Of all our Nashville Schools board members, Elissa Kim is probably the one most overdue for a peek into her philosophy on education and her role on the school board.
A year after unseating the board’s chairwoman in the 2012 election, Kim reached her first year anniversary on the board last month. And as a VP for Teach for America’s recruitment efforts — and is awash in education statistics day-in and out — she brings a different perspective to the board mixed with former teachers, corporate executives, a government type and a lawyer.
With lots of debate about the emphasis on charter schools in the district, I sat down with Kim for a Q & A in today’s Scene on why she’s not the charter zealot people expected. But in our hour-long interview in the East Nashville coffee shop, which doubled as her campaign headquarters last year, we covered a lot more ground.
Here’s an outtake:
There’s been some talk about whether we want to talk about closing schools or consolidating schools, which obviously isn’t politically easy for anybody and isn't a pleasant thing to do. Do you think the district should be going down that road?
That is not evident to me for a couple of reasons. And this is why I’ve been pressing for numbers because it’s not clear to me that in the short term it is, in fact, cheaper to do it. You’d have to, like any other entity or business, figure out what are the potential cost savings and what are the other potential costs that can’t be calculated on a spreadsheets, and then weigh that against all your many other options. I personally think that that’s a very drastic measure to take to find what amounts to a very small percentage of savings that we need to find in our overall budget.
How do you feel about how the district is going forward so far with autonomy? How satisfied are you with where we’re at in that process?
I think we’re makings steps toward that. We are making positive steps, I think. I think it’s also true that we need to operate as if our hair is on fire. Because a kid is never going to be in third grade again. They only have one shot at third grade, one shot at fourth grade, one shot at fifth grade. And that kid is going to be a father someday, that kid’s going to be a grandfather some day, that’s child is going to be a mother someday and a grandmother some day. And countless lives are impacted by the outcomes that we produce for every single child in this system. It’s just true. And at the same time we also know that the tide can turn like this (snaps fingers).
That’s true in my family. My grandparents were impoverished, illiterate. My grandparents, barely a generation away. Their parents, impoverished and illiterate. Farmers in South Korea, right? My dad, because of the good fortune he had of getting a great education reaching the highest levels, turned the tide for every single Kim kid thereafter. All four Kim kids coming from my family are college educated. All seven of my nephews and nieces, guaranteed, they enjoy all the privileges of their parents and they will be able to make all the choices they want throughout their lives. It took one person in their not-so-distant past, to turn the tide for the whole family after many generations of poverty and illiteracy.
And so when you think of it that way, it’s just one. So, when I go to my schools, that’s what I think about. I think about that child, that could be my dad. That child could be my mom. And they will be fathers and mothers and whatnot. And so it’s that important to be that grounded and in the realities of our kids and the opportunities, and privilege and obligation to deliver to them. And so when I say that we should operate with our hair on fire, it’s within that context.
Lots of teachers are saying there are a lot of mandates that they’re tasked to do and it’s overwhelming. They’re looking for answers. What do you say to teachers when you’re in schools? Do they tell you those kinds of things?
Yes. It is a fairly frequent mantra, so I’m not surprised to hear that you heard that. And it just increases my urgency to figure out what can be done. It is true, going back to, we’re professionals and we’ve been undoubtedly at the receiving end of various mandates in our past and we know the amount of energy it takes to wrap your head around it, to understand what’s being asked of you, and then to think about how do I actually push this down throughout my system of — in my case, 300 people on my team — or in the case of a principal, 20, 60 teachers, however many. How do I ensure the fidelity in that mandate? It’s just an enormous amount of energy to make sense of it and then to manage the change required to push that out through the system.
Why I was so keen on autonomy, that means that energy going to certain mandates is the energy that’s not being used for something else. And the question is, do we think we at the district are the ones to decide what’s more important there in that trade off, or do we think that the person closest to the ground and our kids is in the best position? I would surmise it's the principals and teachers on the ground who are in the best position to make that call… The implication is if we don’t believe that then we don’t trust the person on the ground. Then we’ve got to be asking, do we have the right leader?