leadership matters

Meet the leader behind one Memphis school’s Blue Ribbon success

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Principal Yolanda Heidelberg celebrates during a schoolwide event in November at Jackson Elementary, one of two Memphis schools honored as a 2016 National Blue Ribbon School.

In many ways, Jackson Elementary School is an anomaly in Memphis.

In a district in which more than 78 percent of students are black, 71 percent of Jackson Elementary’s students are Hispanic. And more than 99 percent of its students come from poor families, much higher than the district average. Yet its most recent state test scores outpaced Shelby County Schools in most every subject, earning Jackson Elementary a 2016 Blue Ribbon designation by the U.S. Department of Education for closing the performance gap between poor and minority students and their more affluent and white peers.

To insiders, Jackson is known affectionately as Heidelberg University, named in honor of the school’s inspirational leader.

As principal of the 350-student school, Yolanda Heidelberg fosters an all-hands-on-deck attitude that creates a vibrant learning environment for both students and teachers.

Parents volunteer in preparation for Jackson Elementary School's annual Hispanic heritage festival.
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Parents volunteers decorate for the school’s annual Hispanic heritage festival.

“We’re a family school,” Heidelberg said. That, in turn, trickles down to interactions with parents, who frequently pack the auditorium for parent meetings.

The confidence that Heidelberg exudes is a far cry from how she felt when interviewing for the job in 2001. At the time, Hispanics made up less than a quarter of the school’s enrollment. But district leaders expected the composition to change dramatically as more Hispanic families moved into the neighborhood. Heidelberg was asked if she spoke Spanish and had to answer no.

“I was frightened by that because I wasn’t sure I could help,” Heidelberg recalls of eventually landing the job. “But that became my greatest strength.”

Her lack of knowledge about serving English language learners drove Heidelberg to dive into research on how to help her incoming students feel welcome and flourish academically.

And it worked.

Jackson ES in Memphis
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Hispanic students comprise 71 percent of the school’s student population, much higher than the district average.

In 2012, Jackson Elementary was named a state Reward School for achieving top growth rates in scores across multiple years. In 2015, the most recent year for which standardized test scores are available, nearly 60 percent of students scored proficient or advanced in state math tests and nearly 70 percent in science. About 40 percent of students did the same in reading.

The school’s success can be traced to Heidelberg’s persona, leadership, coaching and resourcefulness, according to faculty members.

When she was unable to get the former Memphis City Schools to provide translation services to produce literature for parents, Heidelberg found help from the Memphis Police Department. Those services came in handy when she needed content translated for event programs, marquees and even the school’s website.

“I never wanted language to be a barrier for us. … I never want language to hinder our progress,” she said.

Heidelberg also works with area churches and businesses that provide volunteer tutors for Jackson’s after-school programs.

Yolanda Heidelberg's favorite place at Jackson Elementary School: the Wall of Fame that displays former students who have gone on to college.
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Heidelberg’s Wall of Fame celebrates former students who have gone on to college.

The focus on academics is clear when entering the school, where a prominent display celebrates former students who have gone on to college.

Among staff, teamwork and collaboration are viewed as school values.

Strategies used by teachers of English language learners are often found in mainstream classrooms. Classroom teachers work closely with ELL teachers to plan lessons and skew work toward visuals. To show their mastery of a topic, students can do presentations and projects that aren’t text-heavy but still build language skills.

“We work really hard together — meeting kids where they’re at,” said Charnisha Phipps, a third-grade teacher.

“What sets us apart is that we’re not in competition with each other. We operate as one unit,” adds Lavonda Brown, who teaches fifth grade. “Here we share. We build on each other’s strengths.”

Carla Wilson teaches English language learners but she still attends classroom teacher meetings, for instance, and sometimes steps in other classrooms to offer extra support. “Just because I’m an ESL teacher doesn’t mean I’m only going to be doing that. We go in and do whatever needs to be done,” she said.

The culture is apparent in the front office too, where students and parents vote each month for a “star” staff member. The prize? A lunch out with Heidelberg — and a half day off.

For Heidelberg, the prize is the National Blue Ribbon award, shared this year with 278 other public schools across the nation. While there’s no material benefit, the designation is viewed as a badge of honor in education.

“This is just a validation of the hard work we’ve done over the years,” she said. “It’s finally being recognized.”

big award

Denver’s DSST charter school network wins a $250,000 prize

PHOTO: Photo by Andy Cross, The Denver Post
Students at DSST: College View Middle School work on a reading assignment during an English Language Development class.

Denver’s largest homegrown charter school network, DSST, won a $250,000 prize Monday for its success educating students from low-income families and students of color.

The Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools is given annually to the top large charter school network in the country by The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. This was the second year DSST was a finalist.

The quarter-million-dollar prize must be used to help prepare students for college.

“DSST is a great example of the much-desired and elusive combination: a network that ensures outstanding results for all types of students while growing to serve more students,” said Macke Raymond, director of the CREDO research group at Stanford University and a member of the review board that chose the winner.

DSST operated 13 middle and high schools in Denver this past school year, serving 5,300 students. More than 80 percent were students of color, and two-thirds qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty. DSST strives for diversity and at some of its schools, gives priority to students who qualify for subsidized lunch.

