Building Environments Worthy of Our Communities

Uva: [00:00:00] bob, There is, just a whole lot [00:01:00] I want to learn with you, from you, about you. Uh, But before we dig in, I thought I would just get started with just a, a question human to human. Uh, Just how are you in this moment?

Bob: Thank you. I'm excited. I'm a little on pins and needles because my wife and I are expecting our sixth child to be born this weekend.

Uva: Amazing. Wow. Congratulations.

Bob: yeah, thank you.

Uva: Your sixth child. I love this. That is a podcast. That is another episode for us. I have two boys and, and cannot wait. I know we will absolutely talk about family as well, but I can only imagine the excitement, the, the anxiety as well, and all that comes with welcoming another child into the family.

But suffice it to say, congratulations. Very excited for you.

Bob: Thank you.

Uva: So I won't regurgitate your entire bio, but I thought I could get started by just highlighting a few things that may be a good may provide a little bit of [00:02:00] context for those who don't know you or may not be as familiar with your work. Founding Executive Director of Libertad's School of Memphis, the first Montessori charter school in Tennessee.

You are credited with transforming the state's second lowest achieving elementary school into one of its highest performing schools for at risk students. You have spearheaded the nation's first urban teacher residency, offering both the nationally accredited Montessori diploma and the state teaching license.

As an advocate, you have served on state and local government committees and have worked to build equitable public facilities of equal importance, maybe, I think, even of greater importance. We just touched on it you, along with your wife, Sarah, who is a homeschool educator, and Our parents to five children, soon to be six.

Really excited about that. Bob, whether at home or at work, you are steeped in centering, advocating for, and caring [00:03:00] deeply for children and their learning needs with all of that in your background, can you talk a little bit about the origin story of your passion for the work you do? How did all of this begin for you?

Bob: Thank you. Yeah, like a lot of people who work in urban education, you know, I chose this field because of what a difference education has meant in my own life. My grandparents immigrated to this country and were mostly, you know, blue collar workers in New York City where they came from Italy and Ireland and Eastern Europe.

I was the first person in my family to be able to, you know, go off and attend a university. When I was in college, I had a chance to be an afterschool tutor to kids. in Washington, D. C. at a charter school. And so I love these kids, I love working with them, and I also had an internship at the same time where I was in the speechwriting office for the U. S. Secretary of Education. So, you know, in this same period, I had these extraordinary [00:04:00] opposite end experiences, you know, riding the bus every day to Columbia Heights and, you know, in that kind of, you know, basement, in effect, of this apartment building, you know, tutoring elementary kids and reading.

While also, you know, taking the Metro down, to the Capitol Mall and, go up to the sixth and seventh floor with the Secretary of Education. There was this sort of extraordinary bookend experience and it inspired me about the different ways that we can help create new opportunities. And so from there the, the personal twist is the woman that I was in love with, who has become my wife.

Got a job in New York City after he graduated and I wanted to ask her to marry me, so I followed her up there and I called this brand new little startup charter school that had just been open a year in Newark, New Jersey through the KIPP network that I had heard so much about in the early days of their expansion.

This was 2003 and said, well, hey, you know, I have some background in music. I have some background in political campaigns. Can you use me? And so I was like one of the first eight employees, you know, we had not even heard kids and, I got to teach [00:05:00] music, I got to help with school administration and business management, and, that was the beginning of my career and I fell in love with it and got to see the way that this tiny little school actually had a hugely outsized impact, both for the kids we were serving Uber, but also for the broader education reform movement in Newark and in New Jersey, because we were New York.

To use the hackneyed phrase, proving the possible. So that helped me to see that you don't have to work at the Department of Education to make a difference for kids. In fact, in this space, it's precisely these little islands of excellence that can change what people think is possible in schools. So that is how my sort of like personal journey led me to this career and how it started.

Uva: I love that love had something to do with all of this.

