Movers & shakers

Three things Willie Herenton has to say about Memphis education today

PHOTO: Larry Robinson
Willie Herenton (at left), former Memphis City Schools superintendent and the city's first black mayor, records a podcast at LPI Studios.

Since Willie W. Herenton left the helm of the former Memphis City Schools in 1991 after 12 years as its superintendent, the city’s education landscape has changed dramatically.

No Child Left Behind Act. Race to the Top. The advent of charter schools. A historic school merger — and subsequent de-merger. The arrival of the state-run Achievement School District.

A former Memphis mayor who is now CEO of his own charter network, Herenton says the community is not supporting its public education system as much as it can or should to lift its schoolchildren out of poverty.

Herenton spoke about the challenges during a Funky Politics podcast, which aired this week. At 76, he is now the CEO of W.E B. Du Bois Consortium of Charter Schools, which operates six schools in Memphis and one in Atlanta. Four of the Memphis schools are among the state’s bottom 5 percent of low-performing schools.

(Disclosure: Chalkbeat Tennessee is partnering with The Funky Politics on a podcast series exploring national education reform and its impact on Memphis.)

As Memphis’ first black mayor, Herenton is a trailblazer and also a mammoth personality in local politics. He remains a powerful figure in the city and is revered in many neighborhoods. Born in 1940, he also is the product of a racially segregated school system, where books were often hand-me-downs from white schools in the city.

Here are three things Herenton had to say about the state of Memphis education today:

1. Charter schools are not anti-traditional schools.

As a charter school operator, Herenton said freedoms afforded to charter schools bolster efforts to close achievement gaps between poor and affluent white, black and Hispanic students. That goal has yet to be realized.

“There is a direct correlation between economic status and academic achievement. That has not been broken,” he said.

Still, Herenton said taxpayer money siphoned off from school districts to charter schools should not be held to the same scrutiny as money allocated to private schools if vouchers were to pass in Tennessee.

“There’s a prevailing belief that charter schools take away funds from public schools,” he said. “It’s exercising the right of a parent to send their child to any school they want to send them and the funds will follow the child. … Charter schools were designed to give parents more options in the marketplace.”

PHOTO: The Commercial Appeal
Willie Herenton

2. A good education is important, but is only part of the equation to break students out of poverty.

“Back in the old days, we had a burning desire for education. We just believed education was the passport out of … the slums,” Herenton said. “It produced a lot of us who were first-generation college graduates. I was a first-generation college graduate.”

Now, he said, wraparound services such as health, mental health and community development are necessary to help.

“What I’m finding out now is how many African-American families engage in a holistic kind of way to break the cycle of poverty. How do we create more opportunities for African-American kids who may be in impoverished conditions — who may, like me, not have a father in the home? How do we get them to break out of the poverty cycle so that they get to college, so their children (can)?” he asked.

In recent years, Herenton has aimed those questions toward the intersection of education and juvenile justice systems. In June, Shelby County’s governing body endorsed Herenton’s plan for a juvenile rehabilitation facility in the city’s Frayser community to provide medical and mental health care and educational and vocational training.

Herenton opened a school with a similar mission in 2013 but had to abruptly close it a few weeks later. He said not enough students were being redirected from the juvenile justice system.

3. Re-engaging the black middle and upper class is crucial to the success of public education.

After school integration efforts and the steady population shift of wealthy black and white families to the suburbs, the city’s black community lost power, Herenton said. To reverse that trend, black people who are more affluent must actively provide opportunities to others seeking to break the cycle of poverty.

“Now, some brothers and sisters that get in the middle class and make six digits, they become oblivious of their past and history. They forget why, how they got there, and what they were supposed to do when they get there,” he said.

Herenton said he was criticized for intentionally providing opportunities to African-Americans during his political career. But he insists that black people in positions of power must provide those opportunities.

“My purpose was to educate but to empower people who had been left out. … People don’t do that now as a mission,” he said. “That was what I was supposed to do: create opportunity for my people.”

Personnel file

Boasberg’s inner circle: The latest changes to Denver Public Schools’ top leadership team

PHOTO: Denver Post file
DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg guest teaches an Advanced Placement history class at Lincoln High in 2009.

The cabinet of Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg, one of the longest-serving urban superintendents in the country, is changing.

