Memphis native Terence Patterson returned in his hometown in 2011 to join the Hyde Family Foundations, which focuses on improving education, strengthening neighborhoods, and building community assets in Memphis. As education program officer, Patterson leads the Foundations’ work to improve education for students in Memphis, at a time when the city, and Tennessee as a whole, are seizing new opportunities brought about by Race to the Top, yet also struggling with complex challenges. Patterson, 34, brings to this work his diverse experiences in both education reform and the private sector. Prior to returning to Memphis, he served as Deputy Chief of Staff to the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools and Interim Officer for the Office of New Schools. He has also worked as a corporate financial analyst, entrepreneur and corporate transactional lawyer. He is a graduate of Harvard University, where he was a two-time Ivy League Football Player, and Northwestern University’s dual MBA-JD program.
Read the whole thing. You’re an education program officer with the Hyde Foundation--what does that mean you do?
Our mission is to close the achievement gap between low-income students and their wealthier counterparts. The vast majority of the work is focused in Memphis, but we also work on issues and policies that have implications across the state: The Achievement School District, Common Core Standards--these are things that impact Memphis, but the conversation happens at the state level.
Most of my time is spent thinking proactively about where we can improve education delivery. This means evaluating the system, talking to local and state stakeholders, visiting schools in Memphis and across the country, and subsequently figuring out where we can supplement public dollars to improve the quality of education. I also evaluate grant requests from K-12 organizations (schools and education-related not-for-profit entities) to identify innovative, new programs we can support here Memphis.
What are some of the greatest opportunities in Memphis and Tennessee today?
In Memphis, because we are a city of substantial size yet not incredibly large (like Chicago or New York), we have the ability to implement education transformation with more speed and go to scale a lot faster than in larger cities. We can be an exceptional proof point for larger cities or peer cities are that are facing some of the same types of challenges.
As a state, we have the opportunity, with Race to the Top--and specifically with the Achievement School District--to improve the quality of schools, particularly chronically failing schools. People always make reference to New Orleans, and the transformation of schools after Hurricane Katrina. In our case, we are creating a vehicle to drive similar transformation, but proactively and intentionally, rather than being driven by circumstances. We’ve had failing schools all along, but now we have the opportunity to create a “reset” with significant state level support.
What are some of the greatest challenges?
Consolidation. We’re in the middle of a merger process between Memphis City Schools, which serve about 105,000 urban students, and Shelby County, which serves about 45,000 students on the suburban fringe [Memphis is located in Shelby County but was a separate school district until Memphis City Schools surrendered its charter in December 2010]. The resulting 150,000 student district will be one of the largest in the country.
The merger is a living illustration of the achievement gap--bringing together a relatively more affluent suburban school district with an underperforming urban district. And there is a long history of economic andracial issues, in this divide between the two districts, dating back generations, that makes this a very sensitive subject for the community. The biggest challenge is making sure we don’t lose the opportunity to improve education for all students in the process. We need to ensure that all the positives in both districts don’t get lost in the transition, while building stronger community support for a unified district.
What have been your greatest successes?
Our biggest recent wins are around state-level leadership and improving the environment for charter schools in Tennessee. Getting [Tennessee Education Commissioner] Kevin Huffman and [Achievement School District Superintendent] Chris Barbic on the ground in the state, and working with the administration, has been a big win. Last year, Tennessee passed some really awesome legislation to improve the charter school landscape by allowing open enrollment, eliminating a limit on the number of charter schools in the state, and requiring districts to provide facility information to charter schools. We support 17 out 0f 25 charter schools in Memphis, which has more charters than any other city in the state. Our role in supporting this legislation was having conversations with stakeholders and making sure that people understood how charters could provide more educational opportunities and choice for students, the barriers charter schools faced in the previous landscape, and how we could improve that.
You’ve played a variety of roles in education and the private sector, how did you come to do the work you do today?
I’m originally from Memphis, and this was a great opportunity to come back home. There is also great momentum happening in Tennessee around the state’s Race to the Top work, and I’m passionate about the areas that the Hyde Family Foundations focus on: high quality school models, human capital, public policy and advocacy.
Being an African American male, going through the public education system, and then going on to Harvard, I eventually realized in college, “gee, I don’t know if the [secondary] education I received was equivalent to my counterparts.” You really see that there is a gap--my A’s in high school weren’t the same as other people’s who were from other parts of the country. So it’s always been in my mind, “What can I do to help?” because of my personal experience. Also, my mother is a long-time educator, and she instilled in me the love of learning that taught me the value of education.
When I saw the opportunity to take a role in an urban district and be on the ground, it was a very unique challenge and opportunity that I wanted to try out. I had so much fun tackling the challenges and opportunities in Chicago, because I knew the work meant so much--to our community, to Chicago, and to the nation. Over the last 4-5 years there’s been a renewed focus on improving quality of education, and I wanted to be a part of that.
But it was one thing to work in the Chicago Public Schools district, see unfamiliar school names, and understand that we had to provide better education options for students. It’s another thing to do that same kind of work in the community where you grew up. There’s a closer connection. I was once a public school student in Memphis, and my friends and family members have connections in these communities. It means more when it’s a place you’re from and community you understand deeply.
What do you hope to accomplish in the next 10 years?
The most important thing is making sure that every student has access to a high-quality education. I absolutely think we can do that in Memphis in the next 10 years. It is an ambitious goal, but if we don’t set expectations that high, we won’t even have a chance. We can’t afford to let another generation of students miss their opportunity.
Who are some individuals you admire in the education field, or individuals you admire in other fields whose examples shape your work in education?
I admire President Barack Obama and his commitment to improving education; his willingness to try new things. There’s a tension that exists in education: we know some practices from the past 50 years aren’t working, yet there is a reluctance to innovate. The President’s leadership is pushing the nation to think about other ways to improve education delivery.
My mom is a lifelong educator. It’s easy for someone like me who doesn’t have a degree in education or hasn’t taught in K-12 education to take for granted what happens in the classroom every day. But seeing my mom as a teacher, visiting her classrooms after school, and seeing firsthand her work as a building principal, it really gave me an appreciation for how tough this work is.
When I first got to the district, I made it a point to visit at least 1 school a week. That provided some inspiration and perspective. It’s one thing to think about policy and strategic direction for the district and another thing to see the real challenges teachers and principals face every day. Now every week I’m in a school. We have 17-18 portfolio schools, but my goal is to see at least one per week. Sometimes they’re planned visits, but the most enriching visits are when you just stop by and get real insight into what’s going on in the school.
What are some of the challenges you see facing the education reform movement?
I think we need more people of color actively involved in the movement. I talked a little bit about how I got here, and my call to action. It was personal. We need more of our leaders from other fields stepping into education, because the work is so tough. We need more thought leadership from people who have the perspective of having gone through the system we’re working to transform.
I don’t know how to make that happen. It’s an issue people don’t necessarily talk about. But I’m pretty vocal about it, and it’s one of the reasons I thought it was important to get into education.
The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.