Bob: If it hadn't probably would have just kept working in Washington and just been a hack, you know, a political hack at a desk job. So I'm so glad that love led me to where I am.

Uva: Well, we have to thank your wife. Maybe we'll interview her a little bit later. Maybe after the baby comes, we'll have a chance to [00:06:00] speak with her as well and the wonderful impact that your relationships had. I appreciate the full circle of all of this and also the holistic the holistic space that you've occupied.

As you talked about your, your family coming to this country and, and how you were the first in your family to kind of follow this trajectory, I'm wondering, If you can talk a little bit about your story or your relationship with leadership, when did you first see yourself as a leader in your own right?

Bob: Well, when I was in high school, I, my family had, when I was a young child, I lived in New York city, but. There were a series of unfortunate events my, my parents got, they're, they split up and we moved across the country out to the Pacific Northwest and I lived in a kind of a, a crunchy hippie town where they really believed in youth empowerment and I had this really incredibly unusual opportunity as a [00:07:00] high school student, you know, as a 16, 17 year old kid to be part of the city school board.

And so this was a really eye opening experience where I got as a young person to speak up to decision makers and have an impact on education policy that affected my day to day life as a high school public, you know, student. And so this really gave me, I think, a sense from a young age about what was possible.

And I guess backing up even before that, Uva, my best friend when I was a young man was this really pretty, his name was Mario Miranda he also was a descendant, his father was a Mexican American immigrant, but he was this incredibly precocious kid who as a teenager was volunteering on political campaigns, was writing, stories in the newspaper, he was a young journalist, and he got me Really interested in this idea of making a difference as a young person and so through my relationship with him and my opportunity to serve on the school board, I think that's what opened my eyes about the way we can have this impact and got me, if you will, seeing myself.

As a leader and then, you know, fast [00:08:00] forward to when I started working at KIPP, the great thing, and I'll say this to your listeners, there's a lot of difficult things about working in a small organization, like a startup charter school. But one of the best things is there's no one over you to block your way to advancement.

And so there's problems, and if you're willing to work hard and fix them, you're going to get promoted and have a chance to do so and learn on the job. I was blessed to really advance very quickly in my career, I think, because I was surrounded by amazing colleagues who taught me and gave me a chance to do it more.

Uva: You talked about voice and choice, Bob, as Part of the work, right, having an opportunity just to have a voice in in the system, have an opportunity even as a young person to be able to have agency in systems as well. And I wonder how that has shown up in your own work today.

Bob: Yeah, maybe this is a good time to fast forward to my work over the last decade here with, helping to found Libertas. You know, I was I spent a number of years in the kind of, Conventional college prep charter school movement, if you will. And [00:09:00] to be clear, it was a wonderful experience. We loved our kids.

We made a big difference for them. So I value that time. But once I had my own children, Uva, I started to think about whether I wanted my kids to go to the same kind of school that I was working in. And I, and I didn't. And I, my wife and I really had to spend time thinking about why and whether the If something wasn't good enough for my own children, is it good enough for other people's children?

And that was a very soul searching moment, and it's what led me to Montessori education, which is an incredibly rigorous model of learning, but one that is also sort of human centered. In the freedom of movement and the freedom of choice and the engagement of those sort of capacities in sort of Whole person human flourishing education.

And so where I found myself at this point my career about 11 years ago as I was working for the state of Tennessee, putting in The same kind of forgive the expression kind of cookie cutter whole group direct [00:10:00] instruction educational models into a bunch of schools across the state. In an effort to try to bring about the transformation of chronically underperforming schools, Tennessee was one of the first states in the country to win the Race to the Top Act under President Obama and Secretary Duncan, and Tennessee decided to do school turnaround and transformation.

And I loved that idea as a charter school person. Put up or shut up. We can't be always telling the district we're better than them. We've got to serve the same kids as the district. So I love the idea of charter schools being neighborhood schools, but I realized that we couldn't just do that with a one size fits all model that was not responsive to what families and the communities wanted.

