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Why We Need Each Other

I was back in my old stomping grounds: Union University. Three years after I had graduated, I returned to speak at a memorial service for the EF-4 tornado that damaged or destroyed 80% of the campus in 2008. I had been trapped under the rubble until rescuers excavated me out. As I walked into the service, my phone rang. It was my executive director back in Memphis calling me. It was a school night.

“I have some news for you: we just got our Winter MAP scores back,” he said.

The NWEA MAP is a nationally normed assessment that measures growth of students throughout the school year in relation to students across the country. At the time, I was the dean of students at my school, which was in its first year as part of the Achievement School District (ASD), a state-run district that approves charter schools to turn-around the lowest performing schools in the state. We were the first elementary charter approved by the ASD, in the first year of the ASD. These scores were important.

“Kindergarten: outpaced the growth of 69% of students with a similar starting score,” he explained in his best dramatic, teaser-trailer voice.

Not bad. Our students were the lowest performing in the state last year, I thought.

“First grade,” he continued, “outpaced the growth of 70% of students with similar starting scores.”

Again, not bad.

“Second grade: outpaced the growth of 98% of students with similar starting scores.”

Wait, what? I turned up the volume on my phone and asked him to say that again. Our second graders were in the 98th percentile in growth? In the nation?

When he added our third graders were in 99th percentile, I think my heart skipped a beat.

It was much needed news. More than news, it was affirmation – a lifeline in the midst of a raging storm. We were doing the right thing. We were changing the trajectories of our students’ futures. But, who were “we,” exactly?

A couple of months before, community tension erupted around our school. A predominantly young, white staff had arrived in a predominantly black neighborhood and replaced a predominantly veteran, black staff at a historically black school. Beyond that, we were changing the school: the name, the colors, the traditions. In this multi-generational community, we were changing the legacy of the community – with or without community approval. Our no excuses model fixated us on a singular goal: college readiness. Everyone would agree this was a good and noble goal. By this fixation, however, we were blinded.

I continued at that school a second year, and while relationships within the community improved, I still felt we were not doing enough. We were missing critical components that should not only inform, but also drive our work. What are the critical components of a school? I wished I had an answer to that question.

Then I came across Rocketship. I heard the network was planning expansion to Tennessee, and I started researching. There, on the website, within the three pillars, I found them – the critical components: Excellent Teachers & LeadersPersonalized Learning and Engaged Parents. I’d worked as a founding member of another charter network. I’d interviewed at schools across the country. Never had I seen such an obvious value placed on community engagement. Once I saw it, I couldn’t un-see it. A light bulb had ignited in my mind: we can’t seek to partner alongside the community; we need to be part of the community.

I am a Rocketeer because I believe in the necessity of community. Everyone talks about doing what’s best for kids. In my short time with Nashville Northeast Elementary, I have seen that Rocketship doesn’t simply look around the country to mimic best practices of other high-performing schools. We seek to break down archetypes and stereotypes of our kids and communities, building a new narrative based on what we – teachers, leaders, kids and families – all need, which quite frankly, is each other.

Danny is the founding third and fourth grade math teacher at Rocketship’s first school in Tennessee: Nashville Northeast Elementary. He grew up moving between three countries and four states. He loved attending the different public schools in each of his different hometowns, but as an adult, he began to reflect on the vast differences in quality of education he was receiving depending on the zip code of my house. Danny became inspired to become a teacher when he was directly exposed to this reality through the Memphis Teacher Residency. In Memphis public schools, the average ACT score hovers around a 16. Only three percent of students are deemed “college ready” by ACT standards and of those three percent, more than 80 percent come from four public high schools. He became convinced this was a systemic injustice that must be rectified. And the most direct way for him to impact the outcome was to become a highly effective urban teacher. In his sixth year in education, Danny still strives toward that goal each day. In the future, Danny hopes to return to Memphis to open a high-performing, community focused Rocketship school.


Published on October 22, 2014

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