classroom to congress

Can Ms. Hayes go to Washington? A national teacher of the year explains why she’s running for Congress

PHOTO: Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
2016 National Teacher of the Year Jahana Hayes after taking the stage with U.S. President Barack Obama, Education Secretary John King, and her fellow state teachers of the year during a ceremony in the White House in 2016.

Jahana Hayes thinks what Washington, D.C. needs is a schoolteacher — one of the nation’s top teachers, in fact.

Hayes, the 2016 national teacher of the year, is running for Congress. The history and civics teacher says she hadn’t expected to get into politics. But after more than a year of traveling the country talking to teachers, and continuing to encourage her own students to take on new responsibilities, she said she had an epiphany.

“Who’s going to speak for them?” she said. “I started to think about it in a realistic way. There’s a perspective that has been missing for way too long.”

Hayes is vying for an open Democratic seat in Connecticut, where she’s taught high school for over a decade in the same school district she grew up attending. She’s been in the race for a drama-filled few weeks: she seemed to have won the party’s endorsement at the state convention before a vote switch turned a narrow victory into a defeat.

But she’s still set to compete in the state’s Democratic primary in August, running against another candidate with an extensive education background. And her candidacy comes as teacher strikes across the country have focused new attention on educators in politics.

Hayes has won over some institutional support, including the backing of some local unions, and was encouraged to run by U.S. Senator Chris Murphy.

Voters may be attracted to Hayes’ personal story. “Despite being surrounded by abject poverty, drugs and violence, my teachers made me believe that I was college material and planted a seed of hope,” Hayes said at the National Education Association convention in 2016. “I identify with my students because I am my students and I know what it feels like when every statistic and everything around you is an indicator or a predictor of failure.”

For now, Hayes still works for Waterbury Public Schools, a largely low-income district where she is a talent and professional development supervisor; if she wins, Hayes would be only the second African-American to represent Connecticut in Congress.

Hayes recently spoke with Chalkbeat, and although she generally avoided offering specific policy proposals, Hayes said she hoped that her knowledge of the classroom could help policymakers — including Betsy DeVos — make smarter decisions.

“I need for this president to do well, because if he does well that means we do well,” she said.

Chalkbeat: Why are you running for Congress?

Hayes: I have always been involved — very civically engaged, registering people to vote, holding forums about the issues, sort of the mule that helps other people get over the line and get elected. When the seat opened up, some of our party leaders approached me and said, you should really think about this. I was like, no way. I started to think of all the reasons why I shouldn’t do it or why I couldn’t do it because I’ve never considered myself a politician.

I took a group of kids to California over spring break to build for Habitat for Humanity and I’m saying to myself, you’re telling these kids they can do whatever they want, you can be whatever you want, and here you are checking yourself. I kind of just had an epiphany, like, who’s going to speak for them?

I started to think about it in a realistic way. There’s a perspective that has been missing for way too long. My husband’s like, “Why do you keep thinking about it if the answer’s no?” And I said,  “Because I think I can be impactful,” and he said, “Then you have to do it.”

I think it was kind of my drive to just do for myself what I’ve done for so many young people.

If you’re elected, what substantive things are you hoping to accomplish?

One of the first things that I think that me being elected would do is help to expand the definition of what a representative is supposed to be. I’ve had people say to me, “I think that the legislative branch should be composed of people who have a law degree or have political experience.” I have to remind them that’s not a true representation of all people in this district.

As far as issues, I think obviously there are so many challenges in education. It pains me to think that public education is in peril right now. I know that I can bring a perspective and knowledge and expertise in that area that is critical. If we start to dismantle public education now, I don’t know how we’ll ever rebuild it.

Can you talk about what you mean when you say ‘dismantling public education’?

I think that there needs to be a true balance. There’s a lot of talk about moving public money to charter schools and letting the parents decide. Whenever I hear that I’m reminded of the fact that that’s a system that would have excluded me because I didn’t have a parent to do that, to advocate for me.