And then actually the more that I Got to know the community here in North Memphis and in Fraser, which has become my home. I realized there was a profound need to take a different orientation towards listening and community engagement empowerment and that's where there was sort of a marriage between the sort of Community responsive sort of political perspective and then [00:11:00] a human centered learning perspective.

And those two things combined to bring about Libertas as a neighborhood based charter school with the Montessori model.

Uva: I want to pull on the community building thread that you just alluded to, Bob, if you, if we could, can you talk a little bit about how you have been able to build trust and really build community in the work that you do, which by the way are, are areas that we're so excited about as we think about your leadership we have been able to observe sometimes from a distance, sometimes very closely your innate ability to trust build, to community build with people from different walks of life.

Can you talk a little bit about that work?

Bob: Well, it's kind of you to say that, Uva, and this is maybe the most important thing I want to talk about today. And it's kind of you to say that it's innate. I think it's actually been really learned the hard way. what I found you know, is a lot of times in the charter movement, a lot of times in [00:12:00] education reform more broadly, let me say, we can have a really arrogant attitude that we know what we're doing, so you just do what we say. And when I came here to the North Missive community of Frayser, this is a historic community that after the Second World War became a huge destination community in Memphis. It was one of the most prosperous and thriving suburbs. It originally had been a white ethnic working class community where there were major factory jobs, international harvester, tire company, excuse me, tractor company, Firestone Tire, made great jobs, good houses.

And then particularly after the end of legal housing segregation in Memphis. This became a destination for African American families who all of a sudden could finally have access to the kind of beautiful homes and thriving job opportunities that they wanted for their families. But unfortunately, within a generation, it became a bait and switch because the companies found they could make more profits by pulling out and going to jurisdictions with lower environmental and [00:13:00] labor regulations.

Fraser went from becoming a destination to there was a sort of massive divestment. And it became one of the poorest communities in the state. We have over a 65 percent child poverty rate in Fraser, which is 50 percent more than Memphis, which is already one of the poorest cities in the country.

And so, it was really devastating, the loss of black wealth during this time, and then, you know, and then sort of being kicked when you're down, then with the mortgage crisis. Of, you know, a dozen years ago was, was massive. And so Fraser has every reason, Uva, to distrust outsiders. Because they're used to people making a buck off

Uva: hmm.

Bob: They're used to, and, and, you know, white northerners with government grants coming in to run programs and then leaving when it's convenient. And I hate to say it, Uva, The large majority of the people who came to this city and community through the school turnaround efforts that they put in a decade ago did just that.

They came for a [00:14:00] couple of years while there was a grant, and then when it was actually much harder to turn around schools than they thought, and they got punched in the mouth, to use a local expression, they left and took consulting jobs somewhere else. And so I say this not to criticize anyone else's people, but just to be so brutally honest about why.

Earning trust and being invested in the community is a gigantic issue here. A lot of people want to talk about it, very few people want to follow through on it. So with that being said there's a lot of things that we've tried to do, but the first was I had to quit my job at the state, move to the community, and spend over a year of my life doing nothing else but build relationships.

Volunteering at other organizations, going to all the church picnics, going to the public library. Getting to know the people in the organization and show them that before I asked them for anything, I was here to understand and get to know them to shop in the local businesses, right? And to become a member of the community before being asked to have the privilege of being a leader in the [00:15:00] community.

Uva: I appreciate that you codified that as a privilege, Bob. I think that's so lost on so many, right, that being, I think, accepted into a community is indeed a privilege and something that requires the investment of time and I think you have to show up in a very authentic way in order for that to happen in a way that is going to really sustain the work that you're interested in, in, in creating anyway.

So really appreciate your perspective on that. Along the way, I'm sure that quitting your job and diving into a new community and learning about its history and probably dealing with some of the consequences of that divestment had to be a difficult or challenging time. Can you talk about your own identity, how your identity informed that work, influenced that work, impacted that work, maybe challenged that work in some ways?

