Kevin: I'm Kevin Chavous. Welcome to "What I Want to Know," a show based on curiosity and conversation with those who drive our local economies and the schools in our communities. Can we be better? We definitely can. This is "What I Want to Know."
As parents, we want the best for our children and we expect our schools to prepare them for a successful future. But are kids learning the skills they need for tomorrow's jobs? Do our schools give children equal access to opportunities regardless of their color or family income? And how can we as parents advocate for better schools with our elected officials and school leaders? This is, "What I Want to Know."
Alisha Morgan is a well-known leadership coach, K12 education consultant, and the parent of a teenage daughter. She was the first African American from Cobb County to be elected to the Georgia House of Representatives. After serving six terms, Alisha turned her sights to education. As superintendent of Ivy Prep Academies, she led the successful turnaround of that school's operations and performance. Today, Alisha serves as spokeswoman for the National Coalition for Public School Options. Alisha Morgan, it is a pleasure to have you with us.
Alisha: Thank you.
Kevin: We've known each other a long time.
Alisha: Yes. And I give you and Howard Fuller full credit for getting me in so much political trouble. So yes, it's been a long time.
Kevin: Yeah. You know, you were such a bright light in the Georgia House of Representatives.
Alisha: Thank you.
Kevin: A little bit feisty, which is good.
Alisha: A little bit, gotta have a little something-something, you know?
Kevin: Yeah. You had a little something-something going on. And you also were passionate about kids, you know, I never asked you, what drew you to run for office?
Alisha: So, it really started...it's my mom's fault for that. When I was in high school really just growing up, my mom was really big on getting me in everything possible. And one of those things was NAACP. So from the time I was in ninth grade, I was a youth leader and did a whole lot of voter registration and voter empowerment. And, like, went to my high school at the time to try to start a black heritage club, which caused me to have to go to the school board because they wouldn't allow us to have the club. And so my activism started pretty young. And when I moved to Cobb County, I just noticed that, you know, there wasn't a lot of leadership. Folks were really concerned about education and no one was really in the legislature to be that voice. And so it just felt like a natural progression, like, this is where I need to be to continue my service. I hadn't really thought about, you know, how young I was or being the first African American, I just wanted to serve and make a difference in that way.
Kevin: How old were you?
Kevin: I know. It's amazing. You were so young, so wise beyond your years. And, you know, I didn't know about the NAACP history, you know, growing in Indianapolis, that was my introduction. My mother used to go to these marches and rallies.
Alisha: I didn't know that.
Kevin: And when I was...I'm not gonna say the year because, but I was about eight years old. I got an NAACP junior member card. I was so excited, you know?
Alisha: That $3 membership.
Kevin: Yeah, $3 membership. We have that in common. We also have education reform. You talk about you blaming me and Howard Fuller. I remember when we met, I always posed this question to young, conscious-minded leaders who are focused on education, support what helps kids learn. Can you do that? And you have some real battles in the legislature taking that approach.
Alisha: Yes. Absolutely. And to be honest with you, I didn't understand why at first. You know, for me it was like, "We're just doing what's best for kids." And I wasn't even a parent yet. It really got serious when I was a parent. I did not know the political troubles and battles that would come just for trying to do what was best for kids. But I have to tell you, Kevin, and you know this too, I have no regrets. When I think about the schools that have been started, you know, the kids who have access to options and equality education, it was worth every single tear, right, every single debate. You know, long written speech, edited over and over, like, everything that we've ever had to do worth every single bit of it.
Kevin: Yeah. I wanna talk about your lessons learned and talk about parent power, which is really the reason why I should join the work you're doing now, so phenomenal. But I have to go back because I remember once Howard and I talked to you and you said, "Okay. Well, I'm gonna need you." So you're very persuasive and I'll never forget I was in between flights and speech. You said, "You need to come to Atlanta." And we rerouted my flight.
Alisha: Yes. Thank you.
