I decided to start doing interviews with people involved with education in Tennessee because I felt that in arguing over policy, we’d lost sight of personalities. Education is such a passionate subject that we often forget those we argue against are people who have arrived at their opinions based on their own research and experiences. We tend to think that our experience is a universal experience, and therefore policy should be shaped to fit that experience or a slight variation of it. What I’ve discovered through my conversations with folks over the last couple years is that everyone has a story and everyone’s story is different, sometimes to a degree that makes finding the touchstones difficult.
Allison Simpson is someone I never really thought I would be sitting down with, let alone enjoying our conversation. She is a parent leader with Nashville Rise, an organization that was initially a part of Project Renaissance. In my eyes, Simpson had a sympathy for charter schools that was the antithesis of my own beliefs. During the last school board election, we found ourselves on opposite ends of a very vitriolic battle. Since then, I’ve begun to focus less on fighting against schools and more on fighting for schools. I’ve realized you can’t impact demand if you don’t lessen desire.
Recently, Nashville Rise has broken off from Project Renaissance and formed its own independent 501(c)(3) organization. Those involved say that this has always been the plan, while those with other agendas paint a different picture. I am not as much concerned with the politics as much as I was with the story of those involved. Whether criticism leveled against them is warranted or not, there is no denying that Nashville Rise has been successful at getting previously unheard parents to step to the microphone at school board meetings. That itself is worthy of praise.
Allison and I sat down at Flatrock Coffee and Tea for a conversation on personal experiences, school choice, and parent involvement. We didn’t reach total agreement, but hopefully we uncovered a few mutual touchstones that will lay the grounds for future collaboration.
DAD GONE WILD: Good morning, Allison. Glad you were able to find the place all right. I appreciate you doing this.
ALLISON SIMPSON: My pleasure.
DGW: Now your official title is Chairman of the Board for Nashville Rise, correct?
DGW: Now what exactly, in your words, is Nashville Rise?
AS: We are a parent advocacy organization. Our main work is focusing on empowering parents to elevate their voices around improving our schools, thereby increasing great schools for all kids.
DGW: Let’s take a look at the history for a moment. Project Renaissance was founded in part by former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean who was a supporter of increased options for kids, charter schools and TFA specifically. Were you on board right from the beginning?
AS: I joined the team in November of 2015, along with my coworker Ariba Qureshi. I know that prior to me being hired, there were several key people who were relationship building and engaging parents. (Courtney, Wendy, Justin and Jay). We officially launched Nashville Rise June 23, 2016 when we hosted our school board candidate forum. This informative session served as an opportunity for parents to ask questions and engage school board candidates prior to the August 4 election.
DGW: What was your background at the time, and how did you become involved in Nashville Rise?
AS: When my daughter was in the fist grade, I did a lot of volunteering at her school. I was volunteering for a field trip, and prior to us getting on the bus to go to the zoo, a lady came in who was talking about Project Renaissance and how they were trying to engage and organize parents. She spoke about the importance of parents realizing they had a voice and elevating that collective voice to improve Davidson County schools.
That ladies name was Courtney Wheeler and I will never forget the moment I heard her speak. She spoke with such passion and when she talked, it was like she had been reading my mind! She was stressing that parents are important and their voices are important. She spoke of the importance of kids getting a great education regardless of zip code, having a safe place to go, and all families having equal access to great schools, all things that resonated with me.
She told our principal that they were looking for an organizer. People at the school said, “Ma’am, Ms. Simpson is looking for a job, you should talk to her.” I met Courtney for coffee. We had an amazing conversation. I then met Jay Mazon, who was our director at the time, and I got hired.
I had been working at a mental health facility. I was tired and burned out, and I just didn’t feel like I was really making a difference. I thought that I wanted to do more. I think God just aligned all these things in place for me to be able to do this work.
DGW: How have things changed since then?
AS: Tremendously. We have about 500, give or take, parents who are regularly involved in a multitude of ways. Some are engaged through social media. Some attend events. Some speak at school board events. We have about 20-30 parents who are just always on the ground. I could call them right now and be like, “Hey, I need you to do this,” and they’re on it.
I feel like we’ve reached a lot of different parents. But from day one, we have had a lot of partnerships at charter schools. That is just because they were more welcoming. I’ve developed a lot of relationships recently with some additional schools. I’ve been really intentional about expanding out who we work with, because I feel like we are all public schools and we all need to be in this fight together. I just really want to open up the lines of communication and get to the root of the disconnect and why we are always at war with each other.
DGW: Have you figured that out yet?
AS: (Smiling) No. But, as far as fighting for progress, I’m in there. And I hear things like, “Okay, this lady isn’t so bad. She literally is trying to get us heard. She’s really is legit. She’s really fighting for us parents.” Some people are starting to realize that we are trying to improve all schools and not just take kids from your school. That’s where we’ve the seen the most progress. Where we’ve actually been able to make inroads with the school system.