Bob: Yeah. And I'm again, I hope it's okay if I'm blunt. I mean, we're, this is real talk, right? And, and the relationship that we've built [00:16:00] through, you know, Amber and Spring Point Partners, I feel like we're here for real conversations. And so I don't want to shy away from it. I mean, I had prominent Transcribed Elected officials from the community disparage me in front of, elected bodies, you know, why is this quote, why is this white band director for Newark think he can come down here and run a public school in Fraser.

You know, don't cry for me, right? It was a very difficult time, and the real story of this is not mostly about me, it's about people in the community deciding that they want to have the kind of education for their children that other wealthy people in fancy suburbs can pay for.

But their children are just as valuable and have just as much potential, and therefore they should get, the best for the smallest. ? Kids who grow up in poverty, to quote another friend of mine here, should be able to go to school in luxury to show them what we believe in for them. And so really the story about Libertas is just as much about people like Vanessa Brown [00:17:00] and her husband DeAndre.

Vanessa's been my board chair for many years. She and her husband DeAndre run an ex offender Reentry program in Fraser. It's one of the best in the entire country in terms of eliminating recidivism because they help men and women who've been incarcerated not only to learn job skills, but also personal and emotional development, developing their confidence in the sense that they can be new, ?

And they are not their past, ? And so Vanessa and DeAndre and other leaders like them in Fraser said, we want our Children to be able to have this kind of education. Fraser shouldn't be a stopover. You shouldn't have to lean to Fraser and move to Cordova or Hickory Hill or Bartlett to get a good education and a good home.

You should be able to do that right here in Fraser. And so, that's what we set out to do. And through the leadership of those people, with me as their helper, essentially, That's what got this school approved. And that's what brought families, people like Pastor Ricky Floyd, you know, other, you know, Teddy King, other, just other friends of mine and other [00:18:00] key influencers in Fraser who decided that they want this model of learning.

And so that allowed me to take a a role of supporting them and helping to bring the team together to implement this vision that they had. for the uplift that they wanted through the Fraser Neighborhood Council and other efforts that the community had already put in place. We're just here to help the work of Fraser.

That's what our story is about.

Uva: I appreciate you lifting Vanessa and DeAndre and Pastor Floyd and all of the other names that you just briefly mentioned. I know there, there's a wealth of, of names and, and just individuals who who you've worked with. But I want to circle back to the moments, those moments when your own, it sounds like your own integrity was questioned.

And and certainly your identity was was entangled with some of that as well. You know, who is this guy coming into our community to do this work? Before we get to the fact that you were able to center those individuals who deserve the [00:19:00] privilege of the luxury is, as you called it, of an education.

Let's talk about you. And, and what it felt like in those moments and how you overcame that, the, the suspicion, right? And maybe the being dismissed or being questioned for your intentions. How did you, can you recall how you felt? And so I'm going to ask you to tell us a little bit about what you felt in those moments.

I think as leaders, there are those moments that really challenge our intentions and force us to kind of reckon with the purpose or our purpose and how we're going to move forward. And I want to dig into that a little bit, if you don't mind. Talk to us about those moments, what that felt like and how you were able to move forward.

Bob: Yeah, Uva, again, real talk. It's embarrassing. It's enraging. You feel resentful. You feel unappreciated. But this is a crucial, this is a life defining moment because the question is, am I going to walk away and say, Oh, you don't know what you missed, , because this is all about me, or am I going to stop and say, who is this?

[00:20:00] What am I really here for? Truly, what are my motives? ? And so, yeah, I was angry. I was embarrassed. I was resentful. But I thank God for, let me just tell you about a defining moment for me. Not far from my school, there's an old Baptist church on Fraser Boulevard. And there, in the back of it, there is a little community development organization called Rangeline Community Development Corporation.