Isn’t a better solution to make all of our schools the best that they can be, so that even absent a parent, if a kid attends a school in this country, they’ll get a high-quality education?

The response to that would probably be, “We’ve tried to make all schools better, but some schools are still struggling and we should give parents and families an option out of those struggling schools.”

I get it, I get it. As a parent, especially in a community like mine, we have schools that have been on the failing list year after year after year. A parent doesn’t want to hear that we’re working on public education and we’ll have it fixed in the next 20 years because they’re worried about their child right now. So I get it, and I recognize that those parents deserve the option to save their child, which is in essence what they believe they’re doing.

I think that there’s value in that and they should be given the option, but there has to be a healthy balance, because those options — of having the funding follow kids — really service a small group of kids and leave so many other kids behind.

So what is your specific policy view on charters and vouchers? Would you say they should not exist?

There is value; those are not very simplistic systems. That also is a response to some of the challenges in public education, but is there the same level of accountability? What happens when kids have specific special needs that need to be addressed? What happens if they’re not successful in those schools? What plans are put in place? We have to make sure that even in that system, people’s human and civil rights are still protected.

A better idea than drawing a hard line of demarcation and separating the two is to work together to see what is working about this network. What can we duplicate and filter out into the public education system?

Just to totally understand your position: Is there any sort of private school voucher system that you would support, that you would say, ‘This makes sense, let’s try this at some scale’?

There is. I have seen some public charters that have been very successful. The process has to be transparent. All kids have to have a fair opportunity for admittance or acceptance. Some of the model that I’ve seen work very well in charters is the parent engagement piece, which has been tremendous. That’s something that the public school system is starving for.

I was asking there about vouchers, though, as in vouchers to send a kid to a private school. Do you have a similar position on charters and vouchers or do you see them differently?

I see them differently. A charter system can still be public and continue to support the public education system. I think as we increase the number of vouchers that are provided, it takes away from the public school system. I think it’s critical that we have a viable and robust public school system. If changes need to be made for improvement, then we make changes and improve it.

One of the cornerstones of this country is the fact that we educate our children. I have to stand for public education.

What do you think about Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos?

I think that there’s been a lot of missed opportunities.

I was teacher of the year doing that transition. I had done a lot of work with the previous Secretary John King. When she came in I was actually excited because I recognized that she had a very different position, but I said, this will be an opportunity to sit at the table and learn from each other.

It almost feels like she’s going to avoid anyone who thinks differently than her. This could have been an opportunity to invite public school teachers in, to invite teachers unions, all of these entities, and have some robust and real conversations like, “Help me understand what your concerns are and I’ll tell you why I believe in the system that I believe in,” and then we can come to some healthy consensus.

I know she did have some state teachers of the year and spoke to them.

Even that, and I’ve said this as teacher of the year, the conversation with teachers can’t just be with the most celebrated teachers in the country. One of the things that when she did the interview with CBS, and she said she hadn’t been into some of the most challenging schools in the country. I think that’s the only way you get a realistic way of what is happening, especially when you’re new to education. Take the time to hear everyone’s perspective.

This conversation only happens if it includes teachers who are struggling, teachers who are not being recognized, teachers who are in situations that are detrimental.

If you were elected, would you reach out to Secretary DeVos? Would you work with her?

Absolutely, absolutely. The only way this works, even with the current administration — I need for this president to do well, because if he does well that means we do well. I need for the secretary of education to be successful because if she’s successful that means kids are thriving.

I would welcome the opportunity to work very closely with her, to share ideas, to just be at the table to give a different perspective, to give some insight into what is happening on the ground, to say, “I know what you’re proposing, but let me help you understand what that looks like by the time it gets to the classroom level.”

Can you talk to me about your experience as teacher of the year? What did you get out of it, what did you learn, what did you do as teacher of the year? I don’t think everyone actually knows.

I don’t think I knew how it was going to be. They said you’re going to be out of the class and travel, and I was like oh OK, this will be easy. My students were like, “Wait, so you’re teacher of the year and now you don’t teach?”

