member of the Parent Student Teacher Association. She helps recruit parents for the group, said Nailah Rowan, who is vice-president. And she was an essential advocate for redoing the nearby park.

Rowan said that she has the temperament to mediate contentious issues and recognize what problems are serious enough to need attention.

“She’s a very compassionate person, and she’s really understanding,” Rowan said.

Although she has a background in public policy, Hoops is not yet an education “policy wonk,” she said. But she’s been an attentive watcher of the district, and she is supportive of administration plans to give principals more flexibility and to partner with charter schools.

“These charter schools exist in the community,” she said. “The idea makes sense that you want to as a district to cooperate and work with them and learn from them.”

Powerful Parents

‘Sharing their hearts’: Why these parents became advocates for Memphis students

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy organization, is training its ninth cohort of public advocate fellows.

While their children are out of school for the summer, a local parent group is using this time to hit the books.

Memphis Lift, a non-profit organization in North Memphis, aims to amplify the voices of those who, some say, have historically been excluded from conversations surrounding their schools. Many of those conversations, said organizer Dianechia Fields, have made out parents like her to be “scapegoats” for students’ struggles in the classroom.

“It’s easy to blame someone who’s not there in the room,” she said. “Instead of blaming parents as the problem, we’re inviting parents to the table to be part of the solution.”

Fields is the director of the program’s Public Advocate Fellowship, which was created three years ago by Natasha Kamrani and John Little, who came to Memphis from Nashville to train local parents to become advocates for school equity. Funded in part by the Memphis Education Fund, the program pays fellows $500 when they graduate the course. (Chalkbeat also receives support from local philanthropies connected to Memphis Education Fund. You can learn more about our funding here.)

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
The Public Advocate Fellowship was created three years ago. This year, the program will have trained 300 fellows.

On Tuesday, Lift held the first of ten sessions for its ninth cohort of fellows. This month, 19 parents and grandparents will learn about topics such as the history of education in Memphis and school funding. At each session, they’ll receive coaching from special guests and alumni fellows, and they’ll also make connections with local education leaders.

In order to better communicate with decision-makers, the group will complete public speaking exercises with the help of coach Darius Wallace. His focus this week: getting fellows to “share their hearts.”

In Wednesday’s class, Wallace asked the cohort to think hard about who they’re advocating for, what pain that person may feel, and what their dream is moving forward. Here’s what a few of them had to say:

Jerrineka Hampton, a Shelby County Schools teacher, is advocating for her students at Treadwell Elementary, who often lack access to the materials they need, like pens or paper. Her dream is to “close the economic and academic gap” in schools like hers, and to help train others to do the same.

Shanita Knox, a mother of two, is advocating for her 10- year- old son, who struggles with his speech and is often bullied because of it. Her dream for him is to “do whatever he wants in life without having to work a dead-end job.”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
The parents are asked to share with each other their hopes for their children.

Patricia Robinson is advocating for her granddaughter, whose father is incarcerated. Robinson’s dream is for her to take the pain and loneliness she feels and “learn how to talk about it.”

Violet Odom, a mother of two, is advocating for her daughter, a soon-to-be middle schooler who is dealing with mental health challenges. Odom’s dream is for her daughter to “be able to live a normal life and use her voice to explain how she feels.”

Aimee Justice, a mother of three, is advocating for her son, who comes from a multiracial family. Her dream is for Memphis schools to become places where students of all nationalities can learn from each other.

Trenika Bufford is advocating for other kids in the system who, like her college-aged son, have been belittled by school officials. Through tears, she said she wished she listened to her son when he was younger. Her dream is to have a relationship with him again.

As the women shared their stories, Wallace and the group gave feedback on their delivery. As they practiced more, the fellows began to make more eye contact, speak louder and more directly, and use body language.

“People make decisions when they’re emotional,” Wallace reminded them. “Facts tell. Stories sell.”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Ahada Elton smiles at her son. A mother of four, Elton said she wants to advocate for parents unaware of the opportunities schools offer, especially for children with special needs.

Effective communication will become even more important as the cohort prepares for their last session. That’s when they’ll work together to create a plan of action to tackle an issue in their community. This year, the group is already discussing taking steps toward unified enrollment, a centralized system that allows parents to easily compare schools in the same district.

And while that’s no small feat, it wouldn’t be the first time the group has tackled a project this large. Two years ago, graduating fellows knocked on about 1,200 doors throughout the city to inform other parents about local priority schools assigned to the state-run achievement school district.

That’s when alumna Kiara Jackson heard about the fellowship. Jackson, 24, was pregnant at the time with her third child, and she was living with her father in the North Memphis neighborhood when director Sarah Carpenter knocked on her window and told her about the program.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Kiara Jackson, an alumna fellow, shares her testimony with the new cohort.

“I was a concerned parent,” she said, “but I didn’t even know the types of questions to get answers to.”

Shortly after, Jackson started going to Lift’s weekly classes, where she learned about quality schools in the area. Since joining the fellowship’s fourth cohort last year, Jackson had the opportunity to travel to Cincinnati and advocate for charter schools such as the one she’s working to get her daughter into.

“I enjoy the power that I have as a parent,” she said. “… With us being from low-income communities, they try to deny us our rights as parents. But our kids can get better educations”

When the class graduates next month, the fellowship will have trained 300 members, mostly women, since it launched in 2015. This past year, the group offered training for Spanish-speaking parents led by alumna Carmelita Hernandez. Now, the program is working on creating its first all-male cohort for fathers and grandfathers.

Tennessee Votes 2018

Early voting begins Friday in Tennessee. Here’s where your candidates stand on education.

PHOTO: Creative Commons

Tennesseans begin voting on Friday in dozens of crucial elections that will culminate on Aug. 2.

Democrats and Republicans will decide who will be their party’s gubernatorial nominee. Those two individuals will face off in November to replace outgoing Republican Gov. Bill Haslam. Tennessee’s next governor will significantly shape public education, and voters have told pollsters that they are looking for an education-minded leader to follow Haslam.

In Memphis, voters will have a chance to influence schools in two elections, one for school board and the other for county commission, the top local funder for schools, which holds the purse strings for schools.

To help you make more informed decisions, Chalkbeat asked candidates in these four races critical questions about public education.

Here’s where Tennessee’s Democratic candidates for governor stand on education

Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and state Rep. Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley hope to become the state’s first Democratic governor in eight years.

Tennessee’s Republican candidates for governor answer the big questions on education

U.S. Rep. Diane Black, businessman Randy Boyd, Speaker of the House Beth Harwell, and businessman Bill Lee are campaigning to succeed fellow Republican Haslam as governor, but first they must defeat each other in the 2018 primary election.

Memphis school board candidates speak out on what they want to change

Fifteen people are vying for four seats on the Shelby County Schools board this year. That’s much higher stakes compared to two years ago when five seats were up for election with only one contested race.

Aspiring county leaders in charge of money for Memphis schools share their views

The Shelby County Board of Commissioners and county mayor are responsible for most school funding in Memphis. Chalkbeat sent a survey to candidates asking their thoughts on what that should look like.

Early voting runs Mondays through Saturdays until Saturday, July 28. Election Day is Thursday, Aug. 2.