Kevin: And the place was packed. And I will tell you, you always talk about my remarks, but your speech, I mean, it was amazing. It was all about passion and kids. And I think that won the day in terms of getting your bill passed and that we owe you a debt of gratitude for all you've done for kids.
Alisha: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I'm so grateful. I tell you, you talk about those times and it's just like, wow. It's like a whole lifetime ago, right? All of that work, the speeches, the meetings, all that stuff. But I'm grateful for you and Howard, and particularly you, Kevin, I was telling my fiance about coming on with you and just like, so he's like the godfather of choice. Long before I ever thought about doing this, Kevin was doing this, fighting the fights. It's still not popular, but if it was popular, it was before it was popular that you were doing this. So we all owe you a great deal of gratitude for, like, being one of the first out there and still on the battlefield.
Kevin: Well, thank you. But it is about you. And let me ask you this. After going through all that, you left the legislature. I wanna talk about your Ivy Prep experience, but what were your lessons learned after being an elected official so young believing in the power of participation, and a participatory in government. You had some scars, but, you know, what were some of those lessons?
Alisha: So many. I think the first one is when I first got to the legislature, you know, I had my NAACP activism hat on, and I had to learn two or three terms in, you're gonna have to choose between being an activist or a policymaker. You can't do both. And so it took me a few years, frankly, to build some new relationships because I went in there having to fight some really tough issues. These were not education issues. My first couple of years, it was like Confederate flag and anti-gay marriage stuff. And just crazy things that we shouldn't have been fighting about that I just had to be on the battlefield for those things. You know, for me, all of these are about the same kind of values, right? So I had to learn, even though I gave great speeches then and got a whole lot of nice awards on the wall for being the people's leader, my colleagues didn't have the relationship to allow me to be able to get things done.
So I had to learn, let's put up the activist hat, let the activists do what they do, and let me be a policymaker. Let me sit in the room, build the relationships, make sure the policy is good, make sure that we create the environment, especially when it comes to education to do what is necessary for schools to work well. So that's the first lesson. The second lesson is that regardless of color, socioeconomic status, political affiliation, we all want these same things for our kids. We all want a high-quality education, we all want them to be safe, we all want them to be surrounded by adults who care about them who have high expectations. And so even though my district was quite diverse, at the time it was only 30% African American, I had to work across all kinds of lines. And what was abundantly clear to me is that we all wanted the same thing. And so that allowed me to go into the legislature and be able to talk to anybody because I knew we were after the same thing.
That meant also working across the aisle, which is probably the third lesson. I just think it's so important to do. And even though working across the aisle came with a lot of criticism, sometimes being ostracized, I strongly believe that's the way you get things done. That you have to be practical, build those relationships, find those commonalities and work together. And I frankly wish that others would kind of catch on in that vein, both in legislatures and at the federal level.
Kevin: Yeah. And it's a different time. And as you know, you and I could wax on about that and be right for quite a while. But I do wanna talk to you about the power of parents, and I think it took on a whole different meaning for you when you became the superintendent of Ivy Prep after leaving the legislature. Talk about that.
Alisha: Going back to the speech that you mentioned, the title of my speech for the constitutional amendment that created the state charter authorizer was entitled, "The Little Girls in Green Jackets."
Kevin: That's right.
Alisha: And so that was in 2012, 2013 or so, can't remember which year. That came from my experience interacting with these incredible young ladies in green jackets who came to the capital a few years earlier and just blew me away. And so long story short, what a full-circle moment it was for me to leave the legislature in 2014 and then become the superintendent of Ivy Prep schools in 2015 to be part of the process that created the authorizing entity that helped create those schools to now be leading those schools as a practitioner.
Kevin: Now, talk about Ivy Prep for people who don't know.