In choosing DSST, the 10-member Broad Prize review board noted that for the past decade, 100 percent of DSST graduates have been accepted to four-year colleges or universities. They also recognized the network’s high test scores, particularly on the ACT.

DSST is poised to grow even more in the coming years. It will open a new middle school in far northeast Denver this fall, and a middle school and a high school in the neighboring city of Aurora in 2019. The Aurora school board has approved four DSST schools in what will be the network’s first expansion outside of Denver. Meanwhile, the Denver school board has approved eight more DSST schools that don’t yet have opening dates.

“This award belongs to our students, staff, and the DSST community,” said Bill Kurtz, CEO of the network. “It is an amazing reflection of their commitment to excellence every day in our classrooms.”

The other finalists this year were Achievement First and Uncommon Schools. Both are bigger than DSST: Achievement First runs 34 schools in New York, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, while Uncommon Schools has 52 schools in New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.

To be eligible for the prize, charter networks must have had five or more schools in operation during the past three academic years, serving at least 2,500 students. Of those students, 33 percent had to be students of color and 40 percent had to qualify for subsidized lunches. Forty-one charter networks qualified, including another in Denver, STRIVE Prep.

Future of Schools

Emanuel touts Chicago grads’ successes in defense of CPS

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Rahm Emanuel speaking at Marine Leadership Academy's class of 2018 graduation

In three commencement speeches, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has touted post-high school success, underscoring a prime education goal that he’s prioritized for more than a year.

“99 graduates out of 99. All going to college or a branch of the armed forces,” he said Friday at the graduation ceremony for Marine Leadership Academy, a public high school affiliated with the U.S. Marine Corps in Logan Square.

Four days earlier, he highlighted achievement at the graduation ceremony of Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep based in Roseland: “I want the rest of Chicago to hear me loud and clear: 98 percent graduation, 90 percent college bound.”  Emanuel said. Three days before at commencement at Baker College Prep based in South Chicago, he celebrated a class that was 100 percent college-bound.

The mayor repeatedly highlighted postsecondary plans, echoing goals of the initiative he announced in April 2017– that starting with the class of 2020, high school seniors must have a letter of acceptance from a four-year college, a community college, the military, or a guaranteed entry into a trade in order to graduate. He said that this requirement “is an expectation we have for every child because that is the expectation the economy of the 21st century has for them.”

While CPS educators have agreed that preparing students beyond high school is important, many of them have also worried that the graduation requirement would rush schools to get students accepted into college without preparing them to actually succeed there.

As Emanuel travelled across the city to fete graduates, he also appeared to focus on their college plans as a weapon in his war of words with President Donald Trump over Chicago education. Just before Rahm announced the graduation requirement last year, the president criticized the city’s academic numbers as “very rough,” prompting the mayor to point to a Stanford study showing that Chicago students have among the highest improvement rates in the nation.

On Friday, Emanuel said, “To Chicago, to Illinois, to the rest of America, and to one person in particular in Washington, to all those doubters, to all the cynics, to all the nay-sayers who say ‘not those kids, not from that background, not from that part of town,’ you come here and see what I see: that the Bulldogs are going on to great and better things.”

Read on for his full speech at Marine Leadership Academy’s graduation:

“I

want to congratulate this great class of 2018. I want to congratulate your teachers, your principals, all the families, all the families of the Bulldogs that are here. I want to say, just last week, I sat where your parents are sitting as my little baby graduated. And well, I’m sorry, you are to certain people still their baby. That’s the way this works.

Now this is your day, this is your accomplishment. But there are a lot of people in this room who prodded you, who pushed you, who poked you. So I want you to stand up, turn around and give your parents and your teachers an applause for what they did to help you get to this day.

Now I asked you to do that for a reason. I asked you to do that because I want the rest of the city of Chicago, I want the state of Illinois, and I want the United States of America to see what I see in this room. 99 graduates out of 99. All going to college or a branch of the armed forces. 100 percent.

$5.3 million in scholarships. That comes out to about $53,000 a student. So, to Chicago, to Illinois, to the rest of America, and to one person in particular in Washington, to all those doubters, to all the cynics, to all the nay-sayers who say ‘not those kids, not from that background, not from that part of town,’ you come here and see what I see: that the Bulldogs are going on to great and better things.

You stop running down the kids of the city of Chicago. The Bulldogs stand strong. They’re going to college, they’re going into the armed forces. When you use your cynicism to run down our kids, they got one thing to say to you, they’ll look you right in the eyes, like that valedictorian just said, and they’re going to strut to success. Don’t you ever doubt the kids in the city of Chicago.

And I can’t be more proud of what you’ve accomplished. Now I say that because unlike any other – and your principal knows this – unlike any other school (this is my third commencement this year, every year I do three), when I was a congressman (those were the days when you could get an earmark), I worked with a congressman from downstate Illinois by the name of Ray LaHood, and we got you the first $500,000 to $600,000 so you could establish the Marine Math and Science Academy. And then as mayor, I helped you get to your new building out of [shared quarters at] Phoenix [Military Academy], so you could have your separate building and expand to seventh and eighth grade. So I have a particular joy in this day, and I’m glad that you allowed me to share it with you and I want to thank you for that.

