AFC’s Denisha Merriweather on School Choice Advocacy & Black Minds Matter

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This week on “The Learning Curve,” Cara Candal and Gerard Robinson talk with Denisha Merriweather, the director of public relations and content marketing at the American Federation for Children and founder of Black Minds Matter. They discuss Denisha’s inspiring personal narrative, from a struggling student to a leading national spokesperson for school choice. She shares her experience of receiving a Step Up for Students education tax credit to attend the Esprit de Corps Center for Learning, a small private school in Florida, and how it differed from her public school experience and changed her life. They delve into the organization she founded in 2020, Black Minds Matter, “a national movement to celebrate Black minds, support excellence, and promote the development of high-quality school options for Black students,” and Denisha explains the group’s long-term goals.

Stories of the Week: Results from a survey of 1,788 teachers in England revealed that 44 percent plan to leave the profession by 2027, citing the stressful workload and lack of public trust. Harvard is receiving criticism for its decision to end its undergraduate teacher education program and instead require candidates to enroll in the Graduate School of Education’s new Teaching and Teacher Leadership master’s program.


Denisha Merriweather is the Director of Public Relations and Content Marketing at the American Federation for Children and Founder of Black Minds Matter. Denisha previously served as School Choice and Youth Liaison to the Secretary of Education at the U.S. Department of Education. Denisha is a Florida tax-credit scholarship graduate, and now sits on the Board of Director for Step Up for Students. She received her Master’s degree in Social Work from the University of South Florida and bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary social science. Along the way, Denisha has become a national symbol for school choice, headlining events with President Trump, Florida governors, and other advocates for school choice. Denisha has shared her story across the country and has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, PragerU, the Washington Examiner, EducationWeek, and Fox News among other outlets.

The next episode will air on Weds., April 20th, with Dr. Robert Alter, Professor in the Graduate School and Emeritus Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley, and author of the landmark three-volume book, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary.

Tweet of the Week:

News Links:

The Guardian: 44% of teachers in England plan to quit within five years

Harvard Crimson: Harvard Ends Undergraduate Teacher Education Program, Closing Off a Path to Teaching for College Students

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Please excuse typos.

[00:00:00] Cara: Well, hello, Learning Curve. This is Cara Candal and the great Gerard Robinson coming at you for some wonderful conversation. We’re going to be hosting today. Our friend Denisha Merriwether, always fun to have friend of the show and a friend on the show. And I’m speaking to my good friend, Gerard Robinson right now.

[00:00:42] How are you?

[00:00:43] GR: Doing well, as you know, I had a chance to travel to California, to see the oldest daughter and to hang out with her and do fun things for the two younger daughters spring break. So it’s always good to have the Robinson ladies altogether

[00:00:59] Cara: [00:01:00] vacation. I didn’t re spring break yet. Our spring break is coming up.

[00:01:02] Well, you know, what’s happening here to kick off spring break for kids in this area is, Patriot’s day. Do you know what that is? True.

[00:01:11] Gerard: Yeah, cause you must not be much of a Patriot, right.

[00:01:15] Cara: Patriot’s day is really something that’s just celebrated in new England. And now I’m speaking at, I realizing that our producer, Jamie Gass is probably in the background and if I mess up what Patriot’s day is all about, I’ll get in deep trouble, but just going to say more importantly.

[00:01:28] It is known as marathon Monday. It shouldn’t be more important, but that’s the reality. So the Boston marathon is run annually. Well, save for a couple COVID years, little COVID respite there, , run annually, on Patriots day, this new England holiday, and it also picks up spring break for most kids in this area.

[00:01:47] Now I live very, very. The marathon route. I actually, in fact, I used to live right on the marathon route for all you runners out there and live really close to heartbreak hill, which is super fun. for runners, I guess it’s much more fun [00:02:00] for spectators. , but you know, Gerard, my marathon Mondays are always played with the following people just randomly stopping by me.

[00:02:07] Well spectating to use the bathroom and grab something out of the fridge. So we’re looking forward to just because I live so close to the route, we’re looking for it though, to seeing some friends maybe that we haven’t seen in a long time into cheering on the runners. I’m glad you had a great trip Girard, to sort of open my story of the week.

[00:02:26] wanted to ask you to reflect for just a moment. And I wanted to ask you you’re former teacher, I’m a former teacher. we’re all still teaching, right? Gerard. This is what we do, but you’ve taught in schools at one point in your career. Can you just like, give me one sentence to describe the quality of your teacher education, whatever training you did to become a teacher?