They ran the baby store. And Charlie Caswell, who grew up, his older brother was a gang member, and always brought home wads of cash. And growing up, he had to think, is that what I'm gonna be like? Okay? Is that the way to get ahead in life? But Charlie decided to spend his life serving the community, and he runs this organization that helps young women who are pregnant, as long as they go to their doctor's appointments, and take care of their babies, they get free baby supplies.

? Car seats, diapers, food, all the rest. And I'm sitting in there with him in his office, and he introduces me, this, I'm just, I just called this guy, I want to [00:21:00] meet you and get to know you. And I'm sitting in there, and he's sitting, he's got a young woman in there, Miss Tabitha, who's telling me about, she grew up with a disability.

She had been the victim of abuse and exploitation. She now had two children of her own, one of whom had special needs. She was crying. Charlie was there to counsel her and try to give her some support. And it's just this breathtaking moment in which you realize your life is not just about you. My wounds that I thought, my wounded pride was insignificant compared to what Charlie had overcome and what Tabitha was going through.

Fast forward. Ms. Tabitha and her kids Joey and Ranisha became two of the first kids that ever attended Libertas and they were my students for years, and we're honored how well they did here. And Charlie is now a Shelby County Commissioner, an elected official, and his youngest daughter goes to my school as well.

So being part of their story is what allowed me to sort of see myself in a, just from a completely different frame of reference. [00:22:00]

Uva: Amazing. Amazing. Thank you for sharing that and for your candor. I hope we can keep the candor going, and I actually have no doubt we'll keep the candor going, but I certainly appreciate your perspective and again, lifting others as you have tried to do the work. Let's talk a little bit about your experience as a founder as well.

As you know, at Spring Point Partners, so many of The leaders we work with are those individuals who I think just as you did, as you were having that conversation with your wife about whether or not you wanted your children in a school system, you kind of came to that moment of reckoning that what existed was not, did not suffice, right?

Something, there was a gap there that, that you wanted to address in a different way. Many of our partners have identified those gaps and had figured out ways of filling them. And so as a founder, you, you deal with certain very unique challenges. Can you talk about that conversation that you had with your wife, [00:23:00] where you recognize that the school system was not necessarily what you would want for your own family.

You told us what you wanted, but what was missing in the existing systems that you recognize needed to shift?

Bob: Yep. Well, one, I'm just laughing because I can picture where she and I were driving in the car together when we were discussing this and gnashing our teeth and it was a really, in many ways, a great organization I was working for and I was advancing my career and it seemed like everything, but, and, but we just couldn't, we just couldn't be at peace.

We, we, it just wasn't enough to do that. We felt like we, you know, wanted to be able for other kids to enjoy what we wanted our kids to be able to have. Yeah. And we felt it was for the health of the community. And I can just picture the moment when my wife says, Honey, we've got to do this. But, you know, Uva, I mean, it's a couple things.

One, again, we just had this, there's a very, like, education reform 1. 0 mindset that we know what we're doing and parents in the community on the [00:24:00] outside. And very often, Uva, and again, forgive me for saying this, if any of my friends are listening, I don't mean this the wrong way because I was there with you doing the same things.

We oftentimes defined our success over and against the community. All of our marketing was always about how terrible the community was and how lousy all the other schools were and how much better we were in comparison, ? So, on the, so defining our success in contrast to the problems in the community as opposed to taking an asset based approach.

So that was the first. deepest problem. Second keeping the community on the outside, right? And thinking it all comes down to what the teacher does in front of the kids. And if you just have the right teacher moves, right, in the right teacher talent, then everything will flow from there. As opposed to understanding that actually the village of attachment and loving, trusting relationships between families and children in the school are actually the beginning of the work.

And without that, you'll never overcome the trust barriers. That people like Tabitha and Charlie, that I was talking about earlier, had with the schools that they were in. They did not have good experiences [00:25:00] with schools, and therefore, you have so many willpower battles between families and distrust between families and the schools.