I traveled the country — I was in almost every state — and what I learned is when you’re in an urban public school and you are faced with so many challenges, you kind of get this idea that you have the monopoly on the problems in public education. But I went to some of the most affluent communities that were struggling with the same challenges. I went to rural communities that had the same challenges. I talked to college presidents, institutions of higher learning, boards, policymakers.

It just widened my lens, broadened my scope and helped me to understand that everyone plays an integral role in this process. People do care about what’s happening in the classroom. There were congresspeople and legislators who were fighting just as hard as I was, and I was unaware of the work that they were doing on my behalf and on behalf of other teachers.

Can you talk to me about your actual experience as a teacher in the classroom? What were your favorite parts of it, and what were some of the biggest challenges you faced?

I loved working in this community because I’m from this community. Kids would say to me, you don’t get it, you don’t understand. They assumed — a lot of our teachers commute in from surrounding towns. I had a student, and I said to her, “You live in the same apartment that I grew up in,” and she was like, “You did not!” Just to provide that level of hope, because many of them don’t see themselves getting out of the situation that they’re in.

The other thing that I loved about being a teacher — because I am so connected to this community, I was able to engage families. My students and I, we were known for doing community service, for going into the toughest neighborhoods, and taking a blighted property and cleaning it up, or doing a Habitat for Humanity build right here in this city. What I wanted them to see was you still have the capacity to be a giver, no matter how bad things feel or seem to you.

That’s a very non-traditional way to look at teaching, but what I found very quickly was that those two things helped me to be a really good teacher in my classroom because I had a different level of investment.

When kids came to my class they wanted to do well. They wanted me to see what they were capable of. And I saw tremendous improvement in so many ways. I became a part of their life in a very different way. I went to college graduations, I went to weddings and birthday parties and cultural festivals around the city because I wanted them to know that their life and what they were experiencing was very important to me. So that’s what I loved about working here.

When I was named teacher of the year I had so many people say, oh, now you can go work here or you can go work here. And I was like, you don’t understand. I’m right where I want to be.

Can you talk about some of the challenges you faced as teacher or you think other teachers faced, and then segue into what some of the policy solutions that policymakers should be paying attention to help improve schools?

One of our biggest challenges here was obviously parent engagement and the views of parents who are disengaged. One of the things I tried to do in my district was to help them understand we need to look at this differently, maybe we need to be a little bit more proactive, schedule things differently, get out into the communities instead of expecting parents to come to us all the time.

Most of our school systems promote post-secondary education. I live in a factory town where most of the families are blue-collar workers; we really have to do more to support those families and children, so really investing in and supporting career-readiness programs and helping to ensure kids have what they need if they choose not to go to college.

What has it been like to run for Congress? What has surprised you about the process?

I am so pleased with the number of young people who have expressed an interest in being involved in the process. I had hundreds of former students, community members who had previously not been engaged in the process show up at the convention. That for me was great.

I entered the race on May 2, the convention was on May 14, and I secured the nomination and then lost it by three points. I thought that was tremendous.

The call time, the fundraising, that’s something that is very different for me. I’ve been told I have to raise $2 to 3 million to be viable for a primary. That in and of itself is a system that would exclude someone like me.

You don’t know a lot of millionaires?

No! One of the strategies I was told was you need to Rolodex all your friends, and I was like, uh … yeah, I don’t have million-dollar friends, and I don’t think you should have to to represent people. I don’t think most people have million-dollar friends or are part of a million-dollar network.

How much time have you been spending raising money?

Oh my gosh, probably about four to five hours a day. Literally I’ll get out of work and I’m right on the phone, when I’m in the car I’m on the phone, I’m pulling over to send an email to follow up the phone call.

There have been a lot of teachers’ strikes, uprisings, and protests across the country with concerns about school funding and teacher pay in a lot of states. What’s your take on that? Why is it happening?