[00:02:49] GR: I can’t answer that one because my degree was in policy at the master’s level. And my undergrad degree was in philosophy. So I never went through a program to become a [00:03:00] certified or licensed teacher. So I’m no good on that. And I taught in private school, uh, when I started and I also worked in a Saturday program and summer program for two years for public school students in Newark and New Jersey, but that was.

[00:03:15] Full time.

[00:03:16] So how

[00:03:17] Cara: interesting, so you and I have a similar story. I have a certification in teaching English as a second language, but I don’t have a certification to like teach English literature yet. I did, right when I was in my twenties, it sounds like you and I had very similar roots, but a lot of talk going on about teacher certification these days, how to get teachers emergency certified and who should be able to be in the classroom.

[00:03:40] Right. We’re seeing legislation and a ton of states we’re seeing, in all things. A real or imagined teacher shortage. I think teacher shortages are local. We’re seeing some pretty cool programs in my estimation, out of places like Tennessee and Texas, that involve teacher apprenticeships. I think a great model if you can do it well, but my story that week is out of house.

[00:03:59] Right [00:04:00] down the street here because, they have done a way with their undergraduate path to teaching certification. So Harvard doesn’t have a traditional what we would think of as undergraduate school of education. But of course they have a master’s program in education and a doctoral program in education, but they have just decided to do away.

[00:04:21] With these courses that undergraduates can take, that lead them to be able to get their teaching certification, , before graduating, so that they’re prepared to teach upon graduation. It would usually be at Harvard, like just a three or four months course that they could take. And I chose history the week.

[00:04:38] Cause I think it’s really interesting indicator Of sort of. Where things are going with imagining who can become a teacher, how should they become a teacher? Do we really have to keep emphasizing these traditional routes, undergraduate schools of education, continue to, really train the lion’s, share of people that go on to become teachers in this country.

[00:04:57] But, if COVID is any [00:05:00] indicator in this upheaval that we’re seeing in the profession, just in terms of turnover, if not an exit. I think, , indicates to us that we really need to be thinking seriously about what it takes to help people, become

[00:05:12] certified or qualified in certification.

[00:05:15] Doesn’t actually

[00:05:16] Cara: equal qualification all the time. If you read the research, but qualified teach in classrooms in one, what it takes to get people qualified. in a timely manner and in a way that’s going to ensure that they’re doing right by kids. So this article just had me thinking a lot about something, a theme that’s been wrong for a while, which is, , do we really need schools of education per se?

[00:05:39] Maybe we do in some places, but what does it look like if more and more people. Aren’t educated in a traditional undergraduate pathway. And if more people are entering the teaching profession at different points in their career, how do we imagine that and how should states in particular be thinking about it and how should we measure quality?

[00:05:59] [00:06:00] I have no answers to any of those questions, Gerard, but , these are wonderings that I pose for you and or our listeners. But anyway, that’s surprising news out of Harvard and. It’s not like perverts training, a ton of the nation’s teachers or even the Commonwealth’s teachers. So I’m not in the category of some of the people quoted in this article that think it’s like dastardly in a huge disaster.

[00:06:20] It’s probably a smart move on Harvard’s part, but an interesting move

[00:06:25] GR: Interesting. So I am a graduate of Hughsey, as I like to call it, the Harvard graduate school of education in policy ton of my friends were in teacher education. So what Harvard is doing or just did in 2022 was a topic debated by deans and researchers in the 1980s.

[00:06:48] And there was a report that was published. I believe it was called today, tomorrow. Report or committee. It was a group of deans who said one way to improve teacher education and to [00:07:00] improve outcomes with the students who work under these teachers is to abolish a undergraduate degree in education that instead you earn something in the humanities, social sciences, liberal arts, fine arts.

[00:07:13] Earned a degree, and then you can earn a master’s degree or credential, but their whole piece was to abolish it. And so there was a move for that at the same time you had. Dean who said, no, we need to keep that program in place. So I am in Charlottesville, affiliated with UVA. In fact, I attended UVA school of education.

[00:07:31] We have a program here where you can major and let’s say philosophy, which was my undergraduate degree. You can earn master’s degree from the Harvard ed school you can do so in five years. At times, depending upon how many credits you take, maybe even shorter, but here in you, the outgoing Dean, and we’re waiting to see who our new Dean will be.

[00:07:53] There was a push that we think it matters, and I have a thumbs up for that, but I also have a thumbs up for Harvard [00:08:00] if they decide that this is what they want to do. So for me, it’s not either, or. it’s an, and it really depends upon a commitment from the president, a commitment from the Dean and research to support why this makes sense.

