McKissack brings a statewide view and experience building schools from the ground up

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
McKissack drops off her daughter, Bliss, every morning at Downtown Elementary School.

Michelle Robinson McKissack thinks of her decision to run for Shelby County Schools board as a “slow drip.” There wasn’t a singular moment that convinced her, but she saw a lot as a parent organizer in Downtown Elementary School’s inaugural class 15 years ago.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
McKissack drops off her daughter, Bliss, every morning at Downtown Elementary School.

She was one of the parent leaders who raised money to hire local artists to take turns teaching art to young students when the school opened but could not afford an art class. And she still helps lead the annual Turkey Trot walk to raise money to replace computers and bring in more technology, such as interactive Wii video game systems for physical education classes.

“I just put my heart and soul in Downtown Elementary,” she said. All four of her children have gone through the school.

“I know challenging environments,” she said. “I know what students are having to deal with just from my time at Downtown Elementary; it’s a great school because of its diversity in terms of economic background. When you walk through those doors, you don’t know who has and who has not.”

McKissack went on to serve as the president of the school’s parent-teacher organization, help develop curriculum for a high school marketing and business class, and serve on the state’s parent advisory council to give feedback on state education policy. Most recently she was a founding board member for one of Shelby County Schools’ newest charter schools, Crosstown High School. She is stepping down from that role this week and is also leaving Memphis Parent Magazine, where she has been editor since 2016.

McKissack, 49, turned heads during the school board election because of the outpouring of campaign funds from TennesseeCAN, a Nashville-based education advocacy organization. Altogether, the organization spent about $56,000 on campaign mailers, canvassing, phone calls, and text messages in support of McKissack. She had gone before the county commission in 2011 to be appointed to the school board, but Chris Caldwell, the incumbent she beat in the election earlier this month, won the seat.

McKissack and the others who won their races — Joyce Dorse-Coleman, Shante Avant, and Billy Orgel — are scheduled to be sworn in at 5 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 29, at the district’s central office. Chalkbeat recently talked with McKissack about why she ran and what she hopes to see change. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
McKissack’s mother-in-law, Patricia C. McKissack, authored several children’s books available at Downtown Elementary School’s library.

Tell us more about yourself.

I’m one of five children and attended Campus Elementary, where I was one of a few black students. I went on to White Station Middle, and graduated from White Station High School in 1987. I love to write and my parents never tried to steer us into what they thought we should do. They observed what our interests were and shaped it around that. When it was time to go to college, my Dad, who is an accountant, got the big, thick Peterson’s Complete Guide to Colleges and made a spreadsheet for me to compare where I wanted to go. I went to Northwestern for my bachelor’s and master’s degrees and eventually came back to Memphis for a job in TV news after I got married. I knew what I had and what Memphis offered to me, and I thought that would be a good environment for my children.

While you were on the state’s parent advisory board what were some things that stuck out to you?

It just gave me a lens into what education is like outside of Shelby County and what’s happening in Middle Tennessee, East Tennessee on the other side of the state, and what’s happening in rural school districts. When you’re in a bubble and you’re so immersed in that, it’s hard to see that as much as our environments may be different, a lot of the challenges we are facing are the same. So, that was a big concern about bringing equity across the state because I learned there are children in rural districts that didn’t have access to computers. Literally, to prepare for the online testing that TNReady was supposed to be, they created keyboards out of cardboard to simulate what these kids would face until they got the equipment. The shortcomings we have here in Shelby County Schools – they still have more access to computers than a cardboard cutout. So, that was really interesting.

But the number one concern was TNReady testing, and what we believed to be too much testing. That was a commonality across the board from all of the parents from every single district. We wanted to see less teaching to the test and more old-fashioned teaching so students could learn and contribute to their communities.

You said in one of your survey answers that you want Shelby County Schools to take a more proactive approach when it comes to state testing problems. What do you think that should look like?

I was so pleased to see Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and [Nashville] Director Shawn Joseph write that very strong letter to the Tennessee Department of Education. So, that’s what I’m thinking. Instead of waiting until testing time rolls around and deal with all the problems we’ve had for the last three years — it seems like forever — to say “Hey, we’ve reached our limit here. We’re not going to go along and get along.” That letter was very encouraging to take that proactive step of laying out expectations. That’s an important first step. What that could look like going forward I think — and I’m still on the outside looking in at this point — with all these mandates and state laws for testing, at the first red flag to push back a little bit.

Related: Declaring ‘no confidence’ in TNReady, Memphis and Nashville superintendents call for pause in state testing

How did your experience helping to shape Crosstown High School, a charter school that focuses on project-based learning, influence your desire to run?

It wasn’t until I became really involved with Crosstown High School that I said I want to bring more of this perspective to the broader education environment in Shelby County Schools. It was thrilling to help develop a school from the ground up. With Crosstown, I helped in discussing curriculum, I was in the interview process for the executive director, for the principal, for the teachers to a lesser degree. It was completely shaping a school from zero. I feel like coming to Shelby County school board with my background — I came up through public schools in Memphis, I got a great education, my children are currently getting a great education, my son has gone on to Yale University — I have something to contribute to Shelby County Schools that could impact so many students. It wasn’t a school that’s exclusive to being in the optional program; it was open to all students. That is something we can do more of in Shelby County Schools.

Related: Designing diversity: How one Memphis charter school set out to recruit its students

Be sure to check out our Q&A with the other newest member of the Shelby County Schools board, Joyce Dorse-Coleman.

Top teacher

Former Tennessee teacher of the year wins prestigious national award

Cicely Woodard, an eighth-grade math teacher in Franklin, receives the 2019 NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence. (Photo courtesy of NEA)

Former Tennessee teacher of the year Cicely Woodard has received the nation’s highest teaching honor through its largest teacher organization.