I think that for a longtime teachers, we don’t see ourselves as political people. Even though we operated in the backgrounds, I don’t think we were ever truly involved in the process.

I think what’s happening is that many people think that our profession is being threatened. People say it’s for the kids, you come early, you stay late, you do all this for the kids — but there is another narrative playing out, and that is that this is profession that people spent lots of money going to school, getting degrees and certified to do this work. It is a profession and it should be treated as such.

I’ve traveled around the country and you have people with postgraduate degrees who are pouring their heart and soul into this profession and can’t support their families. It shouldn’t look like that. My husband’s a police officer and he made double my salary every year.


Memphis principal retires after 17 years lifting up school with long odds

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Principal Yolanda Heidelberg with former student Maria Pena (third from left) and family members.

After 17 years at Jackson Elementary School and 30 years at Memphis schools, the principal who led her once-struggling school to national recognition is retiring.

Yolanda Heidelberg, who worked at Gardenview and Kingsbury elementary schools before taking over at Jackson Elementary, credits her love of teaching to being a third generation educator on both sides of her family.

“During family gatherings, I heard conversations as a child centered around the dinner table regarding how to best help children,” she said in a letter to Jackson Elementary teachers, fellow principals, and Shelby County Schools leadership announcing her retirement. “So then, I was innately destined to do this work.”

During Heidelberg’s time at the school, students have sustained the state’s highest rating for academic growth since 2005 and scored higher than the district average on state tests, even with the tumultuous rollout of the new standardized test, TNReady.

That’s noteworthy because three out of four students at Jackson Elementary live in poverty, and for nearly half of students, English is not their native language. That’s much higher than the rest of district, in which about 60 percent of students live in poverty and 9 percent of students are English learners. The Memphis district has long struggled to catch those students up to their peers in academics.

So in 2016, the U.S. Department of Education gave the school its highest honor for closing the gap between white students and students of color and between students from poor and affluent families.

Read more about Jackson Elementary School’s success in our 2016 story when it was nationally recognized

Heidelberg said a key to her success was working collaboratively with teachers and parents, addressing any hurdles that might get in the way of their involvement at school.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Yolanda Heidelberg’s favorite place at Jackson Elementary School: the Wall of Fame that displays former students who have gone on to college.

When she couldn’t get translation services from the school district a decade ago for parent announcements and other materials, Heidelberg improvised and used the Memphis Police Department’s resources to get it done. It is also commonplace to see parent volunteers in the school and at meetings.

Her staff also point to her coaching and leadership as a guiding force for how teachers collaborate and brainstorm to best meet the needs of students. For example, English as a Second Language teachers are often seen in regular classroom meetings and help their students in their mainstream classes.

Jackson Elementary is one of six schools that are in need of a new principal in Shelby County Schools, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told school board members Tuesday. Those other schools are Woodstock Middle, Lucy Elementary, Vollentine Elementary, Cordova Middle, and Sherwood Elementary.

You can read Heidelberg’s farewell letter below:


Emanuel touts Chicago grads’ successes in defense of CPS

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Rahm Emanuel speaking at Marine Leadership Academy's class of 2018 graduation

In three commencement speeches, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has touted post-high school success, underscoring a prime education goal that he’s prioritized for more than a year.

“99 graduates out of 99. All going to college or a branch of the armed forces,” he said Friday at the graduation ceremony for Marine Leadership Academy, a public high school affiliated with the U.S. Marine Corps in Logan Square.

Four days earlier, he highlighted achievement at the graduation ceremony of Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep based in Roseland: “I want the rest of Chicago to hear me loud and clear: 98 percent graduation, 90 percent college bound.”  Emanuel said. Three days before at commencement at Baker College Prep based in South Chicago, he celebrated a class that was 100 percent college-bound.

The mayor repeatedly highlighted postsecondary plans, echoing goals of the initiative he announced in April 2017– that starting with the class of 2020, high school seniors must have a letter of acceptance from a four-year college, a community college, the military, or a guaranteed entry into a trade in order to graduate. He said that this requirement “is an expectation we have for every child because that is the expectation the economy of the 21st century has for them.”

