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VOL. 126 | NO. 20 | Monday, January 31, 2011

From Private to Public

Gifts help expand education’s ‘middle ground’

By Bill Dries

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Those who run for and hold elected office will tell anyone who listens that running for office and governing are two different points on the same line.

In the gap between them is a middle ground of appointed officials, citizens who serve on boards and commissions, and those involved in a growing number of private institutions tackling the same public policy questions.

Two of the city’s best known private schools, located within five miles of each other in East Memphis, have taken big steps that have the promise to expand that so-called middle ground.

Duncan and Abbie Ware Williams announced in late 2010 a “seven-figure gift” to Hutchison School that sets in motion a plan to get children used to the idea of making civic involvement a part of their lives.

Months earlier, the Martin family, including businessman Brad Martin, announced their own “seven-figure gift” to fund a teacher training and education reform institute at Presbyterian Day School.

The two institutions promise to change the political discussion about leadership and education just as surely as if they were backing candidates. But, by avoiding direct impact with the local brand of retail politics dominated by the power of personalities, they are in the discussion on their own terms.

“There are a large portion of (adults) that instead of going out and doing, they’re not sure what they’re good at, so a lot of people don’t do. It’s what you know and it becomes part of how you are civically responsible to your community,” said Abbie Williams, who is a Hutchison alum and on the board of trustees of the school. “You have to start at an early age. Your level of confidence changes so much when you start earlier.”

The Hutchison gift is the third largest in the 108-year history of the private girls day school.

The center for excellence the Williams gift funds will provide enrichment programs open to students in all Memphis-area schools as well as adults. The center also runs four student leadership summits each year for student leaders in grades 5-12. The summits explore the ethics of leadership and the impact leadership can have in the life of a school.

Hutchison is also working with The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has become active in Memphis City Schools reform efforts with $90 million of funding over seven years. Gates also funds Stand for Children, a child advocacy group sponsoring a series of study circles at Hutchison since last fall that also include the Memphis-based group “Common Ground.”

Cliff Mims, executive director of the Martin Institute at Presbyterian Day School, is quick to say that the institute’s focus on teacher development at PDS, and for other educators in the region in general, is not a part of the political give-and-take on the issue of education reform.

And it is certainly not a part of the ongoing standoff between Shelby County’s two public school systems.

“We’re not at all trying to be involved in the politics side of the reform,” Mims said. “We’re more interested in just providing professional development and providing opportunities for teachers.”

Clif Mims is executive director of the Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence, which provides professional development for public and private school teachers through a partnership between the University of Memphis and Presbyterian Day School.

The conversation Mims sees that doesn’t take place as often elsewhere is among teachers from different districts. The Martin Institute makes that possible.

“I think classroom teachers are some of the most knowledgeable people about where we need to go with education in the future,” he said. “But the job demands they have on their time are pretty substantial. They don’t get the opportunity to talk across schools and definitely across districts frequently. … Through the institute, teachers will be able to talk with each other and share ideas.”

But it is more than a conduit as at least one area school system Mims wouldn’t identify discovered when it approached Mims for money.

“I got a phone call saying they wanted to bring a particular person in … to spend a day or two with their teachers,” he said. “But they couldn’t afford the price tag. They thought I would just pick up the price tag for them.”

Instead Mims involved two other school systems and the price as well as the impact was split four ways.

Hutchison School junior Somer Greene, 17, studies for an AP U.S. History test. Hutchison recently received a "seven-figure gift” for its leadership program, Hutchison Leads.

Brad Martin says training at Harvard University for PDS teachers will continue but with funding from his family’s gift that will be expanded.

“We said we will keep that but offer that opportunity to teachers from other schools,” he said. “We’re going to re-create some of what happens at Harvard. We’ll do it here in Memphis.”

Like most reformers with foundations who are involved in education reform, the Martin Institute leaders have been around the reform “block” before and they know where the potholes are and where the dead-end alleys are.

PDS has about a decade of focused work on developing its own teachers.

Martin has some experience on the political end as a former state representative before he became a corporate CEO and venture capitalist. The motivation behind the gift from his family to PDS wasn’t about influencing the political discussion. It was more basic. Martin and his wife have three children at PDS.

“They clearly understand that 99 percent of what matters in education is the quality of the instructor and the effectiveness of the instructor,” Martin said of PDS. “We thought it would be great to spread that to other schools. That would include other private schools, public schools, small schools, big schools and schools that teach kids with special needs. It was our goal to take an existing PDS strength of strategy and share it in the broader community with the focus being on investing in teachers.”

The decision by Williams and her husband was based on an identical conclusion.

“What benefit does it serve just to have a graduating class of 60 girls to walk out and feel like they’re ready to take on the world?” Abbie Williams said. “That doesn’t get us very far here.”

Her husband, Duncan Williams, saw the possibilities during his time in a class of The Leadership Academy and his own civic involvement as an adult.

Williams is one of many participants in the program who begin talking about ideas there that continue after their time in the program ends.

Nancy Coffee, president and CEO of The Leadership Academy, says the program is designed to promote those kinds of exchanges down to who is paired with whom.

“We are very deliberate to ensure with our academy fellows program that each cohort is 50 percent native Memphian and 50 percent non-native and that there is a broad cross section of industry represented,” she said. “One idea speaks to another. One perspective can transform another.”

Shelby County Republican Party chairman Lang Wiseman had the same experience as Williams did when he went through the academy as part of leadership training through the Memphis Bar Association.

“It makes you realize that the difference between being an insider versus being an outsider is sometimes as simple as the process of raising your hand,” Wiseman said. “You’re an insider because you step up and raise your hand and say, ‘I’ll do this.’”

Coffee agreed.

“Memphis is a place where if you raise your hand and indicate true willingness to work, we will embrace you and help you to find a path to that – to your best fit,” she said.

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