Education Leaders Frame Reforms in Faith Response

By Bill Dries

The leader of the Memphis Teacher Residency program and the superintendents of Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District told several hundred people at Second Presbyterian Church this weekend that Memphis’ public education reformation needs less “negativity” and more citizen involvement.

Second Presbyterian Church senior pastor Sandy Wilson, left, talks with Achievement School District superintendent Chris Barbic, center, and Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson after a Friday forum that framed school reform efforts in a faith-based approach.

(Daily News/Bill Dries)

“We need cover,” said Achievement School District superintendent Chris Barbic. “Not spin – but we need to stop beating ourselves up.”

Barbic and SCS superintendent Dorsey Hopson spoke together Friday, Sept. 27, in a panel discussion moderated by Second Presbyterian senior minister Sandy Wilson.

Before they spoke, David Montague, of Memphis Teacher Residency, said urban education and the efforts underway specifically in urban schools is part of a Christian gospel response.

“There is so much negativity about education in our city,” Montague said. “This is the time for the church to be the church. Education is the civil rights issue of this day.”

Hopson, who last appeared together with Barbic at a New Memphis Institute forum last month, acknowledged that the school district has “so far to go,” with so many of its students living in poverty and 75 percent of the system’s third-graders not reading at grade level.

“We don’t want someone to show up and just move this kid one grade level,” Hopson said as he talked of the need for committed teachers, even if that means losing or letting go other teachers. “You have to believe that all kids learn. You have to be able to commit yourselves to do whatever it takes.”

About a third of the audience in the East Memphis church’s sanctuary were teachers or school administrators, many of them in the Memphis Teacher Residency program or Teach For America.

Montague spoke of two teacher residents from 2009, his program’s first year working in Memphis, whose car window was shot out during a gunfight that erupted after a football game they attended for a school at which they wanted to work.

“I’m thinking this is the shortest leadership training program I’ve been involved in,” Montague said of his initial reaction after talking with the two residents, whose response was that they were staying at the school.

“The brokenness we see arouses our compassion,” Montague said. “We run toward it, not away from it. … This is simply our issue.”

To Montague, the poverty in which many Memphis students live goes hand in hand with their lack of proficiency in the classroom.

Barbic has long pointed to statistics that show students living in poverty in other states achieve at higher levels than poor students in Tennessee.

“Even our poor kids can do better,” he said Friday. “We’ve got to set the bar in a different place.”