By Brian Washington
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For some, two and a half years may seem like a long time to wait for change. But according to Lauren Hopson, a teacher from Knox County Tennessee, in the political world, that’s actually pretty quick.
That’s about how long it took Hopson and her education colleagues—working with parents and community leaders—to turn around the county’s school board.
Prior to 2014, Hopson said only one of the board’s nine members could be considered friendly to students and educators–especially when it came to the issue of standardized tests.
However, after last month’s school board elections, it’s more like a 6-3 split—with the six majority members made up of former or retired educators who know what students need to succeed. And by the end of the year, that split could be more like 7-2.
“We have a pretty good shot with our last endorsed candidate, who won the primary but still has to go through the general election in September,” said Hopson. “The one we hope will win in the fall is not an educator but has worked with the PTA (Parent Teacher Association).”
How it all began
To hear Hopson tell it, it all started just before the 2014 election cycle. That’s when a group of about 20 educators, community leaders, and pro-public education activists formed a bond. They shared a passion to improve public education and spoke out regularly at school board meetings against the policies of the superintendent. Eventually, they launched a campaign to prevent his contract from being extended.
“A lot of us didn’t think there was any reason to extend the contract,” said Hopson. “His policies were very detrimental to the school climate for teachers and students.”
Hopson said both students and educators were stressed due to the overreliance on standardized tests. At the time, the tests were administered in every grade, including kindergarten, and being used in conjunction with student reviews to evaluate teachers.
“So you had kindergarteners, who didn’t want to answer questions because it wasn’t on pink paper, determining if you were doing a good job or not,” said Hopson.
Organizing for the long run
Hopson and the other pro-public education activists eventually started a Facebook page and a YouTube channel featuring videos of them addressing school board members. They also used social media to encourage other educators to speak out and to alert the public about what was happening with public education.
Nevertheless, the board went against their wishes and approved the superintendent’s contract extension on an 8-to-1 vote.
We recognized pretty quickly that the situation was not going to change with the current people who were on the school board. So we started immediately before the next election looking for candidates and supporting those candidates.
One such candidate was the librarian at Hopson’s school—Amber Rountree. Hopson says Rountree’s campaign was challenging because the major media outlets in Knoxville—the largest city and media market in the area—are controlled by the wealthy Haslam family, as in Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam and his brother Jim Haslam, the owner of the NFL’s Cleveland Browns team. The Haslam family is a vocal critic of Knox County educators and their union, the Knox County Education Association (KCEA).
When it came time to get the word out about how good Rountree would be for students and public schools, educators had to get creative.
“We started out making contact with the smaller community papers and the smaller talk radio stations,” said Hopson, who is the current president of KCEA. “But basically, we got out and knocked on doors and talked to people. And she won every precinct in that election.”
Looking to the Future
Even if their endorsed candidate doesn’t get the seat currently up for grabs in the fall, educators now have enough friends on the school board to chart a better course for the future—one in which they work together with school board members to determine what’s best for students.
One of the first goals—cut down the amount of time educators and students devote to preparing for standardized tests. Hopson adds the district has already taken positive steps in this direction in relation to students in grades K through 2. Now it’s time to have a similar impact on a much broader scale.
“What we’re hoping now is that our school board will listen to what our educators are telling them, make recommendations to the State of Tennessee, and then have the state act on those recommendations of the school board,” said Hopson. “Instead of top-down education policy, we want it to go from the ground up.”