While CPS educators have agreed that preparing students beyond high school is important, many of them have also worried that the graduation requirement would rush schools to get students accepted into college without preparing them to actually succeed there.

As Emanuel travelled across the city to fete graduates, he also appeared to focus on their college plans as a weapon in his war of words with President Donald Trump over Chicago education. Just before Rahm announced the graduation requirement last year, the president criticized the city’s academic numbers as “very rough,” prompting the mayor to point to a Stanford study showing that Chicago students have among the highest improvement rates in the nation.

On Friday, Emanuel said, “To Chicago, to Illinois, to the rest of America, and to one person in particular in Washington, to all those doubters, to all the cynics, to all the nay-sayers who say ‘not those kids, not from that background, not from that part of town,’ you come here and see what I see: that the Bulldogs are going on to great and better things.”

Read on for his full speech at Marine Leadership Academy’s graduation:


want to congratulate this great class of 2018. I want to congratulate your teachers, your principals, all the families, all the families of the Bulldogs that are here. I want to say, just last week, I sat where your parents are sitting as my little baby graduated. And well, I’m sorry, you are to certain people still their baby. That’s the way this works.

Now this is your day, this is your accomplishment. But there are a lot of people in this room who prodded you, who pushed you, who poked you. So I want you to stand up, turn around and give your parents and your teachers an applause for what they did to help you get to this day.

Now I asked you to do that for a reason. I asked you to do that because I want the rest of the city of Chicago, I want the state of Illinois, and I want the United States of America to see what I see in this room. 99 graduates out of 99. All going to college or a branch of the armed forces. 100 percent.

$5.3 million in scholarships. That comes out to about $53,000 a student. So, to Chicago, to Illinois, to the rest of America, and to one person in particular in Washington, to all those doubters, to all the cynics, to all the nay-sayers who say ‘not those kids, not from that background, not from that part of town,’ you come here and see what I see: that the Bulldogs are going on to great and better things.

You stop running down the kids of the city of Chicago. The Bulldogs stand strong. They’re going to college, they’re going into the armed forces. When you use your cynicism to run down our kids, they got one thing to say to you, they’ll look you right in the eyes, like that valedictorian just said, and they’re going to strut to success. Don’t you ever doubt the kids in the city of Chicago.

And I can’t be more proud of what you’ve accomplished. Now I say that because unlike any other – and your principal knows this – unlike any other school (this is my third commencement this year, every year I do three), when I was a congressman (those were the days when you could get an earmark), I worked with a congressman from downstate Illinois by the name of Ray LaHood, and we got you the first $500,000 to $600,000 so you could establish the Marine Math and Science Academy. And then as mayor, I helped you get to your new building out of [shared quarters at] Phoenix [Military Academy], so you could have your separate building and expand to seventh and eighth grade. So I have a particular joy in this day, and I’m glad that you allowed me to share it with you and I want to thank you for that.

I also want to note to each and every one of you, every time you’ve confronted a challenge, you’ve met it head on. Every time you’ve faced an obstacle, you overcame it. Every time you’ve faced adversity, you’ve triumphed. And I want to talk about adversity for one second. Because while today is a milestone, and a sense of accomplishment, and it is that, you will learn more about yourself and what you’re made of in how you handle adversity, not success, how you handle failing, not triumph.

In my own life, and there’s no adult in this room that hasn’t failed. There’s no adult that hasn’t actually stumbled. One, you’re going to learn something about yourself, second, you’re going to learn who your friends are, who stands by you when you’re down. It’s easy to be by you when you’re up. That’s what you’re going to learn.

Right at this point, when I was your age, I was working to make money to go to college. I was working on a meat cutter. And I didn’t get told that on the meat-cutting blade there was a metal glove. Sliced my finger real bad, wrapped it up real tight, didn’t do anything for it for about 48 hours. They realized then that I was in a serious problem, rushed me to the hospital. I ended up with five blood infections, two bone infections, gangrene, 105.4 [degrees temperature]. They put me in ice packs for 72 hours. And for those 72 hours, they weren’t sure I was going to make it. They also thought they should take my arm off just to see if they could save me.

