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Coffee Break: Memphis Education Leader Natalie McKinney Is Doing the Right Thing for Families for the Right Reasons

Coffee Break: Memphis Education Leader Natalie McKinney Is Doing the Right Thing for Families for the Right Reasons_5fbe6815e2ea5.jpeg
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Coffee Break: Memphis Education Leader Natalie McKinney Is Doing the Right Thing for Families for the Right Reasons

Coffee Break: Memphis Education Leader Natalie McKinney Is Doing the Right Thing for Families for the Right Reasons

Last fall, former Shelby County Schools policy director Natalie McKinney assumed leadership of Whole Child Strategies, a nonprofit created to help Memphis neighborhood leaders use data and coordinate strategies to reduce poverty and increase student achievement in communities across the city.

Do you drink tea or coffee? How do you take it?

Coffee. Two Splenda, cream and vanilla flavoring.

What inspired you to take on this work?

Youth social justice issues have always been a part of my core values. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s innate. Not until recently did I know my father was a banker for the Black Panther Party! Wow! My mother always, always opened her heart and home to others.

I’ve always had this desire to do the right thing, in the right way, for the right reasons. From being a politically active high school student and student body vice president to a champion of youth justice rights. I think I understood from a very young age that youth, family and community are fundamental to our very survival as a society.

What does educating and supporting the whole child mean to you?

I truly believe in the African adage, “It takes a village to raise a child.” In fact, that’s how I remember my own childhood. Growing up in Oakland, California, I lived in a neighborhood where everyone on our street knew who I “belonged” to, cared about what I did and what happened to me, and saw it as their personal responsibility to be a part of my development.

That is what we must get back to for our children.

We must wrap around each child, the family and community to support, encourage and believe in their ability, given the appropriate supports and resources, to offer and implement solutions that will result in a productive, safe and prosperous community.

We must see education as one of many factors contributing to our children graduating on time and career- or college-ready. We must stop accommodating poverty and move toward mitigating and eventually eliminating poverty through education, job training and access, living wages, mental and physical health access, sustainable housing and community safety.

How can families, community-based organizations and school districts collaborate to ensure that students are well supported throughout their educational journey?

“Collaboration” is a term I think is overused and misunderstood. Oftentimes people see “collaboration” as finding a common outcome and deciding that each individual or entity will bring their particular expertise to bear and assume the outcome will materialize.

Who or what holds each person accountable for that outcome? Haven’t they done what was “collaborated” on once they do what they do? For example, they change the lightbulb and yet the switch doesn’t work because all they did was change lightbulbs?

I believe we must collaborate to coordinate efforts. All of the entities or individuals seeking a common outcome should be held accountable for coordinating their efforts towards that outcome. That may mean making adjustments in thought or how things are done.

Families, community-based organizations and school districts will need to agree on and be held accountable for the shared outcome, shared agenda and shared activities in reaching the common agreed-upon goal. Our work does just that.

We all want our children to graduate on time and career- or college-ready. To do this, they must be in school, engaged, healthy, safe and ready to learn. To accomplish this, we must recognize that in high-poverty communities, addressing the external barriers to arriving to school every day healthy, safe and ready to learn is an absolute requirement.

That can only happen if the entire community—school leaders, teachers, parents, residents, community-based organizations, faith-based institutions and business leaders—builds trusting and respectful relationships in order to understand and utilize its assets, identify the gaps, and develop long-term sustainable solutions, e.g. redeployment of resources in a effective and efficient manner.

What trends do you see in the communities you serve and how do they impact educational outcomes for those demographics?

Generational poverty manifested in poor physical and mental health, underemployment, lack of a living wage, lack of access to job opportunities, lack of adequate transportation, high rates of domestic violence, child abuse and neglect. A parent or guardian’s poor physical and/or mental health and substandard level of education, combined with the challenges of living in a high-crime community that is devoid of economic development and riddled with blight, has a traumatic impact on a child as well as the adult.

Currently, in the neighborhood we are supporting, one-third of the residents live in poverty, 80 percent of third- through eighth-graders are below grade level in English Language Arts, and 7 out of 10 students test below proficiency in high school English and Algebra II. While graduation rates are improving, no student last year met all four ACT college readiness benchmarks. Additionally, parents and residents consistently report transportation, crime and safety, and mental health issues.

What’s the most rewarding part of your work?

Witnessing the level of engagement a community can have when an authentic space is created for it to provide solutions for its youth and families.

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