I was just checking my email, and a principal over in Madison had sent me an email inviting us to an event that they’re having. That kind of thing really wasn’t happening before, but through our efforts and boots on the ground, people are starting to realize that we want to help everyone improve. A private school wants us to come and empower their parents, and I’m cool with that. We want to empower all parents. Now that we’ve broken away and formed our own entity, we are like 110% parent-led. Our board consists of five people, all parents.
DGW: Hold on. Let’s back up one second, I don’t know that a lot of people know that Nashville Rise has separated from Project Renaissance and are now their own independent entity. Tell me a little bit more about that.
AS: So, we were incubated by Project Renaissance. Project Renaissance was formed to ensure that all kids had access to a great school. Under their umbrella, there were separate initiatives, the teacher talent piece was one and the parent involvement piece was another. Project Renaissance conducted tours to spread the word about different schools and the things that they were doing. This was done to promote collaboration. But all initiatives acted separately.
DGW: So the breaking out of individual initiatives was always part of the plan?
AS: It was one part of a five-year plan, but it kind of happened faster than five years. I think basically we were just ready to transition and that is pretty much the reason why it happened now. I know that NTR, the Nashville Teacher Residency program, is also breaking off. Project Renaissance was really meant to be the incubator.
DGW: So you now have your own board, independent of Project Renaissance.
AS: Correct. Nashville Rise is now its own entity with its own board.
DGW: And who makes up that board?
AS: It’s parents, five parents. Me, I’m a board chair. We have a vice president, who is also a parent. We have a communications person who also, like me, works with other parents.
DGW: Is the board on salary or is it all volunteers?
AS: (chuckling) No. We are all volunteers. So I am currently unemployed.
DGW: I know that feeling.
AS: I am a volunteer just like the parents. Prior to that, I was getting paid a salary, but since we broke off into our own entity, we don’t have resources yet for a paid position. And that’s totally fine with me because I don’t need to be paid to do this work. I have a passion for it. If you asked anybody else who knows me, they will tell you the same thing. Now, I am freaking out a little bit because I do have two kids, but at the same time, I feel like everything happened in this order because it’s God’s plan and He has something greater for me. So whether He’s building this magical position for me or not is immaterial. All my bills are paid, we still have a house to live in, my kids are eating. So, yes I am a volunteer, and the other parents are volunteers. We’re all volunteers.
DGW: Impressive. Are you a Nashville native?
AS: No. I am from Cincinnati and I got here by way of college. I actually followed my daughter’s dad here. I hate to say it aloud but it’s true.
DGW: There’s always a boy involved.
AS: Right. I went to Auburn and graduated in 2007. I needed a job and this is the very first place I found a job. I moved here and that was it.
DGW: So Nashville Rise was created and you started recruiting parents. Where did they come from?
AS: They came from us just going to PTA meetings. I went and talked about Nashville Rise at my daughter’s school. I went to community events. We did movies in the park. Any opportunity for us to reach people. I talked to a lady at the grocery store once.
DGW: One of the things that I’ve been impressed by recently is that your ability to reach parents who normally wouldn’t speak out and get them to speak in front of the school board. Previously, I’ve raised the question of how much is indoctrination versus teaching parents to speak out, but in all fairness, at this juncture there does seem to me that at this juncture there’s less indoctrination and more empowerment going on. How do you get those parents to step up and be bolder?
AS: My coworker Ariba and I worked together in doing this. It was funny because Ariba is not a parent, but she had a huge passion for the work we were doing. If you ever get a chance to talk to Ariba, you should, she has an amazing story that stems from watching her parents come to America from Pakistan and sacrifice so much so that she and her sister would have equal access to a great education. Her passion, along with my passion, and our ability to build relationships and be nonjudgmental has paved the way. We just sit down with parents and talk to them. First and foremost we ask, “How’s your day going?” We stress that we are really here to take the time to get to know them. I go on a lot of luncheons. I go to a lot of coffee houses. I go to sporting events and school events because I think it’s important for people to know that you really care and that I’m not here just saying, “Hey, sign up, join Nashville Rise.” For me, I know how great it feels when other people have taken their time to just care about me and my kids, and I want to spread that feeling to others.
In my opinion, that’s how we’ve done it. I think just being sincere and just being transparent are the keys. Just letting people know that there’s no hidden agenda and that this is what it is. We don’t do any coaching and we try not to tell parents to “say this, don’t say this.” It has always been just “tell me your story. Sit down, talk to me, tell me your story, the good, the bad, and the ugly. What do you want me to know? Tell me.” Okay, thanks. Then I ask questions and I say, “Now, why don’t you go say that in a room full of people with your back to the majority of them? You’re only looking at nine people who are just like you, and tell them what you told me.”