I also want to note to each and every one of you, every time you’ve confronted a challenge, you’ve met it head on. Every time you’ve faced an obstacle, you overcame it. Every time you’ve faced adversity, you’ve triumphed. And I want to talk about adversity for one second. Because while today is a milestone, and a sense of accomplishment, and it is that, you will learn more about yourself and what you’re made of in how you handle adversity, not success, how you handle failing, not triumph.

In my own life, and there’s no adult in this room that hasn’t failed. There’s no adult that hasn’t actually stumbled. One, you’re going to learn something about yourself, second, you’re going to learn who your friends are, who stands by you when you’re down. It’s easy to be by you when you’re up. That’s what you’re going to learn.

Right at this point, when I was your age, I was working to make money to go to college. I was working on a meat cutter. And I didn’t get told that on the meat-cutting blade there was a metal glove. Sliced my finger real bad, wrapped it up real tight, didn’t do anything for it for about 48 hours. They realized then that I was in a serious problem, rushed me to the hospital. I ended up with five blood infections, two bone infections, gangrene, 105.4 [degrees temperature]. They put me in ice packs for 72 hours. And for those 72 hours, they weren’t sure I was going to make it. They also thought they should take my arm off just to see if they could save me.

In the seven weeks I was there, three of my roommates died and were wheeled out in the middle of the morning. And I was not a good student, and I said to myself – it’s not like the clouds broke open and Beethoven started playing and the sun came through – but in those seven weeks that I stayed in my bed, I said if I ever get another chance, I’m going to make something of my life. I’m going to do something, I’ll go out.

And in the moment where I almost lost my life, I realized why life is worth living. And you will face your own moment, it won’t be that grave, where you stumble, you fall. You wobble, and that’s where you’re going to learn what it means to be a Bulldog. That’s where you’re going to learn who you are, and what you’re made of.

In the same way [that I learned] physically, [I also learned] professionally. So I get out of college, and I decide, I’m going to work for a president of the United States I believe in. Eight years later out of college, I’m in the White House. Political advisor to President Clinton. I think I’m in hog heaven. And I convinced my then-girlfriend, now my wife, to leave her job and join me in Washington for this great experiment – working for the president of the United States, everything that I wanted to do in life. In my career, eight years out of college here I am. The son and the grandson of an immigrant, working in the White House, working for a great president, for somebody I believed in.

And I know you find it hard to believe, but I mouthed off a little too often, to the First Lady – not a good idea, don’t do that. The day my wife Amy arrives, leaves her job here in Chicago to join me, because we’re in the White House, I lose my job. We have a home, and no employment. And the dream we were going to be part of, this journey with President Clinton, I was given my walking paper six months into it. I saw everything that I’ve worked for right before my eyes, just like I was in that hospital bed.

I don’t know where I got the gumption – I walked into the chief of staff’s office and I said, ‘I ain’t leaving.’ Now, let me say this, as chief of staff to President Obama, if somebody said that to me, I would have said something else to them. I don’t know where I got it, I said, ‘I’m not leaving until the president of the United States says I’m leaving.’

So, two days later they said OK here’s your new job. And they demoted me, put me down, I joked I got a closet of an office from a big office with a play-school phone that didn’t even dial out. A year later, I worked my way back up to being senior adviser to the president of the United States for policy and politics, and replacing George Stephanopoulos as his senior adviser. I saw my entire career pass before my eyes, but I dug down deep, and realized in that moment of failure, I’m going to give myself a second chance, and make something of this second chance. And it was in that moment of seeing my career pass, it was in that moment of seeing my life pass, that I realized why it was worth doing what I needed to do. It is my one point to you on this great day of celebration.

You should celebrate, and have joy. Know that your moments of learning and accomplishment will come as much not only from success, but also from failure. And if you approach when you stumble with an attitude of ‘what I can learn from this,’ there are only great things ahead of you in your life. And I ask you as mayor, I see the sons and daughters of immigrants, I see the sons and daughters from all corners of this city. To you are given both opportunity and obligation. Opportunity to go on to college and make something of yourself. Your parents sacrificed and struggled for this moment for you. Honor it, give it justice that you are given an opportunity in the greatest city in the greatest country to make something of that. But you are also given, and required, an obligation. An obligation to give something back, something bigger than yourself. Muhammad Ali once said, ‘the service we pay to others is the rent we pay for being here on Earth.’

So while you are given this opportunity to make your own path, to make something of your life, you have an obligation to give something back to this city, to your neighborhood, and ultimately to your country. Your city and your country need your leadership. Your city and your country need your values. Your city and your country need your leadership, your values, and your courage. There’s never been a greater moment of opportunity for us, and also challenge. Go achieve what you’ve set out for yourself. Make your parents and yourself proud of what you’ve done. Look back and not regret your decision, but look back at them with joy, but I ask you, come home, come back to Chicago, and help us build this great city for another generation of Bulldogs.

Congratulations on this great day.