May 9-15, 2021 marks the annual celebration of National Charter Schools Week. This year is an exciting one as it is the 30th anniversary of the first charter school law, which changed the future of public education and student success forever. In recognition of our movement's history and future, this year's theme is National Charter Schools Week 2021: 30 Years Strong.
The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools is marking this important anniversary by highlighting 30 Changemakers Under 30 in the national charter school community, including two from Tennessee: Najah Aqeel and Jalen Ramsey. The Tennessee Charter School Center is joining this work by highlighting additional young Changemakers connected to Tennessee’s charter schools who are making significant contributions to their Volunteer State communities and beyond. Their stories are shared below.
Memphis Business Academy
Alex Harden's return to his alma mater as an educator is building a lasting impact on him and on the young students of Memphis Business Academy students.
"Even though I am young, I give them advice," said the 2015 MBA alum. "I tell them, 'This world is waiting for you. You have to be prepared.'"
The 24-year old Rust College graduate says his work with even the youngest students has made a meaningful impact.
"Last year, there was a kid in kindergarten who couldn't write. He couldn't read. This year, he came up to me and said, 'Mr. Harden, I can count to ten in Spanish!' It made me so proud to hear him. It warms my heart to see these students grow and develop to whatever they want to be in life."
Harden is still looking to chart the course of his career, but he is sure that molding young minds and mentoring children will be a part of his life forever.
Ingrid Martinez doesn't just passively read Chattanooga Prep's mission on the website. The words, "To engage young men in a rigorous yet supportive learning environment that nurtures resilience, promotes academic excellence, inspires leadership, and prepares critical thinkers," really connect with her.
"It is not only for the boys," says the 22-year-old front office coordinator and translator. "It is for all of us. The school's mission makes me think, 'If the boys can do it, why can I not do it?'"
During regular work hours, Martinez supports school administrators and helps the students with everything from keeping up with their grades to applying Band-Aids. Her efforts to help provide a supportive learning environment at Chattanooga Prep also extend beyond students in the building.
Martinez was just one year old when she and her parents moved from Guatemala to the United States. With Spanish as her first language, she remembers learning English in elementary school and often serving as a translator for her parents. That experience left a mark on Martinez and influenced what has become her mission.
"My goal is also to help parents around the community," said Martinez. "Many aren't able to do things without their children there to translate for them. I can be that support. I tell them, 'Hey, it's OK you don't speak English. You need me somewhere? I can help you."
"When I talk about it, it gets me really pumped up," she continued. Her work is helping parents and students build connections and navigate the city they now call home.
Soulsville Charter School
Many may have seen Evvie McKinney wow judges with her fantastic voice on FOX's The Four: Battle for Stardom in 2018, but some may not know that she's a charter school alum. McKinney grew up in Memphis and spent her entire high school career at Soulsville Charter School, a program of Soulsville Foundation along with Stax Museum of American Soul Music and the Stax Music Academy.
The standards were always very high at Soulsville, said McKinney, explaining that school leaders always required more than the minimum.
"Soulsville prepared me for the "real world" by constantly reminding me that I should never settle for being a "good person," but I can always excel to be the best me that I can be," said McKinney.
As the Motown gospel artist continues with her music ministry, she hopes to inspire young people.
"God willing, I hope at least 50% of students look at my story and get inspired to seek God first above everything else so that whatever they want, they know it's possible for the Lord to give it to them," she said, "Through prayer, hard work, and faith, we can create the best outcome for our lives."
Sixth grade student
Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy
Maliyah Neal is a shining star at Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy. This sixth grade student’s desire to become a nuclear engineer was prompted by a lesson about the atomic bomb and how it led to unintended deaths. Listen to this impressive future leader describe her interest in her own words. https://youtu.be/2JiLLi1I-WA
Dr. Robert Wallace Jr.
KIPP Antioch College Prep Elementary School
At just 29, Robert Wallace Jr. is well on his way to becoming a changemaker in Tennessee's education landscape and beyond. In college, the Nashville native and product of Metro Nashville Public Schools wanted to become a lawyer. It was his experience with Teach for America that led to a shift in his career plans.
"I decided law wasn't for me," said Wallace, the Director of Operations at KIPP Antioch College Prep Elementary School. "I wanted to expand my impact beyond the classroom. I wanted to invest my time in education."
Wallace has been building on that investment ever since. Between completing an undergraduate degree at Belmont University and a graduate degree at Lipscomb University, Wallace taught elementary and middle school. A part of the founding team at KIPP Antioch, he's led fundraising efforts and managed operations. For the first four months of 2021, he served as interim principal while the school's principal was on maternity leave. And in April, Wallace completed his doctoral study at Vanderbilt University. All of this work has opened doors to educational opportunities for hundreds of students.
"It has been a pretty busy semester," said the newly minted Dr. Wallace. Although he plans to take a minute to catch his breath as summer approaches, Wallace can't help but reflect on the future of education and his role in it.
"A part of me wants to lead a charter network, become State Commissioner of Education or U.S. Secretary of Education," he said, considering paths for future impact. "I do this work because I love it!"
U.S. Army Specialist Garrison Waites
United States Army
United States Army Specialist Garrison Waites' leadership will soon take him to Europe to use his public relations, journalism and filmmaking expertise. It is but another adventure the Chattanooga native became prepared to appreciate while still a student at Ivy Academy.
"I had the opportunity to work with things I ordinarily wouldn't have, there," said the 21- year-old. "That's something I've kept in my life pretty consistently."
Now, Waites is having the time of his life doing work he loves while serving at McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma, Washington.
"Communication is just something I always wanted to do. I worked part-time doing photography but knew I wanted to do it professionally. I'm fortunate to be able to do it in my job here."
While Waites hopes to work in the film industry, it is the leadership skills he's sharpening now that he hopes to take with him throughout life and use to make a broader impact.
"There's always a level of mentorship that accompanies any leadership role. I'm trying to prepare myself to be accountable and take care of people in my charge. You often run into a lot of bad leaders, but you can learn from them. I want to be one of the good ones."