Some of our parents have trouble with English, and they don’t really understand email. They ask why do they have to sign up with email. They get frustrated and say, “I’m not going to do it.” So, you know, we could make things a lot more convenient for parents. It’s not an easy task.
AS: You’re telling me that you want a PTA or that the ceiling in your building is falling down. Nobody’s going to know that until you speak about it. My mom once told me that a closed mouth never gets fed and I’ve tried to always remember that.
So when you explain it like that, yes it’s hard, but at the same time it makes sense. They click. I want my parents to shine. I want my organization to shine and I want people to see the great work that we’re doing. I mean that’s it.
DGW: Do you guys rehearse beforehand at all?
DGW: That question is a compliment by the way, because all of your parents speak so confidently. They’re speaking authoritatively. They’re speaking knowledgeably. If you can get a parent out in front of a school board talking about… whatever, you’ve earned my admiration. I think that getting parents to voice their opinions is, in itself, an achievement because so many parents don’t feel empowered to speak up. So the fact that you’re empowering parents, period, let alone that the majority are minority parents, is remarkable.
DGW: I think it’s fantastic.
AS: It wasn’t an easy task. When we told parents that one of our goals would be to get parents to speak there was some skepticism. Another challenge was that school board meetings are not at a realistic time for many of our parents. The meetings are at five, and they don’t have the option to leave work early or transportation is an issue. You can’t do a video conference. So that was another issue that had to be overcome. The time is just inconvenient for working parents.
DGW: That’s a good point. If the meeting starts at five o’clock and if I’m a parent working from 9 to 5, facing rush hour traffic, the odds of me getting there in time are slim. Maybe that’s why they’ve moved the public participation piece to later in the agenda.
AS: Perhaps, but I honestly still don’t think that they make a real effort to accommodate parents.
DGW: I don’t disagree.
AS: The meeting is at 5 o’clock, they’ve changed the way that parents can sign up, and you need to email your request to speak. Some of my parents didn’t have email addresses. So then it becomes a matter of me sitting down with them and creating an email account so that they can sign up. That’s so inconvenient.
Some of our Middle Eastern parents have trouble with English, and they don’t really understand email. They ask why do they have to sign up with email. They get frustrated and say, “I’m not going to do it.” So, you know, we could make things a lot more convenient for parents. It’s not an easy task.
DGW: This is an area where I am highly critical. We say we want more parent involvement, but do we really? It feels like it’s a very specific type of parent involvement that we are looking for – reading to classes, making copies, raising money. If that’s not the case, why do we raise barriers instead of lowering them? It feels like the district just wants parents to join the PTA and not dive any deeper than that. Don’t ask those questions we don’t want to answer. It all seems very geared towards the district setting the agenda instead of parents. How do you see Nashville Rise lining up with district initiatives? Is there a vision where all can entwine or are you focusing on getting parents you work with as involved as possible and letting things fall where they fall?
AS: In a perfect world, we would love to have a partnership with the district because I feel like there are things they can do to help us, and things that we could do to help them. There is Parent University, you have your Community Schools – these are all empowering parents. But I know there are things that they are not doing. That’s where Nashville Rise comes in. We have our parent empowerment sessions were we train parents and give them information that they may not be getting anywhere else, information that allows them to be more proactive in their children’s education.
We’ve consciously tried to narrow our focus. When we first started, I was on social media all the time just getting out the word. And I thought it was so important that I fight back against every criticism. But I came to the realization that I can’t focus on the attacks from certain school board members and other critics. My time is too valuable and I need to be focused on parents and their issues, as well as my own children. I’m a parent myself. My one-year-old is teething and running around the house. I can’t take away time from my kid’s needs and my parents’ needs to try to debunk every false accusation that comes along. I have to let the work speak for itself. So that’s where our priorities are at these days.
DGW: It’s interesting that you mentioned that, because I’ve been on a similar journey myself. When I first started writing the Dad Gone Wild blog, four years ago, I interacted almost exclusively with advocates. Now, I engage a lot more with educators, and it’s given me a deeper sense of what’s happening in our schools. Not discounting the advocates, because without them things would look a whole lot different and I still share the majority of their views. For me personally, I just had to shift my focus. I got to the same point about two years ago as you did. I couldn’t, just couldn’t, spend all of my time fighting against things. I had to look deeper at the roots.
You and I are sitting here talking, and through our conversation, I’m getting a better understanding of why you have made the choices you have made. I don’t have to agree with them, but I need to understand them if I’m going to ensure that I’m doing everything possible to make our schools better and there are things I can learn from you. I feel where you are coming from. I just don’t have time to be arguing the same things over and over. My positions haven’t changed dramatically, but my focus has, in a way similar to yours: let’s focus on making things better.
