Local educators, business leaders and parents gathered to help "break the monopoly of mediocrity" in the Memphis school system during a forum on education reform held Wednesday (Oct. 10) at the Malco Paradiso Theatre in East Memphis.
Hosted by the Greater Memphis Chamber, The Institute for a Competitive Workforce and the National Chamber Foundation, the event featured the controversial film "Won't Back Down" and a panel discussion on the evolving education system in Greater Memphis.
The film, which stars Oscar nominees Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal, chronicles the real-life story of two Pennsylvania mothers who wouldn't accept a failing school system for their children and the perils they endured while attempting to change it. Gyllenhaal plays Jamie Fitzpatrick, a single mom of eight-year-old Maulia Fitzpatrick, a second-grader suffering with dyslexia, struggling to read in a classroom where she is constantly plagued by taunting peers and hurling insults. Davis plays an educator and mom who finds the will to put her job on the line for her students' future.
The two women "won't back down" without a fight to change their children's school and its notorious reputation for passing students who cannot make the grade. Following the movie's special screening, a panel addressed issues in the film that were eerily similar to problems facing the local school district. Views were offered on how the local school system could overcome its own failing grades.
Panelists included moderator Cheryl Oldham, vice president of the U.S. Forum for Policy Innovation and vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for Competitive Workforce (ICW); Yetta M. Lewis, chief academic officer of Gestalt Community Schools; John Moore, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce; Billy Orgel, chair of the Shelby County Unified School Board; Natalie Person, chair of the Psychology Department and director of Educational Studies at Rhodes College; and Athena Turner, former teacher and executive director of Teach for America.
Moore shared statistics to stress the severity of problems facing educators, parents and business leaders in the Memphis area. At any time, Moore said, around 15,000 jobs remain open in Memphis because 48,000 unemployed individuals, who could potentially fill them, are not qualified.
"There is a major gap between skills that employers expect and the skills our education system are producing, not just in Memphis but nationwide," Moore said. "Communities that get this right (educating its population) will attract jobs and will thrive in the future....There are a lot of jobs out there, and we need a qualified workforce to fill them."
It's an issue that prompted a reaction from both panelists and audience members.
"Great schools help to make great communities, and all students should be able to attend great schools," said Lewis.
"We have to think of creative ways to reach parents and (seek) centers where we can connect with them, without getting bogged down with policy," Turner added.
Several issues arose during the discussion, such as apathy, lack of connectivity of services, lack of resources for teachers, and how to teach students who don't have basic necessities such as food, electricity, clothing and a stable home environment.
It's a problem fourth grade teacher Evidane Brownlee Slaughter knows too well. A teacher for five years, Slaughter shared with panelists the difficulties students face in the classroom when they are met with seemingly insurmountable challenges at home.
"That's why I'm a teacher," Slaughter said, referring to her passion for teaching students to read and to believe in themselves.
Slaughter, who also tutors after school for the non-profit ESPN Academy (Education, Scholarship, Preparation, and Nurture), said she believes the Shelby County Unified School District will require accountability for all key players: parents, students, administrators, and teachers.
"Everyone has to work together," she stressed. "And children have to take ownership in what we're asking them to do."
Slaughter added that parents should play active roles in their children's education by taking advantage of resources, such as tutoring.
"It takes a village to teach a child, not these kids over here or those over there," Slaughter said. "We have to become that village again for all children of Memphis."