Alisha: So Ivy Prep was started around 2008 or so by Dr. Nina Gilbert. And ironically, as she was starting to get her school, she came to the legislature in the education committee and talked about some of the challenges that she was having getting her school started. She submitted the petition, was denied by the local district, which is Gwinnett County in Georgia. It's the largest school district. She ended up getting approval by the state through an appeal. So the school opened and then the district sues Nina, personally, as well as the school. And so we end up in this lawsuit hints and then it goes to the Supreme Court, and that's how we ended up having to create this constitutional amendment that created an alternate authorizer. So Ivy Prep has always been at the center of the charter school battles, the need for parents to have options in Georgia, single-gender education, you, you name it. Ivy Prep has been at the forefront of that. So it was also all the more meaningful, right, that I get to be a part of those battles and then leave the schools after Nina and her successor's departure.
Kevin: Now, you learned a lot about parents and you talked about the fact that we all want the same things, particularly for our kids. But there are different levels and layers, particularly for working-class, minority families, what were some of the things that you observed in terms of the challenges that many parents have navigating a system that oftentimes is hostile?
Alisha: Well, for us, you know, luckily the charter commission, which had now been in effect for a couple of years, was able to authorize two more Ivy Prep schools. So by the time I got there, we had two middle schools, an elementary school, and a boy school. So really there were four schools. But, you know, the same thing rang true, parents wanted options. I remember after the first year I was there, we ended up with 1,000 families on the waiting list wanting to get into our schools. And so parents want a high-quality education, and when they know their options are available, they will seek them out. But without having that alternate authorizer, those choices would not have been available. And so I was blown away, frankly, by the political activism of parents during that time to get the constitutional amendment passed, whether they were Ivy parents or just parents across the state.
And Kevin, you know this, and, you know at PSO and Stride and others, we all worked together to do this survey a few months ago that talks about the fact that 70% of African American parents in this country support choice with charter being top of the list. And so we know that parents support these options, it's just not aligning with what's happening politically. And so watching the parents be involved, be fully engaged in the education of their children at Ivy Prep was really just confirmation for me about what we know what's possible when parents have options.
Kevin: Well, you know, when we talk about options, I wanna be clear because I feel like, Alisha you know this, we always have to almost explain why it's important and it's not about knocking traditional education, it's just that there's diversity amongst students, the learning modalities they respond to, their learning levels, and one size doesn't fit all. And one of the things about Ivy Prep, it did cater to students who responded well to that approach. And as you talk with parents, what were some of the points of frustration that led them to come to Ivy Prep?
Alisha: By far, it was a low-quality education. It was going to their home school that was grossly underserving them. I know my baby can read, I know that she's capable of doing X, Y, and Z, but she may not have teachers that really care. Or I am trying to access choice in my local district, but there aren't any real choices. The lists are long, the options are small, and it just doesn't work for us. Or I just want a school that's closer to my job that allows me to drop my daughter off and go on to downtown or wherever it is that I've gotta go. And so there were a myriad of reasons, but overwhelmingly, I think parents were flocking to us because they wanted better for their daughters, in particular. They wanted them to be in an environment where they would be nurtured, and loved, and pushed, and exposed to other women, and leadership, and community opportunities. There was just so much that we were able to offer that the traditional schools were not for this part particular group of students.
I think you raise an excellent point. I'm a product of traditional public education, even though my mom accessed different types within the traditional system. I sponsored a law, House Bill 251 in 2009 that allows students to access schools within the traditional system. And my daughter currently the last few years attended a traditional public school in our county. And so this is not about we don't like traditional public schools, it is simply about, as you said, I know what's best for my daughter. My 14-year-old rising ninth-grader, I know that she happened to thrive over this last year being in a virtual environment. And so I was very happy when my local district decided that they were gonna offer virtual again this year, which wasn't an option two years ago. Knowing my child, being a parent knowing what's best for her, I need to have the right and the responsibility to be able to choose the school that best meets her needs, whether it's public, private, traditional, charter, magnet. As long as it works, I need my baby to be able to go there.