The eighth-grade math educator in Franklin accepted the Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence from the NEA Foundation. The honor, which includes a $25,000 prize, was presented Friday at a gala in Washington, D.C.

“Teaching can be time-consuming, challenging, and sometimes overwhelming,” said Woodard. “But the impact that we make on the lives of students — and that they make on us — is powerful, life-changing, and enduring.”

A graduate of Central High School in Memphis, Woodard has been a teacher since 2003. She taught in Nashville public schools when she was named Tennessee’s top teacher in 2018 and has since moved to Franklin Special School District in Williamson County, south of Nashville, where she teaches at Freedom Middle School.

Woodard was among 46 educators nominated for the NEA Foundation award by their state education associations and was one of five finalists who received the Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence, which carries an additional $10,000 prize. The Member Benefits Award winner was announced at the finale of the gala attended by 900 people.

“Cicely has been selected for this award by her peers not only because of her mastery as an educator, but also because of the empathy and compassion she shows for her students,” said Harriet Sanford, president and CEO of the NEA Foundation.

Known for her inquiry-based approach to mathematics, Woodard holds a bachelor’s degree in math from the University of Memphis and a master’s degree in secondary math education from Vanderbilt University.

She has had numerous state-level roles, including serving on the education department’s teachers cabinet and on the testing task force created by former Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. She also is on the steering committee for the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a Nashville-based education research and advocacy organization.

You can watch Woodard in her classroom in the video below.

Penny Schwinn

What we heard from Tennessee’s education commissioner during her first week

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn (right) speaks with students during a visit to LEAD Neely's Bend, a state-run charter school in Nashville. (Photo courtesy of LEAD Public Schools)

From students in the classroom to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Penny Schwinn introduced herself as Tennessee’s education commissioner this week by praising the state’s academic gains over the last decade and promising to keep up that momentum by supporting school communities.

Schwinn toured seven schools in Middle and East Tennessee during her first three days on the job to get a firsthand look at what’s behind the academic growth that she’s watched from afar as chief accountability officer for Delaware’s education department and more recently as deputy commissioner over academics in Texas. She plans to visit schools in West Tennessee next week.

The goal, she said, is to “listen and learn,” and she told a statewide gathering of superintendents at midweek that Tennessee’s successes can be traced to the classroom.

“It has to do with the hard work of our educators … every single day getting up, walking in front of our children, and saying ‘You deserve an excellent education, and I’m going to be the one to give it to you,’” she said.

On policy, she affirmed Tennessee’s decade-long blueprint of setting rigorous academic standards, having a strong assessment to track performance, and holding school communities accountable for results.

“If we can keep that bar high … then I think that Tennessee will continue to improve at the rate that it has been,” she told legislators during an appearance before the House Education Committee.

Schwinn was the final cabinet member to start her job after being hired by Republican Gov. Bill Lee just days before his inauguration on Jan. 19. Her whirlwind first week began with school visits on Monday and concluded on Friday by attending a policy-heavy session of the State Board of Education.

But perhaps the biggest introduction came on Wednesday before district leaders attending a statewide meeting of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, also known as TOSS. These are the local administrators she’ll work with most closely to try to improve student performance.

The superintendents group had stayed neutral about who should succeed Candice McQueen in the state’s top policy job but hoped for a leader with extensive experience both in the classroom and as a Tennessee school superintendent. Schwinn is neither, having started her career in a Baltimore classroom through Teach For America and later founding a charter school in her hometown of Sacramento, California, where she also was a principal and then became an assistant district superintendent.

She appeared to wow them.

“Our job at the state Department of Education is to figure out what you all need to help your teachers be the best that they can be for our students. My job is to lead this department to ensure that this happens,” she told the superintendents.

Schwinn shared a personal story about adopting her oldest daughter, now age 6, and the “powerful moment” at the hospital when the birth mom said she loved her baby but couldn’t provide her with the future she deserves. “I think you can,” she told Schwinn, “and so I’m giving you my baby.”

Penny Schwinn speaks to the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents. (Photo courtesy of TOSS)

“When I think about my responsibility as a teacher or a principal or as commissioner of the state of Tennessee, I think about all of our parents … who pack up lunches, pack up backpacks, drop them off at the door and they give us their babies,” she said.

“That is the most powerful and important responsibility that we have as educators,” she said, “and I take that very, very seriously.”

Several superintendents stood up to thank her.

“I am encouraged. I feel like you have the heart that we all have,” said Linda Cash, who leads Bradley County Schools in southeast Tennessee.

“What she did most is she listened,” said TOSS Executive Director Dale Lynch of his earlier meeting with Schwinn. “As superintendents and directors, that’s very important to us.”

Here are other things we heard Schwinn say this week:

On whether Tennessee will continue its 3-year-old literacy program known as Read to be Ready:

“It is incredibly important that we have initiatives that stick and that have staying power. I think we’ve all had the experience of having … one-and-done initiatives that come and go. … From [my early school] visits, it was underscored time and time again the importance of initiatives like that.”

On the role of early childhood education:

“I think that early education — and that’s both academic and social development — is incredibly important to ensure that we get kindergartners who are ready to learn and ready to be successful.”

On the state-run turnaround district for Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools:

“High expectations are the vision of the Achievement School District, but I think there’s a lot of work to be done candidly. There are good conversations to be had and some questions to be asked. But I will say that I am committed to ensuring that our lowest-performing schools achieve and grow at a much faster rate than they have been.”

On Texas’ academic growth in the 1990s that later flattened:

“They got very comfortable. It was, ‘We’re just doing just fine, we’re doing a great job,’ and then slowly some of the big reforms that they put into place in the ’90s started peeling back little by little. … It’s hard to get things done, but it’s really hard to hold the line.”

Here are six other things to know about Penny Schwinn.