But then also in terms of the student experience, and this is the other crucial thing, truly human centered learning that understands human beings have minds, hands, and hearts. ? And that human flourishing means, as our mission statement says, living lives of wonder, work, and love. And therefore having an academic program that is, yes, academically rigorous, but also in a way that responds to the developmental needs of the young person to use their hands, both to make sense of academic content, right?

To give them access to ideas, but also to empower them. To make their community better place. And this starts for the three and four year old child in the Montessori classroom over where we're giving tiny Children a glass pitcher full of water, ? That they have to carry all the way across the room.

And guess what? Sometimes they spill it or even break it. And you know what? They can learn to clean it up. And what better way to empower the young child [00:26:00] with a sense of responsibility and by the way, self control than to trust them to do that, to give them a knife. An appropriate knife with a very careful lesson about how you chop fruit.

And then guess what? This little child now is preparing snack for their whole classroom community. ? They have a sense of responsibility and ownership. And so people ask, Bob, how do you, you're in a community where the schools suspend 25 to 40 percent of kids every year. And you have less than a 1 percent suspension rate in your school.

Guess what? It's by giving children meaningful work to do and freedom of movement in the environment, you eradicate willpower battles and empower them with a sense of contribution. So these are some of the dynamics of it is sort of the attachment village mindset of building relationships with the community, understanding yourself as, as a part of the broader empowerment of uplift to the community, giving children meaningful work.

Also, the richness of the education, ? Having a culturally responsive approach. To [00:27:00] literature and the arts, that help children to see themself as part of a triumphant millennia-old civilizational heritage that has so much to offer and as part of a success Story of America as opposed to the exception.

Uva: That's. So well said, Bob. So very well said. I am want to pull this thread about culturally responsive work in this moment when we are having interesting conversations about books and what ought to be banned and what's allowed in the classroom. Can you talk a little bit about your own perspective on it?

the banning. How does that play into the work that you do? How does it impact your work, if at all? And what would you want parents across the country to think about to reflect on in this moment where we are questioning the validity of certain works of literature

Bob: Maria Montessori, Dr. Montessori, when, [00:28:00] would when children were doing the work of the hand, whether it was weaving or sewing or mathematical or language work with some of the incredible manipulatives she made for them, she would also be reading them Epic poetry and great literature at the same time, ?

So filling the mind and filling the heart with inspiring, powerful images, filling the tongue, if you will, with powerful language and speech that children can use to lift up and express important ideas for themselves. While also fusing that with the work of the hands. I mean, I think that this is something that's deeply intrinsic to the Montessori model.

And, and I would just say she recognized that every human culture has always used storytelling and the passing down of stories of struggle and triumph as one of the primary modes of conveying culture. And So we take an inclusive approach at Libertas to helping children be in touch with cultures all around the world [00:29:00] through the reading and reciting of poetry and fairy tales and folktales from across cultures, but with pride of place to the African American experience, because that's what the majority of our students are, and they need to understand that the civilization that they are part of and their ancestors have contributed in indispensable ways such that Uva Again, for the third time, forgive me for the bluntness, African American, you know, black history is not therapy for black people.

It is central to the story of this country. And if you don't know the story of African descended people in America, you don't know America, ? You can't claim to know American history and American culture, ? Without the greatest orator in American history, Frederick Douglass, right, without the poetry of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, , without the lives of the African American women who have are exemplars of care for our kids, whether that's Phyllis Wheatley, who shocked the world as a freed [00:30:00] slave, , who had to recite her poetry in front of the white male publishers who couldn't believe that a black woman could have written this poetry and mastered their own language, their own language at a higher level than they themselves could dream.

? And, and so on. So these stories are central to the student experience here. Every classroom, every space in Libertas is named after these heroes. Every week we recite their poems, we read their biographies and stories. And it's, it's painful and difficult on both sides of it because some people are, are, You know, giving pride of place can be challenging, but on the other hand, confronting the painful side, right?