Kevin: Yeah. And I wanna ask you more about your daughter, but before then, I wanna go back to Howard Fuller, who mentored all of us, many of us. He was superintendent of Milwaukee public schools in the '90s. And he talked about the fact that people used to counsel him to stay away from the crazy parents, the complainers. And he said, "I love the crazy mothers. I love the ones that complain," because they're passionate about their kids. Did you find that to be the case?
Alisha: Yes. I appreciated that. I appreciated one of the moms that was most active actually was homeless. I'll never forget we had two sisters who would show up to school every single day, go into the bathroom. And that's how they got their bath every day. Their mom was by far the squeakiest wheel. And when they didn't get what they needed, she was in my office, in the principal's office, she was calling. And I found that the craziest or the ones that are the loudest are the ones that have those valid concerns and they deserve to be listened to. And frankly, they have the courage to speak up when others don't. So usually, they're speaking on behalf of a lot of other people who just haven't had the time, the ability, whatever it is, the skillset to come and speak for their children. So yes, I love them. And some would say, I'm one of those crazy mamas too.
Kevin: I was gonna say.
Alisha: Right? Because when things aren't going well in Layla's class or school, yes, they can expect an email from Alisha Thomas Morgan.
Kevin: Yeah. And I was gonna ask you about your daughter and her experience and how that has informed what you do now, particularly in view of your work beforehand because you weren't a parent when you started the journey. Do you find that seeing and witnessing and living your daughter's experience validate your work or puts a certain perspective on it?
Alisha: It does. And I'm gonna say this and just, you know, it is what it is. I have found that those who are opposed to choice, oppose it for political reasons, but there's a disconnect, right? Because either they don't have children or their children have never seen the inside of a public school. And so they've exercised some level of choice by moving into a neighborhood with "good school" or they're going to private school. But it becomes real real when it's your baby and they're in a school that doesn't work for them and you've gotta try to figure out how you're gonna make sure they get what they need. So yes, I find that those who are policymakers and also parents are much more sensitive to this issue because they're living it every day.
Kevin: Now, you are currently a national spokesperson for Parent School Options. Talk about PSO and what they're doing.
Alisha: I'm excited about a couple of things that we're doing. One, I talked about this survey that we conducted a few months ago, and there are a lot of things that we talked about or asked parents about in this survey. We asked about, of course, how they feel about choice, but I'll also ask questions around what kind of education their children are getting. Should we be talking about the black experience in schools? And we've got all this craziness right now about critical race theory and all of that. Won't get into that conversation, but I will say that our education system needs to be relevant and provide meaningful experiences for the students that attend those schools. And so hearing from parents about...a large number of them, I think it was somewhere 80% or 90% of parents believe that we should be talking about issues that impact African Americans in the community.
That those discussions should be happening in classrooms. And also asking about public safety and what kinds of resources are in schools. And so we really learned a lot about what black parents in this country are thinking, what they're experiencing, even racism in schools. And so that was very powerful information for us to know and to be able to talk to policymakers about, but also be able to empower parents to remind them that you aren't just consumers, you know, in this system, but, in fact, you have power and what you feel, what you think, what you know has meaning and something needs to be done about it. Another piece that we're working on that I'm very excited about, there was a research paper that came out recently that talked about how black and brown-led charter schools are being disproportionately closed in this country. And so this is something that we know there's a pipeline problem from the beginning of black and brown-led charters even getting into the pipeline to be opened.
And now we are finding out that once they are opened, they're being closed at a disproportionate number. And so what does that mean? And so we're talking about some of the policy implications of that. Why is that happening? Is it based on academics? Is academics the important thing that should measure a success of a charter school? Is it because of governance? Is it because of finances? So those are the kinds of questions that we're asking, but also starting to have this dialogue at the national level with partners and those who understand these issues, like, what needs to be done about this because it has a terrible impact. And I know from being at Ivy, even though I would wasn't there when the boy school was opened, I had to come in when it was being closed. And Kevin, you talk about a heart-wrenching experience. In my 25 years of professional experience in all the sectors that I've been in, nothing hurt me more than having to close a school that was serving predominantly black boys, and worse is sending them back to their home schools that were underperforming.
