Long before getting involved in developing the state’s ESSA plans, the Knoxville Area Urban League had a long-standing interest in the education policy decision that impacted students of color in urban areas. To broaden the reach of their advocacy, KAUL partnered with ConexionAmericas to create a force in Tennessee’s education reform conversation that has gained national attention.

“The Urban League has always advocated for educational equity in Knoxville and the state of Tennessee, but prior to the coalition, we were seen as only represented black students so it was difficult to get the visibility and influence we wanted in the education space,” said Phyllis Nichols, CEO of the Knoxville Area Urban League. “Our focus was around chronic absenteeism for black students, specifically suspensions and expulsions, but we found that advocacy was difficult since black students make up a generally smaller group of students. Once we expanded the analysis to people of color, we saw much greater numbers of disparity.”

The partnership with Conexion Americas, which began in 2016, was the start of a coalition that advocated for Black student in urban areas, Latino students who were learning English for the first time, children with disabilities and those living in rural America under a united voice to fight for educational equity across the state of Tennessee. The partnership became known as the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition.

“As a coalition we were able to participate in drafting the Tennessee ESSA plan in every subgroup and help gather parent input from across the state,” said Nichols. “One of the successes to highlight was that we were able to change the language around the students we represent from ‘underperforming’ to ‘underserved’ which is a big difference because language means everything.”

Now that the state plan has been reviewed and approved, the next goal of the coalition is to ensure that parents understand the implications of the law and are prepared to advocate for their children under the law.

“It’s important that we engage our constituents so that they understand what will happen when the plan is implemented in September of this year. We found that we’re sharing information about school grading designations that teachers don’t fully understand, so we want them to be as informed as possible,” said Nichols. “Conexions Americas helped develop excellent collateral materials that we use in our boot camps and we’ve shared our work in presentations from Denver to Chicago and Nashville.”

With the help of the coalition, the KAUL can focus on the issues that impact disproportionately impact black students and address them under ESSA. Students of color and economically disadvantaged students, including English learners, experience higher levels of out of school learning due to health issues (16% of students in Tennessee have chronic health conditions). Chronic health issues are aggravated by the poverty rate for children; a staggering 24% of students live below the poverty line.

However, another factor impact black student chronic absenteeism in Tennessee is a disproportionate suspense and expulsion rate. Although black students make up just 24% of enrollment in Tennessee schools, but account for 64% of total suspensions.

Nichols believes that through the work of the coalition and KAUL, Tennessee has a chance to get to a place of equity.

“We have made much more head way in impacting education reform in state of TN as a coalition rather than an individual organization. We decided we wanted to be the most informed group in the room. We know the law, understand the law. Now rather than asking for a seat at the table, we’re invited and valued,” said Nichols. “I think once we reach a point where the Urban League is recognized as a critical partner in education reform and we’ve impacted and empowered parents to be great advocates for their children, our model will be a proven success.”