In the seven weeks I was there, three of my roommates died and were wheeled out in the middle of the morning. And I was not a good student, and I said to myself – it’s not like the clouds broke open and Beethoven started playing and the sun came through – but in those seven weeks that I stayed in my bed, I said if I ever get another chance, I’m going to make something of my life. I’m going to do something, I’ll go out.

And in the moment where I almost lost my life, I realized why life is worth living. And you will face your own moment, it won’t be that grave, where you stumble, you fall. You wobble, and that’s where you’re going to learn what it means to be a Bulldog. That’s where you’re going to learn who you are, and what you’re made of.

In the same way [that I learned] physically, [I also learned] professionally. So I get out of college, and I decide, I’m going to work for a president of the United States I believe in. Eight years later out of college, I’m in the White House. Political advisor to President Clinton. I think I’m in hog heaven. And I convinced my then-girlfriend, now my wife, to leave her job and join me in Washington for this great experiment – working for the president of the United States, everything that I wanted to do in life. In my career, eight years out of college here I am. The son and the grandson of an immigrant, working in the White House, working for a great president, for somebody I believed in.

And I know you find it hard to believe, but I mouthed off a little too often, to the First Lady – not a good idea, don’t do that. The day my wife Amy arrives, leaves her job here in Chicago to join me, because we’re in the White House, I lose my job. We have a home, and no employment. And the dream we were going to be part of, this journey with President Clinton, I was given my walking paper six months into it. I saw everything that I’ve worked for right before my eyes, just like I was in that hospital bed.

I don’t know where I got the gumption – I walked into the chief of staff’s office and I said, ‘I ain’t leaving.’ Now, let me say this, as chief of staff to President Obama, if somebody said that to me, I would have said something else to them. I don’t know where I got it, I said, ‘I’m not leaving until the president of the United States says I’m leaving.’

So, two days later they said OK here’s your new job. And they demoted me, put me down, I joked I got a closet of an office from a big office with a play-school phone that didn’t even dial out. A year later, I worked my way back up to being senior adviser to the president of the United States for policy and politics, and replacing George Stephanopoulos as his senior adviser. I saw my entire career pass before my eyes, but I dug down deep, and realized in that moment of failure, I’m going to give myself a second chance, and make something of this second chance. And it was in that moment of seeing my career pass, it was in that moment of seeing my life pass, that I realized why it was worth doing what I needed to do. It is my one point to you on this great day of celebration.

You should celebrate, and have joy. Know that your moments of learning and accomplishment will come as much not only from success, but also from failure. And if you approach when you stumble with an attitude of ‘what I can learn from this,’ there are only great things ahead of you in your life. And I ask you as mayor, I see the sons and daughters of immigrants, I see the sons and daughters from all corners of this city. To you are given both opportunity and obligation. Opportunity to go on to college and make something of yourself. Your parents sacrificed and struggled for this moment for you. Honor it, give it justice that you are given an opportunity in the greatest city in the greatest country to make something of that. But you are also given, and required, an obligation. An obligation to give something back, something bigger than yourself. Muhammad Ali once said, ‘the service we pay to others is the rent we pay for being here on Earth.’

So while you are given this opportunity to make your own path, to make something of your life, you have an obligation to give something back to this city, to your neighborhood, and ultimately to your country. Your city and your country need your leadership. Your city and your country need your values. Your city and your country need your leadership, your values, and your courage. There’s never been a greater moment of opportunity for us, and also challenge. Go achieve what you’ve set out for yourself. Make your parents and yourself proud of what you’ve done. Look back and not regret your decision, but look back at them with joy, but I ask you, come home, come back to Chicago, and help us build this great city for another generation of Bulldogs.

Congratulations on this great day.