If there is a buzzword being heard in Nashville right now, it’s education. Not only are the city and state leaders committed to improving test scores and the dropout rate, but there are legions of dedicated visionaries whose primary goal it is to right the ship. One of these is the very accomplished Shani Jackson Dowell, the Executive Director of Teach for America/Nashville. Teach for America started here in 2009 and currently has approximately 200 teachers in the school system.
We took a moment to interview Shani about her approach to education and what interests her as a relatively new resident of Music City.
Where did you grow up?
I am originally from Houston, TX. I grew up there, and then went to college in Washington, DC, before living in Boston, the Bay Area, then coming back to Houston to teach in my home community.
What brought you to Nashville?
I started working in education through a national nonprofit called KIPP. KIPP launches high-performing, college-preparatory schools that predominantly serve students growing up in low-income communities. In 2005, I worked with KIPP helping school leaders get their schools started in the South. One of the school leaders was launching a KIPP school in Nashville. I fell in love with him and the city of Nashville. In the summer of 2008 we married and I moved to Nashville.
Can you describe a mentor in your life?
I have the privilege to be surrounded by many mentors and amazing people, from my colleagues at Teach For America, to the parents, community members and leaders with whom I have the opportunity to work. Specifically I would love to shout out just a few of the incredible women I’ve known: Daphne Butler and Julie Frist (Teach For America’s regional board chairs), Elissa Kim, Alice Randall, and Shirene Douglas who who all at different times and in different ways inspire and push me.
For any of our readers who aren’t familiar with Teach for America, can you give them a condensed overview of the organization?
Teach For America believes that every child should have access to an excellent education. In Nashville we work in partnership with district, school, and community leaders to make sure every child has a great school to attend. Because we believe deeply in the power of great teachers, principals and educational leaders, we work to recruit, train, support and develop some of our nation’s most promising college graduates who commit to teach in our nation’s highest need schools, working to have an immediate impact on the academic achievement of the students in their care. Meanwhile, they develop the skills, insights and convictions to become long-terms leaders in the pursuit of educational justice, whether as teachers, principals, district administrators, parent organizers, politicians, or active members of their communities.
As executive director of Teach for America/Nashville, what challenges do you face in your job?
I think our biggest challenge lies in getting past our city’s legacy of lowered expectations and a set of powerful misperceptions about students and families in our public schools. Today, when we see that fewer than 10% of the 55,000 low income students in Nashville will graduate from high school ready for college or career, we’re quick to place blame, to assume that the kids don’t try or that their families or teachers or educational leaders don’t care. We have to change this. For our city to ensure that every kid has access to a great school we must do two things: First, we have to believe it’s possible. Second, we have to recognize our urgent, individual responsibilities to make it a reality.
As a previous math teacher, why do you think US students under perform so dramatically in math and science?
As I told my middle school students in Houston, “Math is life.” To be a critical thinker and productive citizen, you have to know both the principles of math and have confidence that when presented with a problem you can use what you know to figure out what you don‟t.
As I teacher, I was saddened to see that many of my students had already deemed themselves “bad” at math. Many positioned their struggles as an almost “generational curse,” something that ran in their families. In my own childhood, I remember similar feelings. After performing poorly on a standardized science test, I was quick to conclude that math and science just weren‟t for me. As a country, we accept far too readily that, for many kids, math just isn‟t their thing.
In our work here in Nashville, we have seen pretty dramatic math outcomes with some of our city’s highest-need students. In 2012, first year teacher Rich Richards led his North Nashville 5th graders to outperform Williamson County 5th graders in math. In 2012 Jake Ramsey led 76% of all 8th graders at KIPP Nashville to be proficient or advanced in Algebra. Results like these prove what possible when we begin to shift our mindsets and inspire students to do the same.
Carolyn Dweck’s book, Mindsets, offers a powerful testament to the power of mindsets. I recommend it for any parent or educator.
Is there a glaring misconception that people have about the public schools in Nashville?
I think the biggest misperception is that the problems are insurmountable. As any committed teacher, principal, administrator or parent will tell you, we have a long way to go to ensure that every child in our city has access to an excellent education. But we also have a growing body of evidence that suggests with committed, courageous leadership at every level of the system, drastically different outcomes are possible. This will not be easy or quick, but it is squarely within reach.
What is the best advice you can give someone considering a position with Teach for America?
Working towards educational opportunity for all kids is a wonderful mission. This is work you tackle because you believe so deeply in what is possible for our country and all of the amazing individuals within it. You join in this movement because of a belief in mission. When you join Teach For America, you are joining a diverse, national organization of some of our nation‟s most promising talent to work relentlessly towards a vision of “one day” when every child in our nation has access to an excellent education. Your peers in this work will be recent college graduates and 5-year military veterans, people who were themselves taught by Teach For America corps members and exceptional campus leaders. They will be diverse in background and skills, united by a common vision.
For your commitment and work, you are developed as an educator and a leader, are able to impact lives and become part of a lifelong commitment and network of folks working to insure educational opportunity for all students. You get to see the growth of human potential– in yourself, your students, and your colleagues–in incredible ways.
If you had a different career, what would it be?
Gosh! That‟s hard to imagine now. I find so much joy in working to expand opportunities for students and communities. If I were considering a new twist, I might explore work at the college level, helping to open pathways and provide supports for students who are the first in their families to go to college. I also love karaoke. So if there‟s a career path there, I‟m open to it.
Favorite vacation destination?
Mexico is my favorite country to visit. I love the food, the culture, the language and the countryside. I was part of a program called Amigos when I was in high school and lived in Guanajuato, Mexico for a summer. That‟s what allowed me to really get to know Mexico.
How do you recharge your batteries?
My family always does the trick. One of the many benefits of spending time with my 2 1⁄2 year- old daughter is that she makes me forget about whatever’s on my mind and just focus on her. I particularly love taking her to the pool and seeing her joy in swimming and floating. My husband and I also love watching a movie on a Friday night. We end up going out so much for work that on date nights we happily stay in!
Do you have a favorite restaurant that you like to go to in Nashville?
I really like The Southern for lunch. For a good, family time when the weather is nice, I love going to The Pharmacy and sitting out back where my daughter can run around.
Do you have any irrational fears?
I tend not to realize I should be scared of something until I‟m too far down the path to turn back. That said, I am pregnant right now and I guess part of pregnancy is having lots of irrational fears.
What books are on your bedside table?
Too many! I can‟t focus on what to read. The two I am most actively reading are For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway and You Need a Schoolhouse by Stephanie Deutsch. I also have my iPad which I use for my Bible reading, devotionals, and late night Pinteresting.
Name three things you can’t live without ( excluding God, Family and Friends).
Okay, so my husband and child/ren are covered. I‟ll go with music (specifically Stevie Wonder), dairy (specifically cheese), and my technology (iPad and smart phone, which I use to connect to family and friends).
Thanks, Shani! And thanks to Ashley Hylbert for these beautiful photographs!
To learn more about Teach for America, visit their Nashville website: www.teachforamerica.org/where-we-work/greater-nashville.
To see more of Ashley’s photography, visit her website: www.ashleyhylbert.com.