[00:08:14] This is part of a larger conversation that’s been taking place even within the last two years of the pandemic. So just think about the American association of colleges for teacher education. Earlier this year, they released its second comprehensive report about the state of teacher preparation. And what they identified is that between 2008 and 2019, the number of people completing a teacher education program declined by almost a third and traditional teacher preparation programs saw the largest.

[00:08:45] 35%, but alternative programs also experienced a drop as well. So this is something that’s just part of the teacher education dynamic and the conversation that we’ve had for a [00:09:00] while. I can understand why people have an outcry at any point, you decide to get rid of something. People often don’t like it, unless it’s for taxes.

[00:09:09] Yeah, besides that when it’s a program, it’s a different story. So I give a thumbs up to my Alma mater. They’ve obviously looked into this. If it makes sense for them, they should move forward. But I’m also glad to see a place like UVA and other schools do the same thing, but this isn’t a Harvard UVA dynamic.

[00:09:27] This is really a dynamic about teacher education. So for our listeners, take a look at the American association of colleges for teacher education report released, earlier this year.

[00:09:36] my teacher story comes from the other side of the pond and my story comes from the guardian and the title. And just get this, everything you need to know is actually in the title.

[00:09:48] Cara: Can you do it in a British accent, the title? Oh, I’m not that good.

[00:09:53] GR: And I’m sure if I did, I would offend someone.

[00:09:54] So I don’t want to go that route 44% of teachers in [00:10:00] England plan to quit within five years. So. Many of our listeners know that I traveled to Birmingham, England, not too long ago to meet with scholars and practitioners who work in the field of K-12 education. I have a chance to visit a school and to talk to educators.

[00:10:15] Well, you and I are big fans of polling data because it gives us an opportunity to get a representative sample of the profession. Well, here’s a survey of 1,788 teachers. and a fifth of them, 22% said they will leave the profession within two years. But by the time we get to five years, 44% said they would likely leave.

[00:10:36] Now, if that is a representative sample, that’s going to be a major hit for England. And here’s why right now you have 461,000 teachers who work in across England today. That’s 20,000 more than 2010. So there’s at least an increase. But if approximately 44% decide to leave in five years, it’s going to be a big hit [00:11:00] on the economy, but also on the profession.

[00:11:02] So what are some of the factors as to why teachers were leaving? Well, you’re not going to find some of this to be shocking. , teachers find that it’s the workload. Is unbearable. , the number of hours they’re expected to work. I’ve been really tough. There’s also a problem with finding substitutes and staff.

[00:11:19] Teachers said, schools are finding it really difficult to feel big and seas, which is leading to teachers having to double up in their roles. And they said, when people leave, it’s tough to have some more. Come in two thirds of secondary school teachers say the issue of vacant teaching assistance and support has worsened since 2020.

[00:11:39] And so when we try and figure out what’s the cause of this, I turned my attention to Dr. Mary Boston, the joint general secretary of the national education union. It is the largest union. And England for teachers. So the national education union was created in [00:12:00] 2017. It followed the amalgamation of the national union of teachers and the association of teachers and lecturers.

[00:12:07] And they got together in 2017. This group. And so when I talked to the president that, you know, they say, well, what’s the problem. And she said, quote, we remain a profession with almost the highest number of unpaid working hours. And we’re still well above the international average for hours worked by teachers.

[00:12:25] This simply is on sustainable. She goes on to talk about the problem, trying to recruit teachers and to retain them in a profession. So when asked, what do you think, who do you think, or what do you. let all of this. And she said, listen, the state department of education or the department of education, these are take steps to quote unquote right, the wrong.

[00:12:46] And she, I particularly identified education secretaries over the years, simply have missed the targets. And so similar to what we hear here in the United States, she’s saying it’s an issue with policy makers. [00:13:00] Education secretaries and government in general. And in the article, she also took a note and it’s worth noting this for our listeners.

[00:13:08] she also found a problem with the, what they call Offstead, which is the office for standards in education. And it created a national, inspectorate whose job was to follow publicly funded schools K-12 and higher ed to see how well they’re doing. And. What the doctor is saying is, you know what, this is a problem as well, because it’s not really doing its job.

[00:13:29] So here are a few takeaways for me. Number one. I grew up in a union home. I am a supporter of unions. I understand why we have unions for educators because they formed a union to make sure their rights are protected. And so when the teacher said we’re burned out and we’re. I believe them. And I believe there’s a role for the government to play in trying to fix some of those challenges or as Mary said to ripe the ship.

[00:13:58] But I would also ask union [00:14:00] members to ask tough questions of their union members or the union leadership as well. So for example, if you’re overworked and if you’re not paid enough, What is a union done for that? Or what negotiations or trade-offs has your union made? that led to some of that.

