the teacher project

At The Equity Project Charter School, a math teacher sees echoes of his past

PHOTO: Aparna Alluri

This is one part of an occasional series focusing on the individuals who make up the city’s 80,000-member public school teaching force, produced in conjunction with the Covering Education course at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. 

When 24-year-old Kadeem Gill started teaching at The Equity Project Charter School, he thought it was a temporary stop. Ten months later, he finally turned down an offer of admission from Columbia Law School—a journey that has wound in and out of Bedford-Stuyvesant, where he grew up a short walk from three public housing projects.

There, he lived with his mother, Mickey Ruiz, who worked full time, and his younger brother, Jonathan. He rarely saw his father.

“I dedicated my entire childhood to getting out of that,” said Gill. Half African-American, half-Puerto Rican, Gill is lean and stylish, with crisp, collared shirts are always tucked in, often under vests, his hair perfectly gelled.

And he did get out—all the way to Princeton University. But something drew him back. His half-brother, Danny, had always told him he would make an “awesome teacher.” After Danny was shot and killed, Gill decided he would listen.

Two years later, fresh from a stint with Teach for America and armed with master’s degree in adolescent special education, he joined TEP to teach sixth-grade math.

Housed in 15 trailers in Washington Heights, TEP is a five-year-old middle school. Nearly 90 percent of its students are eligible for free lunch, a standard measure of poverty, and 20 percent have special needs.

Special education, more than anything else, drew Gill to teaching. Jonathan had severe behavioral problems, and his schools “just didn’t know how to help him,” said Gill. “He didn’t have trouble keeping up in class but he had emotional issues. But they treated him like he had a learning disability.”

As Jonathan grew older, Ruiz found it harder to convince him to take his medication or even go to school. She couldn’t afford counseling. When he did go to school, he got into trouble for acting up in class, kicking down doors and lashing out at teachers.

His outbursts alarmed Ruiz, who remembers locking her door at night. “I just didn’t know how to help him,” she said. “There was nothing nobody could do for me.”

By then, Gill had left for boarding school in Connecticut, where he had been awarded a scholarship. Summer breaks were tumultuous. While his classmates traveled abroad, Gill came home to news that one of his cousins had been stabbed or robbed. And there was Jonathan, who hadn’t taken Gill’s decision to go to boarding school well.

“My brother was just looking to win,” said Gill. “He was asked to comply so much, he started to break rules.” But, Gill added, no one knew how to address Jonathan’s behavior.

Gill vividly remembers attending special education meetings along with his mother. Ruiz would often leave feeling confused, Gill said, because teachers couldn’t help her understand or deal with Jonathan. After repeatedly changing schools, Jonathan dropped out when he was 16 years old.

“The school system failed him,” said Gill, who said he, in return, is willing to “dig and dig to find out what it takes to reach each kid.”

On a recent Friday afternoon in Gill’s sixth-grade math class, Roniel, a student with special needs, and Ruddy were working together in a group. When Roniel refused Ruddy’s help with a problem, an annoyed Ruddy said, “Whatever. You can’t do this work anyway.”

Clearly upset, Roniel stalked away. Gill, who had been watching Roniel closely, asked him to step out of the classroom with him.

Once they were outside, Roniel started to cry. Gill asked Roniel to take deep breaths, then to name a dish he didn’t like.

“School lunch,” said Roniel.

“No, school lunch tastes great,” said Gill.

They argued for a few minutes and then, Gill said, “Have I been able to change your mind about school lunch?” Roniel said no.

“Then no one should be able to change your mind about your abilities and your potential,” Gill said.

For the chance to be that encouraging voice, he said, he is willing to be back home, where he is constantly reminded of a childhood that he once preferred to forget.

“There’s no way I would be the teacher I am today if I didn’t go through what I did,” Gill said. “That I am back where I started is painful and also fulfilling.”

Election Forum

Tennesseans are about to get their first good look at candidates for governor on education

PHOTO: TN.gov
Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tennesseans will elect their next governor in November.

For almost 16 years, two Tennessee governors from two different political parties have worked off mostly the same playbook when it comes to K-12 education.

This year, voters will choose a new governor who will determine if that playbook stays intact — or takes a different direction from the administrations of Bill Haslam, a Republican leaving office next January, and Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who preceded him.

Voters will get to hear from all but one of the major candidates Tuesday evening during the first gubernatorial forum televised statewide. Organizers say the spotlight on education is fitting since, based on one poll, it’s considered one of the top three issues facing Tennessee’s next governor. Both K-12 and higher education are on the table.

Candidates participating are:

  • Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet and former Tennessee state senator;
  • Randy Boyd, a Republican from Knoxville and former commissioner of Economic and Community Development and a Republican from Knoxville;
  • Karl Dean, a Democrat and former mayor of Nashville;
  • Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley and minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville and speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County

The seventh major candidate, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is in the midst of a congressional session in Washington, D.C.

The next governor will help decide whether Tennessee will stay the course under its massive overhaul of K-12 education initiated under Bredesen’s watch. The work was jump-started by the state’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, for which Tennessee agreed to adopt the Common Core academic standards for math and English; incorporate students’ scores from standardized tests in annual teacher evaluations; and establish a state-run turnaround district to intervene in low-performing schools at an unprecedented level.

Tennessee has since enjoyed steady student growth and watched its national rankings rise, but the transition hasn’t been pain-free. Pushback on its heavy-handed turnaround district led leaders to widen school improvement strategies. They also ordered new academic standards due to political backlash over the Common Core (though the revised standards are still basically grounded in Common Core).

A major issue now is whether the next governor and legislature will retain Tennessee’s across-the-board system of accountability for students, teachers, schools and districts. Snafus and outright failures with TNReady, the new standardized test that serves as the lynchpin, have prompted some calls to make the assessment just a diagnostic tool or scrap it altogether. Haslam and his leadership team have stood firm.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat recently. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group that works closely with Tennessee’s Department of Education, is a co-host of Tuesday’s forum. Known as SCORE, the group has sought to shape the election-year conversation with priorities that include teacher quality, improving literacy, and developing school leaders — all outgrowths of learnings during Tennessee’s Race to the Top era.

SCORE President David Mansouri said the goal is to maintain the momentum of historic gains in student achievement from the last decade. “The next administration’s education policy decisions will be crucial in determining whether Tennessee students continue to progress faster than students in other states and whether they graduate ready for postsecondary success,” he said Monday.

The one-hour forum will delve into a range of issues. College and career readiness, education equity, and school funding will be among the topics broached before each candidate is allowed a one-minute closing statement, according to David Plazas, a Tennessean editor who will help moderate the discussion.

“It will be really exciting,” Plazas promised. “We’re hoping the candidates are prepared to talk substantively on the issues and to avoid slogans.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. CT at Nashville’s Belmont University. Along with SCORE, it’s being co-hosted by USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. You can livestream the event here and learn more about attending or watching here.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede