by Michael Tomlin-Crutchfield

Long before getting involved in developing the state’s ESSA plans, the Knoxville Area Urban League (KAUL) had a long-standing interest in education policy. To broaden their influence throughout Tennessee, the 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 representing black students. Prior to forming our coalition with ConexionAmericas, 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 formed our coalition to represent all people of color, we saw much greater numbers of disparity.”

The partnership with Conexion Americas, which began in 2016, created a united voice 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 Tennessee. The partnership became known as the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition.

“As a coalition, we participated in drafting the Tennessee ESSA plan with data that represented every subgroup and input from parents 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.’ That was a major win because language means everything and we were able to influence how our children were viewed by state officials.”

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.

“ConexionsAmericas 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,” said Nichols. “It’s important that we engage our constituents so that they understand what will happen when the plan is implemented in September. We found that we’re sharing information about school grading systems that teachers don’t fully understand, so we want them to be as informed as possible.”

With the help of the coalition, the KAUL can focus on the issues that 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 time due to health issues (16% of students in Tennessee have chronic health conditions). Chronic health issues are aggravated by the poverty rate for children across the state where a staggering 24% of students live below the poverty line.

Another factor impact black student chronic absenteeism in Tennessee is disproportionate suspension and expulsion rates. Although black students make up just 24% of enrollment in Tennessee schools, they account for 64% of all suspensions.

Nichols believes that through the work of the coalition and the 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 Tennessee as a coalition rather than an individual organization. We decided we wanted to be the most informed group in the room,” said Nichols. “Now rather than asking for a seat at the table, we’re invited and our input is valued. 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.”