[00:14:16] I just think there’s a role that members should play or look at when trying to figure out, who’s the culprit. I think there’s a lot of blame, but also a lot of benefit to go around, but often. Finger pointing outward it’s government. It’s the secretary. So, that’s one challenge, but it was also worth noting that I went to the national education union webpage and I would recommend our listeners do the same.

[00:14:39] When you look at the web page, I see support black members. Lives matter. I agree. And if you take a look at the educational outcomes, both college and K12 for black students in England, it’s not great. And if you go further down, you’ll see a number of things about, , an active zone at the end of the conference to replace Offstead.[00:15:00]

[00:15:00] And you’ll also see educators have lost 17% of their patients. Since 2010. So is a lot going on with the webpage and what they want to do. 44% is a lot. I don’t think it’s going to take the government alone, but I think there should be some internal looking as to what unions can and cannot do and what role they’ve played in leading to this.

[00:15:21] And that’s not only on the other side of the pond. I think there’s some relevant conversation for this as well on this side.

[00:15:27] Cara: Oh, well, you are not going to get any pushback from me on those comments. My friend, not that I think you normally do, but share a little Andrew, go here. I was, at a panel, , maybe a week or two ago, hosted by Boston university, Wheelock education policy center, shout out.

[00:15:43] Um, I am a member of their advisory board and it’s a wonderful, it’s a wonderful institution, new institution. But there was a panel that included a former teacher of the year, the current head of Boston teachers, union, Kate Walsh of NCTQ and the superintendent here of a community called fall [00:16:00] river.

[00:16:00] And one of the comments that was made that. Tons of snaps from, folks in the audience as we didn’t snap when I was a teacher. So I’m always going to play, I’ve done teacher training and teacher development, the snapping phenomenon. If you know what that is, I think my kids do it in school to give people props or say, I agree, but what received tons of stamps was somebody saying, well, you know, what would really just fix everything with the teacher crisis?

[00:16:20] And the teacher shortage and teacher burnout is if we could please just move to a four day school week. So teachers actually had planning time and we weren’t working until 10 o’clock at night. And I think.

[00:16:34] Because

[00:16:35] Cara: what’s lacking in that comment is a complete number while there are many things. One is, if you are to the point you’re making about the website and, outcomes for students, particularly black students from the union wants to support. What are you going to do with taking, the school time away?

[00:16:50] Right. And number two, there’s a complete and utter lack of an, impetus to re-imagine what the school day could look like. So I’ll give you an example of many, many of us who have worked in private schools know [00:17:00] that, to accommodate teachers with more planning time, one of the things you do is you fix your schedule and you move things around and yeah, you might have to hire more staff that.

[00:17:09] Might not be unionized such as staff and other people, so that students are doing enrichment and other supplemental activities while they’re subject matter experts. I have planning time and they should, they need it. All of those things are super, super important, but I just wanted to share that I was really taken aback by this comment that was so teacher centered versus student centered.

[00:17:30] And I think that if we would do a better job of leading with what students and families need in the first year, Then that might bubble up to giving teachers what they need because what students and families need is consistency thing. Teachers who are going to be with them for a long time, teachers who are happy in their jobs, that they’re going to be happy in their teaching, and they’re going to be more effective.

[00:17:47] All of those things, I was taken aback by this suggestion of a four day workweek. So I greatly appreciate Gerard your call for more introspection on both

[00:17:58] sides of the.

[00:17:59] GR: [00:18:00] one thing just came to mind as well. The article talked about the mental fatigue and health of teachers, you and I know that’s real.

[00:18:10] We’re going to make that something we need to invest in while these children are going home to parents who are equally fatigued and a number of them have mental challenges. So I’m saying if we do one for one group and that’s a factor leading to. Let’s talk about families and teachers as well. That’s it?

[00:18:26] Cara: Thanks so much. Cause this burned out mama would love that. And at any rate I have, one thing to say before we introduce our phenomenal guests. Dinetia Merriweather of American Federation for children and founder of black minds matter. But this is really important because as I said, Jamie gas, our producer was going to make sure I got this right.

[00:18:45] So for everybody who is dying to know Patriot’s day, I said it was the annual event, but it commemorates the battles of Lexington, Concord and monotony. And somebody is going to call and say, I said that wrong and that’s okay because I’m from Michigan. I [00:19:00] just want that to be clear. And some of the. Battles of the American revolutionary war.