AS: I think I’ve grown a lot over the last couple of years. I’m proud of the work we do. Recently I had our parents in a room and as I looked around, I realized that these parents had become friends. These parents are sharing ideas and they are talking about when they attended our first training and how the information that we gave them was so impactful. I remember I had one of our parents say, “Oh my gosh! I didn’t even know that APF (Academic Performance Framework) existed. I didn’t even know they invite parents to school. I didn’t know this information was out here and like now that I have this information, I’m going back to my school tomorrow and asking my principal, what do I need to do? And then I’m coming back to you, Alison, and I need you to let me know how to do things once I’ve figured out what needs to be done. I need you to let me know how to organize this.”
So that’s where I’m at now, and I’m working with passion. Sometimes at our meetings, I just sit there and look. We have such a diverse group of parents, parents from all races and backgrounds. This is our moment and these parents are so strong and their stories are so amazing. They have such great ideas and they are searching for someone to listen and I think that should set the stage for a MNPS/Nashville Rise partnership. We would also like to reach more fathers, so if you have any ideas on that please share them!
DGW: It would be nice if we had more fathers involve and to be fair over the last several years their involvement has grown. It’d be nice if grew even more.
Advocacy is always such a journey and I reflect how I’ve grown in its pursuit. In the past I was much more adamant that my way was the only way. I reflect back and think about how I tried to drive people with different views than me out of the conversation. And I’m not the only one, on either side. It seems at times the desire to drive those with opposing views out of the conversation becomes our primary focus instead of trying to reach a deeper understanding. I look at some of the work being done by people I disagree with, and I have to give credit where it is due, some of it is really good.
You are a strong proponent of charter schools. I think they are a detriment to public education. Now we can focus on drawing a hard line on that issue and just going to war over it or we can step back and realize that we both feel parental involvement is essential and something we can collaborate on. There was a time I would’ve tried to put an end to Nashville Rise. And I have to think, what if I had been successful at that, who would have been the beneficiary? I think we need to keep things in perspective.
DGW: All that would have been lost. All of those parents, even if it’s just one parent, who got involved in their kid’s school through Nashville Rise, would’ve been lost because nobody was ready to take up the challenge, and to some extent nobody else is currently. There is a great deal of criticism towards Nashville Rise, some may be warranted, but I still have to ask of people who criticize, “Okay. If we don’t like Nashville Rise because of their perceived attachment to the privatization movement, who then?” It’s the same question as, “If we get rid of all charter schools, what happens then?” So, that’s one of the areas that I’ve tried to mellow a little bit and shift the focus to the actual work.
I take bits and pieces of conversations with people and use them as touchstones. Last year I had a conversation with Patrick Frogge, School Board member Amy Frogge’s husband, and it wasn’t a great conversation for either of us, but in the midst of it he said to me, “The reason I love Bernie Sanders is because he never compromises. The reason I get frustrated with Bernie Sanders is because he never compromises.” Patrick may be shocked, but I’ve made those words part of my daily checklist. I ask myself, is this a place to compromise or one to be unbending? The answers vary, and I’m not sure I always get it right. But I am more cognizant than in the past. I doubt you are reading this Patrick, but if so, thank you.
AS: I’m always open to communicate. I feel like, if you want a relationship to work, you have to have communication. In order to get this work done, no one person can do it alone. We have to collaborate. So, I’m more than willing to sit and talk, but I’m not going to engage in the game of social media feuds anymore. I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to fight. I’m not going to argue. If you want to sit down, you want to hear my story, you want to learn about me, great. Call me and say, “Meet me at the coffee shop. What’s up?”
DGW: I get it.
AS: I just look for ways for us all to work more together. The angry arguments are counterproductive. We don’t all have to agree, but think of what we could do if we focused all of that negative energy into something positive. We’d be the talk of the country and for something we could be proud of.
DGW: Last question before we go, what are your short term goals for Nashville Rise?
AS: Short term goals? Just continue to reaching more parents.
DGW: Simple as can be – just reach more parents?
AS: Yes. We are really just getting started as a board and as an organization. I’m just trying to figure it all out like, “What are we going to look like now?” I mean, our mission, our vision, our core values are still going to be the same. How are we going to get to that end goal? So right now, our focus is just parents.
DGW: Cool. Thank you.
AS: Yes. Thank you.
We paid our tab and walked out to the car together. I found myself really liking Allison. We obviously have different opinions on things, but I don’t know if that’s surprising or not because we have different life experiences. Her life experiences are ones that I could only guess at prior to sitting down and really talking to her, and I’m extremely grateful for her candor. MNPS is a big district with a wide variety of hopes, dreams, expectations, and opinions. We cannot afford to fall into the trap of thinking ours are the only ones that matter. We have to spend more time listening to each other.