I mean, we live in an area in which people are understandably very sensitive to the way that reliving some of these traumatic experiences can be deeply triggering and as a, as a guest, as a visitor in this community, that's something I've had to learn to be sensitive to. But what I've also learned is that at the end of the day, it's not just You know, the, the, you know, in the civil [00:31:00] rights movement, there was a hearkening, a constant hearkening back to and remembering the stories of the Exodus and the ancient Israelites.

And part of that reason was the ancient Israelites, up through the Jewish people today, every year, , they ritually retell the story, , of the great origins of their people prior to the experience of slavery, ? Their story does not begin with slavery. ? But we also have to confront those painful realities and then finally relive the triumph of deliverance that is still not yet fulfilled.

? And so, telling those stories has been, literally this morning I was talking with some of my teachers. Kadir Nelson, the great African American illustrator, has some beautifully illustrated picture books talking about African American history. And some of the images are painful, Uva. Because to look at these extraordinary artistic depictions of what our brothers and sisters have encountered.

And so we talked about how do you do this in a way to children? How do you give them exposure to these images and these stories in a way that isn't [00:32:00] Terrifying, ? That isn't degrading, but helps them to truly understand what people have been through and how they now are responsible for taking this story to its next stage.

Uva: I'm reflecting on Your words, Bob, and, and wish I could sit in them for, for some time and I will when I have an opportunity just to listen back to everything you've shared. One of the things is I'm thinking about our, our time coming to a close, unfortunately. But I'm thinking about the very beginning of our conversation where you talked about your own grandparents coming to this country.

As you think about yourself as a, as an ancestor, right? As you think about the impact that your work is having and will have, what would you say are your highest aspirations for Libertas? What would you want? You, what do you want to be remembered for? This, this wonderful work that you're doing, this I know that your, your candor and your blunt speak is consistent with just your [00:33:00] courage and pushing boundaries and being really thoughtful and holistic about the work you do.

And so if, I don't know, 30 years from now, someone might be sitting across the table from your great, great grandchildren, how do you hope they remember your impact? Mm hmm.

Bob: part of the reason I speak this way, other than just being kind of an argumentative and person in general, is my very, very, very dear friend, Dr. Michael Brown African American educator, graduate of Hampton University of New York, New Jersey, who's been a school leader down here with me in the South for a long time.

Mike looks at me, and he tells me on a regular basis, Uva, he looks me deep in the eye, and he says, Bob, You can speak to audiences that my people can't always get in front of, and I need you to speak up to people who wouldn't listen to me who might listen to you. So, forgive me, I, I hope your audience will forgive me if I've said anything here that was hard.

I just, we don't know how many days we're gonna have, and so we have to [00:34:00] speak up in, in the chance that we can. What I hope that we can do with, with our school is show that public education in America, and urban public education at that. Not, not the dog whistle about urban schools. Let's talk about it.

Schools for black people, schools for poor people, in American cities that people think they can freely disparage and assume less of, the way people in the suburbs here think they can talk about my community in Memphis. Our children here can achieve at an unbelievable level when we give them the same kind of opportunity that other people can take for granted.

Right. Our school, which was the second worst in the state before we transformed it, was in the top 15 percent of all public schools in Tennessee the last two years when you're looking at students with disabilities and low income students, the most vulnerable kids, the kids with the biggest achievement gaps.

Let me, let me say this. Our kids here are outperforming their demographic peers [00:35:00] in the richest suburb of Memphis that has triple the annual household income of our community. I'm not saying that to boast. I'm saying that to say, look at what our kids can do when we prepare an environment that is worthy of them.

And so the hopelessness, the despair about public education in America. is not a fait accompli. It's a decision. Schools are the way they are because we've made them the way they are because we have a factory model of education that's trying to replicate a certain economic relationship in America. And if we change that assumption and change the way the school runs, we can get different outcomes, profoundly different outcomes.