[00:19:06] but for those of you, who’ve never had a chance to visit places like Lexington and Concord walk the wonderful trails here that we have in Boston, the freedom trail, et cetera, can’t recommend it enough, a learning experience for all

[00:19:17] agents,

[00:19:18] Cara: but we will be back with Denisha Merriweather right after this.

[00:19:40] Learning curve listeners. We are back with a woman that many of you know, Denisha Merriweather is the director of public relations and content marketing at the American Federation for children and families. Of black minds matter. Denisha previously served as school choice and youth liaison to the secretary of education at the U [00:20:00] S department of education.

[00:20:01] She has a Florida tax credit scholarship graduate year, and now sits on the board of directors for step up for students and other yay for step up for students. Denisha received her master’s degree in social work from the university of south Florida and bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary social science.

[00:20:19] Along the way Denisha has become a national symbol for school choice, headlining events with president Trump, Florida governors, and other advocates for school choice. Denisha has shared her story across the country and has been featured in the wall street journal Prager U the Washington examiner education week and Fox news among other things.

[00:20:37] Denesha you and I met, I think it must’ve been two and a half, three years ago now at, the international school choice and reform conference. But even then it was clear that you were just a leading spokesperson for school choice and you. So you speak about your own experience and the possibilities that choice brings for other people with , such power.

[00:20:59] Could [00:21:00] you talk to us a little bit about your story and, , your school experiences and did that brought you to where you are?

[00:21:08] Denisha: Yeah. I know it wasn’t, it, it has to be longer than two, three years. Cause I think pandemic was like, I try not to remember how old? yes, but I, came into this, I always tell people that I was thrust into the education reform space because I benefited from school.

[00:21:30] In grade school. And before I received a private school scholarship, I really had a bad experience. That was , my experience in the public school system. I went to my local zone school. and my family situation was not that great. So I moved around a lot, which meant that I went to about five or six different elementary schools, and all of the schools that I went to.

[00:21:58] Not a good fit for me.[00:22:00] , I remember early on my earliest memory of school was like in the second grade of just being drug out of class by one of my teachers, because I was being disruptive and. , I failed the third grade twice because I couldn’t read. just knew I was stupid. I thought I was dumb in my self esteem was really low.

[00:22:25] and there was not a lot of assistance I would say, or help to. Helped me to get up to great level. in the fourth grade, I, my mother, , did enroll me into this program called the star program. I remember it so vividly. It was a program to help other kids, other students who were in elementary school to get caught up to their right grade.

[00:22:48] So I was in a classroom with other kids who were two grade levels behind three, four grade levels behind in elementary. Right. And I [00:23:00] didn’t pass that program. , and it really created just a spirit of despondence. I, hated school. I felt like there was no need for me to go to school. I would wear pajamas to school.

[00:23:12] didn’t care. I remember a teacher Scion when I came through the door, like when I would walk classroom door, teachers would hear, comes to Nisha. And that weighed on me. And so for the early part of my, life, it was, I did not have a great relationship with learning with education.

[00:23:33] It was not a place where I felt, that I could succeed or even that I wanted to succeed my family. my biological family come from a long line of people who’ve dropped out of high school. People who’ve had children at early ages have had, babysit as teenagers. And so for me, I thought that was gonna be my, narrative, my life’s narrative.

[00:23:55] I would, I would have a job. I would not follow that path. Cause I, I had, no, I like [00:24:00] to money too much. I would have a job and I would, but I will have a baby. as a teenager, And so, yeah, that was for me early on my early education was not, it was not a positive association with learning. in the sixth grade, I began to lift permanently with my godmother the summer before my sixth grade year.

[00:24:22] I moved in with her and that’s when everything changed. She wanted me to attend the private school that her, church had started and it was a private school. So she didn’t have a way to pay for her family. Her income was not that much greater than my biological families. And she found out about the Florida tax credit scholarships.

[00:24:41] Step up for students. She applied for. The scholarship and literally everything with education became night and day. When I first started to come to this school teachers instead of sign, like they would greet me with smiles, hugs, [00:25:00] prayer. At first I’m like, okay, it’s going to wear off the first day of school.

[00:25:04] You know, like everybody’s first week of school, they are happy and cheery, and never wore off. I promise you from sixth grade to 12th, every single day, there was someone welcoming us into the school with open arms, with smiles and hugs. And that was , my first experience everyday walking into the classroom doors and.

[00:25:27] Teachers. And I had two teachers who even met with me one-on-one the summer before I got started, because my reading was so low and I didn’t know how to do my times tables. I didn’t know them, not even my memory. And so that showed me that they cared and they, did. I ended up making, D’s and F’s consistently to making a B honor roll my first nine weeks at this new school.

[00:25:52] And. For me, it was like, wait a minute. So I’m not dumb. I’m not stupid. I’m not a failure. and [00:26:00] so ever since graduated from high school, I began to share about my experience because also along this time, I have siblings, biological siblings who are still in the public school system. I have biological siblings who have not graduated from high school.

[00:26:15] It really showed me that. Education really does make a difference. , and so I began to share my story. I became an advocate and kind of live this alter ego. So that’s, how it got started. I became an advocate for school choice, , because education really. Changed my life in the trajectory of my life.

[00:26:35] I went from making D’s and F’s to AB honor roll to graduating with honors from high school, going into college, earning a master’s degree. And I don’t think that would have been possible if I hadn’t been given a different opportunity. Yeah.

[00:26:51] Cara: You know, one of the things I, appreciate about the way you described that first day of school is every research schools, for a lot of my career.

[00:26:59] And [00:27:00] one of the things that I noticed, and I look for in schools for my kids, it’s a place. It feels like the adults really see the kids like every kid. , I appreciate that part. Now Denisha for our listeners, you mentioned that you were a recipient of the Florida tax credit scholarship, and Florida is known for having really the most robust school choice environment in the whole country.

[00:27:23] I think that a couple other states would like to quibble with that maybe Arizona looking at you, but , between tax credits and. education savings accounts, options. And now actually the Florida tax credit scholarship, and much of that has been turned into a more traditional voucher so that money’s not having to be raised all through donations, which is how it was when you attended.

[00:27:42] so you talked about how that changed your life. Could you tell us a little bit more about this idea that you mentioned that your first public schools didn’t work for you? that implies to me that maybe they were working for some kids, but one of the things, folks talk about advocates of choice.

[00:27:58] Talk about a lot [00:28:00] is. And that, every kid needs to find the right fit. Can you talk a little bit more about what we mean when we say fit and specifically with regard to academics and how you went from being a kid who thought of herself as a failure to somebody who was cheating high grades, and obviously given where you are now, they weren’t just giving you A’s and B’s to pass you on.

[00:28:20] can you talk a little bit about what fit means and what it meant for you at your school is.

[00:28:26] Denisha: Yeah, I think that is such a great question because that’s what, we, as reformers in education want for every student, for them to find the right school that fits their needs and abilities and interests, et cetera.

[00:28:42] And for me, that means, exactly that, that it’s a school environment where You know, it’s like a glove, you know, I don’t know what other words you use other than fit, but it caters and it, encourages their needs, their interests, their abilities. , and that could be [00:29:00] anywhere from, , a private Christian school to district school, to a charter school.

[00:29:06] To a Montessori school, to an outdoor tree house school, you know, forums. A zoo school I’ve been to so many types of schools. there are so many different types of innovative models that really, gets to. how to get a kid to learn and be interested in education.

[00:29:25] And for me, experi, to core you, what, you know, w what was that like for me? one, it was the nurturing environment that, yeah. They saw me as a person that not only as a person who. Came to school with a lot of baggage and not the, not the best, outlook or even disposition. at first, when I came to the school, I was a challenging student.

[00:29:48] Like I, I spend time in, in school suspension. they didn’t believe in, suspension or out-of-school suspension. It was all in school. And I was one of the students who attend. So it wasn’t like, I, you know, like you said, they [00:30:00] were just giving me A’s or that I just changed dramatically. I was a challenging student when I first came in, but them being so nurturing and consistent was something that changed.

[00:30:11] And that was the type of environment that I needed. it was a very rigorous school. So we were hopping from subject to subject to subject every day. We, we didn’t stay, stagnant, I would say spending a whole week or a whole month on one lesson, everything was, , rapid fire. I’ve never been diagnosed with ADHD, but I kinda think I am so like, that type of learning environment was so important because it kept me interested.

[00:30:43] Like it was a new challenge every day that okay. I had to, solve and, also I was pretty mouthy. Like I work in communications And I was pretty mouthy as a kid. And, , that would not sit well with a lot of adults, but at this school they encouraged it. , , instead of seeing that as a [00:31:00] deficit, it was just like, okay, use your voice, the vocal.

[00:31:03] And we’re going to give you these outlets in order for you to do that. so I do think every kid has. different, , , uniquenesses about them and they should be encouraged and not, stifled, Hey

[00:31:15] GR: Danesha, how are you? Hey, good to see you. Let’s go back to because you and I have been on panels together.

[00:31:24] We testified together. We’ve advocated together. Let’s go back to. Y you talk about this through the lens of public policy. I know one of the things that we often hear when we say we support school choices, that somehow we are anti-public education. When you hear that, how do you respond to those who bring it up either in policy discussions or elsewhere?

