Riley the Reading Raccoon joined SCS Supt. Dr. Joris Ray and Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn on Monday (Dec. 13) at Sherwood Elementary School, where they shared the importance of literacy with students. (Photo: SCS on Twitter)

by Curtis Weathers —

TSD education columnist Curtis Weathers: “When partisan politics become more important than what is in the best interest of our children and their education, then we are in real trouble.”

Well, this past week, I went searching high and low for some good news that might perk us up at the end of what has undoubtedly been one of the most memorable years in our lifetime.

I wanted to focus, of course, on our schools and community. 

The search didn’t take very long. I found some really good presents under the proverbial Christmas tree about our educational system, which makes me a very, very happy person.

First, a Merry Christmas and a hearty “Thank You” to U.S. District Court Judge Waverly Crenshaw Jr. for his ruling in response to a lawsuit challenging the state’s mask mandates. 

If you recall, in a special session convened by Republican lawmakers this past October, they passed legislation meant to prohibit schools from imposing mask mandates except in catastrophic situations.

The families who filed suit contend that the law does not adequately protect their children, who have disabilities, and who, as a result, are at a higher risk of contracting and getting severe complications from COVID 19.

Judge Crenshaw made it clear in his 54-page ruling that the current law “does not adequately protect all students, let alone those with disabilities, but it also does not serve the public’s best interest.”

So, score one for common sense and rational thinking. Again, thank you, Judge Crenshaw and two other federal jurisdictions, for ruling on the side of common sense. 

Second, last month, Tennessee’s Republican-led legislature passed a law that now allows political parties to endorse candidates in school board elections, thus making them more partisan.

Next year’s school board elections will be the first to be affected by this new law. But to my shock and amazement, Shelby County Democrats and Republicans have both agreed not to endorse candidates during the next school board election.

Shelby County Republican Party Chair Cary Vaughn said his party will not pursue partisan school board races because they “see no advantage or benefit in changing our protocol.”

Shelby County Democratic Party Chair Gabby Salinas said “the party continues to prioritize equity in public schools.”

Salinas, however, called the new law “an attempt by the GOP-controlled legislature to further politicize and divide public education.”

While this is good news, for now, I have no doubt that at some point in the future, Republicans will turn what is now a non-partisan election process into nasty, contentious partisan battles in the future.

So, for the time being, let’s enjoy the next non-partisan school board election. It may very well be the last one we ever see here in Tennessee.

Third, on my happy list is the news that sheriff’s deputies will remain in Shelby County Schools for the foreseeable future.

After much debate, the Shelby County School Board renewed its agreement with the Sheriff’s Department and voted to keep its officers in district schools.

I realize many people have varying opinions on this issue, but it seems clear to me that this can easily be a win-win situation for those on both sides of the divide.

On one side of this issue, you have social-emotional advocates who think we need fewer police officers and more resources, such counselors and nurses, to address our children’s growing mental health challenges.

In addition, they argue that more police in our schools feed the so-called school-to-prison pipeline.

I stand with Supt. Dr. Joris Ray on this issue. My first concern is the physical safety of our children.

However, I’m sure we’re perfectly capable of training our security forces to better interact with our students and, at the same time, hire additional counselors and nurses to deal with our children’s mental health challenges as well. In other words, we can do both.

Nevertheless, I am thrilled to hear that Shelby County sheriff’s deputies will remain on school campuses this year and in the future.

Last, as I was preparing this article, I came across a story that really inspired my heart this Christmas season. 

Chris Coleman (Courtesy photo)

Mr. Chris Coleman is an African American who currently serves as executive director for Teach for America Memphis. He has spent the last 21 years of his life in education as a math teacher, college administrator and adjunct professor.  

The article talks about a time in his career when he taught geometry to Memphis’ own legendary dancer and entertainer “Lil Buck” Riley. 

Oh, excuse me, you don’t know who Lil Buck Riley is? Well, neither did I.  So, I dove into Google to find out, and WOW, was I ever impressed!  

(Charles Lil Buc Riley is a dancer, actor and model, who specializes in a style of street dance called jookin.)

But I have never met Mr. Coleman in person nor spoken with him over the phone. However, as a former principal, I know how important his job is and how valuable Teach For America is to the K-12 community. 

But the inspiration I got from reading about his journey as an African-American male educator was refreshing and is the perfect gift to cap off this incredible year. 

I wish Mr. Coleman nothing but the very best and thank him for his commitment to public education going forward.

As a community, we have so much to be grateful for. To our family of educators out there, I just want to say THANK YOU!  You are such a valuable asset to this community. Your courage and steadfastness throughout this pandemic have been an inspiration and a testament to your love for our children and commitment to your job as an educator.

So Merry Christmas, educators, and God bless you! Here’s to a wonderful holiday break and a prosperous new year ahead!

(Follow TSD education columnist Curtis Weathers on Twitter (@curtisweathers); email: [email protected].)