TSD Memphis

Fri04182014

Greater Metro

Education commissioner gets ‘We-do-what-we-do’ lesson

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The state commissioner of education's visit to Whitney Achievement Elementary School was about over as principal Debra Broughton was asked for her reflection of the fast-moving experience.

"This visit is empowering," Broughton said. "It is energizing and for the next quarter I can persevere knowing that we did the work and that we've laid a great foundation, that we can start to push harder and begin to see the fruits of our labor."

Commissioner Kevin Huffman's visit was one of several stops during a busy Wednesday in Memphis that included a closed-door session with some teachers. At Whitney, the tour group included Broughton, Achievement School District (ASD) Supt. Chris Barbic and State Rep. Barbara Cooper (D-Memphis) dropping in on several classrooms.

So how do you get ready for a visit from the Commissioner of Education?

"I do what I do," said Broughton. "That's all we do, just do what we do. We don't prepare anything because we do what we do. This is no show. Our children are trained to stand and greet people. ... to stand in the classroom (and answer questions). They know their (school) creed, they say it every day."

Whitney is among the second crop of schools to join the ASD. Huffman said he was interested in getting a sense of how things look at the start of the year. "What does the enrollment look like? And most importantly, how do the teachers and leaders feel about the start of the year in terms of the culture of the school?"

What is unfolding in Memphis is unique for the state, Huffman said.

"It's a reflection of the fact that most of the priority schools were here. It is going to be very exciting to see all the different kinds of schools and to see what that leads to in terms of opportunity for kids."

While the session with the teachers was set to be closed to the media, Huffman said he would be interested in the teachers' perceptions about teaching in ASD schools compared to where they were before.

"I want to hear what they are thinking," he said.

Whitney's story

As part of the ASD, Whitney, which is 90-plus percent filled with African American students from low-income families, is immersed in the district's goal of moving the bottom five percent of schools in the state to the top 25 percent in five years.

During the summer, Broughton engineered door-to-walks through the Frayser community to talk with parents. She wanted to know what they wanted to see at the school and shared what she and the staff hand in the works.

"Many of the students had moved away to enroll in optional schools and many of those students have come back," she said. "They brought their students back because they said, 'You, all are doing the same kinds of things and I don't have to drive.'"

The school building was designed for almost 700 students, with about 360 expected this year. Instead, enrollment topped the 400-mark and more teachers had to be brought aboard.

Broughton, who grew up in Forrest City, Ark., went to college in Dallas and lived and worked in Atlanta before coming to Memphis to be part of change. She worked at George Washington Carver High School and Westside Middle School (also in Frayser) before making the transition to Whitney.

"I wanted this school because I wanted to let them (Frayser parents and students) know that I did not give up on them," she said. "I understood the needs of our community and that is what I have a passion for."

Broughton has two children, a daughter who has graduated from college, and her son, Timothy, who is a running back on the Tennessee State University football team. This fall, he will share his story with Whitney students.

"He had a lot of bumps and knocks, but we would not let him give up and that's what he wants to share now," she said. "He never thought he would make it and he graduates in December."

On Wednesday, Rep. Cooper, who represents the district, said while the visit was short, she saw the kids engaged and that the teachers' techniques were good. She taught schools for many years.

"You have to have the parents, but you don't get the parents by putting them in jail or threatening to fine them," Cooper said.

"You've got to do something meaningful. You've got to build their trust so that the parents can leave their child there knowing that you are going to do what's best for the child and know that they (parents) can call you anytime."

Community partners

Life Line to Success Executive Director DeAndre D. Brown Sr. also toured Whitney during the visit by Commissioner Huffman. His ministry concentrates on Mid-South ex-offenders seeking to change their lives.

"We attempt to mentor those who may be at risk," said Brown, explaining his interest in schools such as Whitney. "We've been working really closely with the middle schools and do some community service projects at the elementary schools."

Wednesday's visit by Huffman, he said, was another element in an effort to "really change the culture...turning loose of all those socially acceptable norms, those negatives ...that it's not OK to go school, that it's not OK to be smart."

At Whitney and in other schools, Brown said he sees the seeds of a change in behavior. "A lot of schools in these neighborhoods, behavior is the main issue...you can see students paying attention (now)..."

Bring the passion

Broughton said Whitney teachers, staff and administrators "cannot do this work unless you have passion and that you know that you are called to do this work," she said.

"This work extends far more than the classroom. And if you do not have a heart for the work, you will develop a mindset of mediocrity, and that is what we cannot do here."