[00:31:48] Denisha: Yeah, that’s totally not the case. how respond is? No, it’s all about what is the best environment, whatever is the best environment for, , a kid. Yeah. There is a lot of,[00:32:00] development, a lot of things we need to change within the traditional public school system, just because, , they’ve been in the game for a long time, you know?

[00:32:10] We do want to hold them accountable. We do want to hold district schools accountable for students because over 90% of our kids go to district school. So it’s impossible to say that we want all of these students to leave our district schools are zoned schools and go to schools of choice because we don’t have that market, , yet.

[00:32:31] but that’s not the idea. We want our, public schools to. educate kids appropriately. and we want parents to be able to choose their public schools. I don’t think it should be a, just a default where you are mandated to go to, this particular school, just because you live. In an area.

[00:32:48] I think parents should have that opportunity to pick and many states do they have open enrollment policies where parents don’t just have to go to the school that they’re [00:33:00] zoned for. They can pick amongst all the schools in their. through open enrollment policies or they can go to a magnet school.

[00:33:07] So there is choice within the public school space, but yeah, for those who, claim like, oh, the school choice fight or the education reform fight is just to uproot everyone out of public school. would be impossible, first of all, to do that. And that’s not the goal. The goal is for parents to be empowered within a system while also holding district schools accountable for academic outcomes and, in students.

[00:33:36] GR: So glad you mentioned magnet schools because they existed before the creation of the first charter school law in Minnesota, or since we’re here at pioneer, they, one of the early states, with, , . Open enrollment procedures. Charter schools, part of a, you know, part of the open enrollment and even in places like the state of Washington, which several years ago, it’s Supreme court rule that is charter programs [00:34:00] unconstitutional, even though they allowed students in Washington to cross borders, to go over for parental choice, let’s take a look at the work you’re doing right now with black minds matter.

[00:34:11] we know that black lives matter is a part of the American conversation right now. Good bad, ugly, hopeful, and everything in between you created this group to do some good work, talk to our listeners about it.

[00:34:25] Denisha: at the height of the social unrest in our country in 2020 with the murder of George Floyd amongst others, like you said, the entire country was looking at, our systems, you know, we were thinking about how can we become more equitable from companies, who were in charge of certain bottles and pancake mixture, changing logos.

[00:34:49] And one of the things that I did I found frustrating was that we didn’t pay as a country enough attention to the education system. And. [00:35:00] To the inequities that exist in that system, , in some of the reforms and changes that really could make a difference in the lives of students. in particularly black students, minority students who, who are oftentimes.

[00:35:15] most of the time, I won’t even sugar coat. It lagging behind their peers in every academic subject, across, national statistics, state statistics, , , , the academic outcomes for black students nationwide, according to the NAPE are really a dismal. And it’s, depressing to look at, over five-year 10-year span how there’s been little.

[00:35:39] to close that achievement gap. And so, that’s why, I started Black Minds Matter to say we need to bring attention to the inequalities in the education system, into champion for more options, because there’s a lot of research, that shows that when school choice, when particularly [00:36:00] black students have choice in education, their academic outcome, Improve drastically.

[00:36:06] and here in Florida, we’ve had a number of research studies, in Milwaukee where the oldest program is founded in even, not just academics, but crime and teen pregnancy and all of these other issue areas. They’ve seen improvement. when students have school choice. And so that, that’s why it was founded.

[00:36:28] We also celebrate, , , black owned schools, which is another form of choice and education. , because in order to found a school that’s a different type of school. So it’s a homeschool co-op or micro school. School charter private. And, these folks are amazing. I’ve done interviews with them, have talked with them on panels and these school founders are just, can’t explain them enough.

[00:36:55] They have the passion and they also are putting their passion to [00:37:00] practice. With founding the schools and it’s, so amazing. So that’s, yeah, that’s a little bit about black minds matter

[00:37:07] GR: and it’s so good. You focused on minds because in the political work that we do, we forget that this is also things.

[00:37:15] And that when bills were signed and the ink is dry and regulations are put in place, they’re actually real people who are doing the work. And so glad you also give a shout out to black homeschoolers and founders, you know, during the pandemic, the black homeschool population grew faster than any other group in the United States.

[00:37:33] Here’s the last question for you. And it relates to stuff that you mentioned with Milwaukee. I had a chance to travel to Milwaukee last fall for the 30th anniversary of the Milwaukee parental choice program. The oldest urban based program in the country. You had Dr. Howard fuller. You had Susan Mitchell.

