CLOSING

Unable to reinvent itself, Black Alliance for Educational Options to shut down after nearly 20 years

BAEO founder Howard Fuller speaks June 27 at the National Charter Schools Conference in Nashville. (Photo by National Alliance for Public Charter Schools).

After a failed attempt at reinvention, a longtime national advocacy group for black parents will shut down at the end of the year.

The Black Alliance for Educational Options was founded by Howard Fuller, the influential former Milwaukee superintendent and school choice advocate, almost 20 years ago. The Washington, D.C.-based organization had pushed for parent choice and charter schools in Alabama, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, and other states.

“We know there is much more to accomplish in the education reform space, and that an unapologetically Black-led organization should be at the forefront of the ongoing struggle for high-quality schools,” the organization said in a letter posted on its website Wednesday morning. But, the letter added, “Times have changed.”

“We have decided that it is time to cease operations at BAEO, and our sister organization, BAEO Action Fund (BAF), effective December 31, 2017.”

The organization has struggled to remain financially viable and relevant over the last several years.

The national organization was in limbo for most of 2015 while searching for a new president. Jacqueline Cooper permanently took the helm in February 2016, but most of the national staff was laid off during that period.

In 2016, Fuller — by then chairman emeritus of the group’s board, Education Week reported — announced that BAEO would discontinue its formal operations and launch a Social Innovation Challenge that would help reshape or even replace the organization. BAEO promised to invest $500,000 into the winning proposal.

But in February, BAEO announced no one would win the prize. It said that the “process did not produce a revolutionary or transformative idea.”

The organization splintered further in the last year. In June 2016, BAEO’s Tennessee’s chapter decided to break away due to the storm of uncertainty around its national organization. Now called The Campaign for School Equity, the organization has shifted its focus to helping students become education advocates.

After Tennessee’s exit, BAEO’s only remaining chapters were in New Jersey and Louisiana.

“We are incredibly proud of our legacy, including the thousands of parental choice champions created … spin-off organizations created to continue our work in the community; legislation enacted, protected and expanded in states across the country; and elected officials we supported through BAF,” BAEO said in its statement.

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.

Departure

Tennessee loses a behind-the-scenes education operative

PHOTO: Jennifer Pignolet/The Commercial Appeal
Kathleen Airhart, then the interim superintendent of the state-run Achievement School District, speaks in February to a community meeting sponsored by the Frayser Exchange in Memphis.

Kathleen Airhart, who recently served as interim leader of Tennessee’s Achievement School District during a major transition, has stepped down as the state’s deputy education commissioner and chief operating officer.

Kathleen Airhart

The career educator ended almost seven years with the Education Department last week in Nashville. She will start her new job with the Council of Chief State School Officers as the national nonprofit organization’s program director on special education.

Since 2012, Airhart has been a go-to lieutenant for two education commissioners as Tennessee rolled out major policy initiatives under its First to the Top overhaul of K-12 schools.

She oversaw the transition to the state’s academic intervention program for struggling students, the expansion of career and technical education opportunities, the development of a library of state and local education resources, and operational changes to make the Achievement School District financially sustainable after the end of a federal award supporting Tennessee’s turnaround program for low-performing schools.

Airhart worked mostly behind the scenes until Commissioner Candice McQueen tasked her last fall with leading the Achievement School District, also known as the ASD, as Tennessee looked for a replacement for departing Superintendent Malika Anderson. During that time, Airhart met frequently with school communities in Memphis, the hub of the ASD’s work, and oversaw the closure of two more under-enrolled schools before McQueen tapped turnaround leader Sharon Griffin to take the helm beginning in June.

Airhart previously was superintendent of Putnam County Schools, where she was named Tennessee’s Superintendent of the Year in 2011. She started her career as a high school special education teacher and also served as a special ed supervisor.

In her new job, she’ll return to her roots and advise other states on special education programs and services.

“Dr. Airhart has been an excellent manager and leader at the department, and no matter what challenges she was presented, she always stayed calm and kept students at the center of every decision,” McQueen wrote in an internal letter about the departure.

The Council of Chief State School Officers is comprised of education leaders from across the country.