Boasberg’s inner circle has undergone several shifts in the eight years since he became superintendent in 2009, taking the helm after his predecessor Michael Bennet was appointed to the U.S. Senate. Boasberg continued the reforms begun by Bennet and has built the state’s largest school district into one nationally known for embracing school choice and autonomy.

He enjoys the full backing of the seven-member school board, who support his “portfolio strategy.” But a group of challengers wants to change that in November, when four board seats are up for election. If candidates who disagree with Boasberg’s vision sweep the contest, they would have enough votes to change the course of the district.

The latest cabinet shifts involve Boasberg’s chief of staff and the head of community engagement. Eddie Koen, who served as chief of staff for a year, left DPS Sept. 20 for a job with the Mile High United Way. The district announced last month it had hired a replacement: Tameka Brigham, a former teacher and Teach for America official.

But last week, it announced that Brigham would be taking a different position instead: chief of family and community engagement. The person who previously held that job, former Aurora Public Schools chief communications director Georgia Duran, has been on leave recovering from injuries and decided not to return, according to district officials.

The district has hired an interim chief of staff while it conducts a job search. Read more about who will be filling that position, as well as the rest of Boasberg’s cabinet, below.

But first, some background on the superintendent.

Boasberg began working for DPS as the district’s chief operating officer in 2007. Before that, he served as vice president for corporate development at Broomfield-based multi-national telecommunications company Level 3 Communications.

His current salary is $236,220. He was the fifth highest paid superintendent in Colorado in 2016-17, according to state data.

Last year, Boasberg took six months of unpaid leave to live in Argentina with his wife, Carin, and their three children. The kids attended local schools, and he and his wife took Spanish language and literature classes. Already a speaker of Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese, he said he wanted to improve his ability to communicate with the thousands of Spanish-speaking DPS families.

Here are the eight DPS officials who report directly to Boasberg, their duties as described by district human resources documents, their salaries and a bit about their backgrounds.

Susana Cordova

Susana Cordova, Deputy Superintendent
Salary: $200,212
Duties: Communicates to the superintendent the requirements and needs of the district as perceived by staff members; assists the superintendent in developing and recommending long-range plans to the school board; formulates and encourages innovative curricular programs to improve instruction; fosters professional growth and staff morale throughout the district; monitors and responds to legislation that may affect DPS programs or policies.
Her story: Cordova is a lifelong Denver resident and DPS graduate who has worked at nearly every level in the district, serving as a teacher, principal and administrator. She began her career as a bilingual teacher and has taught English as a second language. When Boasberg was on sabbatical last year, Cordova served as acting superintendent. She has two children: one is a DPS graduate and the other is a DPS high school student.

Jerome DeHerrera

Jerome DeHerrera, General Counsel
Salary: $145,000
Duties: Ensures DPS business practices, policies and dealings meet regulatory requirements to protect the organization from legal action; manages the organization’s defense and interpretation and preparation of legal documents; provides counsel on legal matters.
His story: DeHerrera, who grew up in Aurora, joined DPS in 2013. He was previously in private practice, where he specialized in education law. He also took cases pro bono, “including representing the plaintiffs in one of Colorado’s longest-running disputes over land grant rights established in the San Luis Valley during the 1850s,” according to his bio on the DPS website. He and his wife are the parents of two DPS elementary school students.

Nina Lopez, Interim Chief of Staff
Salary: To Be Announced
Duties: Serves as the principal aide to the superintendent and supports him in dealing with administrators, staff, students, the school board and the public; provides policy analysis and consultation on major issues affecting the district; interacts with industry, government, legislative interest groups and community officials regarding DPS’s strategic initiatives.
Her story: Lopez is a consultant with her own practice, advising foundations, nonprofits and government entities connected to K-12 education. Her clients include DPS, Jeffco Public Schools and the Broomfield-based Charter School Growth Fund. She previously worked for the Colorado Education Initiative and as special assistant to the state education commissioner overseeing the initial rollout of a law that governs how teachers are evaluated.

Debbie Hearty

Debbie Hearty, Chief of Human Resources
Salary: $171,091
Duties: Leads the management and expansion of teacher and principal residency programs, performance management systems for feedback and growth, teacher leadership programs and performance-based compensation; oversees maintaining relationships with the district’s employee unions; supports efforts to attract, develop and retain educators.
Her story: Hearty has held many jobs within DPS, including math teacher, instructional coach, teacher training leader and assistant principal. Before taking her current position, she was head of the district’s Culture, Equity and Leadership Team, where she led initiatives aimed at making DPS more inclusive. She and her husband have two elementary school-aged sons.

Tameka Brigham, Chief of Family and Community Engagement
Salary: To Be Announced

Tameka Brigham

Duties: Oversees an 80-person team responsible for engaging families and students proactively and to resolve disputes; provides leadership to a small team responsible for engaging communities affected by changes such as school turnaround; oversees development of culturally sensitive and results-driven strategies for outreach and communication.
Her story: Brigham was most recently managing director of research for Teach For America, a nonprofit that recruits college graduates to teach in low-income school districts. She is also a teacher, having taught at many different levels from kindergarten to college. In addition, she served as education chair of the Denver branch of the NAACP, an education outreach liaison for Great Education Colorado and an education specialist for the Urban League of Metropolitan Denver. She has three boys who are in elementary, middle and high school.

Nancy Mitchell, Chief Communications Officer
Salary: $132,056
Duties: Directs all facets of media relations, responding to daily media inquiries; coordinates crisis communications during emergencies; leads the vision and management of the DPS homepage and intranet; leads the district’s internal communications efforts; leads the DPS office that serves families with a native language other than English.
Her story: Before joining DPS in 2014, Mitchell was a journalist who covered public education for many years, including a long stint at the now-closed Rocky Mountain News. She also worked for Education News Colorado, which was one of the online news organizations that merged to form Chalkbeat. After leaving journalism, she directed communications for the Colorado Department of Higher Education and the Education Commission of the States.

Allen Smith

Allen Smith, Chief of the Culture, Equity and Leadership Team
Salary: $145,000
Duties: Provides vision and leadership to make the district a diverse, inclusive and equitable organization; develops strategic plans and measurable outcomes and reports on the status of that work to the district, the school board and the community; works with the Family and Community Engagement and Chief of Staff teams to ensure community voices are heard.
His story: Smith is a DPS graduate who became an educator and served as principal of three DPS schools, as well as executive director of a network of schools undergoing the district’s biggest turnaround effort in far northeast Denver. He left the city to take administrator positions in Charlotte, N.C. and Oakland, Calif. before returning to work in DPS last year.

David Suppes

David Suppes, Chief Operating Officer
Salary: $187,035
Duties: Develops objectives and performance goals for each operational department, such as budget, facilities and transportation; establishes, plans for and carries out district initiatives and priorities; evaluates effectiveness of operational policies and makes recommendations for revisions or new policies; works to improve services for schools, students and parents.
His story: Before joining DPS in 2009, Suppes worked in financial and business leadership positions at Staples and Level 3 Communications, where Boasberg also worked. Suppes has been a volunteer tutor in DPS for several years and served as board treasurer for Metro Caring. He was also a member of the Governor’s Early Childhood Leadership Commission.

Movers and shakers

Berrick Abramson to lead education work at Colorado think tank, Keystone

Berrick Abramson (Courtesy Keystone)

Berrick Abramson, a national expert on school accountability and the teacher workforce, is joining the Colorado-based Keystone Policy Center to lead its education work, the organization announced Tuesday.

Abramson, who lives in Jefferson County, joins Keystone after a long stint at TNTP, an education nonprofit formerly known as The New Teacher Project. There, he managed state and federal policy research, among other responsibilities.

“Keystone has worked with teachers, students, and policymakers — from classrooms to state Capitols — to improve public education,” Keystone’s President and CEO Christine Scanlan said in a statement. “We’re excited to bring Berrick’s expertise to Keystone to accelerate this work and help us continue to inspire leaders to reach common higher ground addressing the challenges students, teachers, and families face today.”

Abramson has advised state policymakers on a variety of education hot topics such as educator licensure, evaluation and school turnaround work. Most recently, he’s been studying and writing about the nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

“With ESSA granting states greater autonomy, and the pitched debates over education in recent years, now more than ever we need leaders to do the hard work of building bridges and consensus,” Abramson said in a statement. “Those leaders, in my experience, need partners to help them navigate the challenges and effectively engage stakeholders. Keystone has a clear history doing just that and I’m excited to build on their 40-plus years of leadership as we grow the education practice.”

Earlier this summer, Keystone released a statewide plan for Colorado for blended learning, which combines online and traditional classroom instruction. It also has helped Colorado, Louisiana and Massachusetts find better ways to prepare teachers for success in the classroom.