[00:37:48] you had former governor, Tommy Thompson. You had a former speaker and others there to celebrate. So that’s one. You also had the 30th anniversary of the charter school [00:38:00] movement. Third. Years into the game. We have a lot of wins. The one thing that we really haven’t focused on is the alumni of these programs, whether it’s tax credit, whether it’s tuition, tax credit, where they’re, I guess coming soon ESA a charter schools as a graduate of a program before.

[00:38:22] As you work across the country with people who have children in the program, enough for you are now old enough to have not only been college graduates, but you now are employers you’re entrepreneurs and you’re doing great work. What can we do for the alumni to become the Vanguard of the next phase of this

[00:38:41] Denisha: work?

[00:38:42] Yeah. What an awesome. And yeah, I think that. It is, it’s so important and it’s so amazing to, yeah. We need more alumni, but to see just the drop of students, , in parent beneficiaries who are taken on the reins [00:39:00] of the fight, one, I, yes, I think it’s extremely important because not only do you have someone who can.

[00:39:07] speak to the need, just writ large of more options of more, school choice, choice, and education, but they also have that personal story, that personal narrative of how they benefited from choice and education, how they were empowered. I think it is, it’s so amazing. And we do, we need wait, some, so many more students, at the American Federation for children, we do have a fellowship program.

[00:39:38] Um, beneficiaries, and we’re on our third cohort. And so about 30 students nationwide who benefited from school choice, , in some form. And these are, , charter school alum. These are private school alum, and we also have some homeschool alumni who. Participate in the fellowship to learn about the policy, to couple that [00:40:00] with their personal stories, , to go to legislatures, to go to, events, to just speak candidly about their experience.

[00:40:09] We do. We have so many students now who’ve benefited from choice. So we do need to all do a better job of finding them, nurturing them and empowering them to share their story because I believe they’re the ones that’s going to make the difference. You know, I think that I’m a little biased, obviously I’m a beneficiary of choice.

[00:40:29] but when you put somebody on. And they can talk to the policy aspect and they can talk to their personal story. It’s kind of hard to, refute them. I know I’ve been many conversations where people will be like, oh, I don’t believe in this, this does this. And it does that. , I don’t believe that people should have a choice in the education and.

[00:40:50] I share my experience like, Hey, this was my trajectory. This was what was going to happen to me. But something changed. And then people are kind of like, well, [00:41:00] I’m happy it worked for you. That’s awesome that it worked for you. but, uh, so it’s, it’s, it becomes hard, kind of review a person’s personal story.

[00:41:08] It becomes hard. So that’s what we need more.

[00:41:11] GR: Well, so glad that not only are you taking your story to the public arena, but you’re also doing it with philanthropy, you’re also doing it with the private sector. Glad you had an opportunity to, work in the U S department of education. And, , in the future, when you become us secretary of education, you can take this conversation to the next level.

[00:41:32] Denisha: Yeah, yeah. Ha we will be waiting in court in Asia. Yeah, waiting keyboarding. No, it was

[00:41:43] Cara: such a pleasure to have you on. Thanks so much coming on. Talk to us. They thank you for your time and for your work.

[00:41:48] Denisha: Thank you. I know. And it’s so great to reconnect with you guys.[00:42:00]

[00:42:07] Cara: And this week’s tweet of the week, listeners, is from Lauren Camera. It was tweeted on April. Cross-party agreement among younger generations in a significant generational split within the GOP is telling the story of education policy in a way that made benefit Democrats suffice it to say, I really, I strongly suggest that folks go, and this is from us.

[00:42:31] Go to U S news and look for this tweet from Lauren and read this article because it’s really interesting. Cause guess what folks turns out. there are divides among Republicans, especially younger Republicans on issues like, should we be teaching critical race theory or something that looks like it in the classroom?

[00:42:48] And surprisingly, some Republicans say, yes, it’s not monolithic among Democrats, especially under. Surprisingly support for school choice. So for [00:43:00] me, what was really promising in the findings of this poll from murmuration are that like, people are people and there can be differences of opinion, even within the same party.

[00:43:11] So we are not hopelessly split along party lines and. Gerard, maybe the kids have something to teach us because neither of us fall into the category of people who were pulled here. , anyway, we are going to be back listeners next week. We will be speaking to professor Robert alter. He is the definitive translator of the Hebrew Bible.

[00:43:31] Gerard. We’re going to get, biblical next week. I’m going to look forward to having more conversation with you and with our guests until then be, well, my friend

[00:43:41] Cara: look

[00:43:41] GR: forward to seeing you again.[00:44:00]

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