And that's why we started a Rete Memphis public Montessori residency. With your organization's support, not so that we could be a big CMO and manage other people's schools, but so that we could disseminate a model of teacher development, a school based Montessori public school teacher residency, and we now are in the process of training [00:36:00] 100 new teachers.

To provide this kind of human centered community based learning across the Mid South over this five year period, 2, 500 children every year will now more will now have access to this model of learning in schools and other communities around the region, thanks to your support and this model. And that is what I hope are our legacy can be.

Uva: that sounds like a wonderful legacy, Bob for those who may not have the opportunity to partner with you to more directly but who are interested in learning and figuring out how they might be able to plant their own seeds, begin this work center communities, create trust or develop trust.

Can you. Can you recommend what are you reading? What are you listening to? What are you digesting? What have you written that others might be able to hold on to, to begin this journey?

Bob: Sure. Well, first of all, anyone is welcome to visit. If you want to visit Libertas, which is kind of the lab school [00:37:00] for a Rete Memphis residency as the sort of dissemination model, we'd love to have you visit. We have a lot of videos on our website. We also have just published our, like literally just this week, this last week, we published our, our culturally responsive, Character and social emotional development curriculum through diverse children's literature.

And so, our curriculum model is now available 100 percent for free through our website to any school that would want to implement it. We also have a lot of Montessori training videos that are also available on our website as well that we can share even for those who can't participate in our training program.

As far as reading is concerned, Uba, this, you know, though, if I had to, one choice, And this is at the kind of at the highest level of all this, if your listeners haven't read Albert Murray he was an African American jazz writer as a profession, but kind of a cultural commentator, close personal friend of the great author, Ralph Ellison.

He wrote a book called the Omni Americans, [00:38:00] O M N I, Omni Americans. That was sort of his vision of an America that was more just and more equitable because it drew from all of the cultural traditions that really make America what it is, that make our potential what it is. Let's put it that way. So, run, don't walk, and read Albert Murray's Omni Americans, I think for the single most influential work in my life on envisioning how education can work differently in, in this, Aspects are really our school is the child of Maria Montessori and Albert Murray, their sort of imaginary joining is what we're doing

Uva: We will make sure that we add these references and resources to this episode. Bob, thank you for that. As we close out, I'm gonna just read a few prompts and I will ask that you finish them in whatever way makes sense in your heart and your imagination and with your voice. Education is,

Bob: Cultivating minds, [00:39:00] hands and hearts for lives of wonder, work and love

Uva: I am grateful for,

Bob: my grandmother for keeping me strong and showing me the way when my family grown on rough times when I was young and my wife for having the vision and partnership to help me make something of my adult life. That is

Uva: I am paying attention to,

Bob: a hard question. Oh my gosh. I, I hope, I pray that I am paying attention to what the children are telling us. And that we are following the child.

Uva: and two more, I am learning that, and

Bob: My life is not about me.

Uva: finally, I am optimistic about.

Bob: My students in 38127 Fraser, Tennessee are going to shock the world. These children are going to be the next [00:40:00] Homer. They're going to be the next presidents of the United States, the next pastors, CEOs, moms and dads for Memphis and for America.

Uva: Bob, thank you, and based on this conversation, I'm ready to vote for them already. So you keep me posted. I'm equally grateful to Sarah your wife for partnering with you in this work. And for the work that the two of you are doing and centering love in education. Again, this idea that learning Ought not to be a privilege, right?

It's, it is a luxury that ought to be afforded to all of us is certainly one of my learnings from our time together. With that, I just want to thank you for your time, for your voice, for your candor, for sitting with me on this virtual couch. And for helping us remember what can happen when we center our children, when we center love in our work.

Bob, thank you.

Bob: Thank you, Uva, and Thank you to Spring Point Partners for all of your support and your vision and the network you're creating around the country for this type of [00:41:00] transformational, human centered, community based work.

Building Environments Worthy of Our Communities
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