That's the kind of thing that we've gotta have more conversations about. We gotta look at the policies, we have to look at, what are we really talking about when we're saying school is back up for reauthorization? How do we determine what success is? And even more important, when a parent says, this is the school I want my child to go to, how is it that we ignore what parents want in lieu of we just wanna look at this accountability system that we've arbitrarily put in place or borrowed best practices from somewhere else, and we've decided this piece of paper determines whether this school has been successful? Those are the kinds of things that we're doing at PSO.
Kevin: And I think that's powerful work. I wanted to ask you more about...follow-up on your statement, what parents want because PSO is an emerging parent group around the country. And I have this theory that, in part, because of the pandemic, parents got a chance to look under the tent and they saw what was going on in their kids' classroom. So the theory or the thesis that I have is that it could lead to the biggest time period for parent activism that we've seen in recent memory. Does that make sense?
Alisha: It does.
Alisha: I think two things. Number one, if we go back to doing education the same way pre-COVID, shame on us. So there are lots of innovations and other things that need to be happening, but I think parents decided, "Oh, I am now much more involved in my child's education." I have more agency because I had to choose, are they gonna be virtual? Are they gonna be in person? Are they doing their homework? I'm paying much more attention than I was before maybe. I'm engaging with teachers more. So they've learned some skills and I think empowered themselves even more. Looking at what they've learned, they also realize what they can do, right? We've got pods that have happened and more options that are available or should be available. And so I think, yes, parents have decided I'm looking at this school system, I'm realizing that as I am more involved, they're learning more. I'm getting to know their learning style.
And I talked about it even for me. What I saw from my daughter during her eighth-grade year was incredible because she no longer had the social issues to deal with. Whenever we would meet with her teachers in school, they would talk about how she wouldn't raise her hand, she was afraid to ask questions. It was a completely different kid when she was learning virtually. And so even as active as I am, I'm an educator, I'm an education leader, all this good stuff, even experiencing this with my own child and to better understand her learning needs, I became a better parent. And so I fully expect that there are millions of parents across this country who have had that same experience.
Kevin: So, last question. This is what I really wanna know, Alisha. How can we better empower parents to drive institutional change?
Alisha: That's such a hard question, right? So let me just say a couple of things. I think first, we've gotta change this notion about what parents even feel or know they have in terms of power. When we think about parents, we often think in the traditional space. We want parents to be involved, we want them to be engaged. And that engagement looks like making sure they do their homework, going to the PTA meeting. It's very away from the system kind of involvement, like, help us do what we're doing because we're the system and you should trust us. Just turn your children over to us and you just make sure they had breakfast this morning. I think that is what we got comfortable with in terms of defining engagement and involvement. What we're talking about here and how we change the system is saying, "No, I'm the parent. I am the most powerful in this situation. Schools don't know better than I know for what I need for my child." And so when we change the mindset of parents first, that you don't have to rely on the school to tell you what's best for your child. You don't have to go into a school and feel intimidated because they use all those cute little acronyms and it makes you feel like you don't know what they're talking about.
No, you are the one that has the power. Power as a taxpayer, power as a person who chooses where your child should go to school, the power, I think, to decide which teacher gets to stand in front of your kid, what their coursework looks like. So imagine what education would look like if we changed the power and put it in the hands of parents and if they truly embraced that and understood that. And, of course, that means we have to train them, right? We've gotta give them the information so that they know that they are the powerful ones and they are the deciders of the destinies of their children.
Kevin: Dropping knowledge. Alisha Morgan, thank you so much for joining us. It's been a pleasure to see you, my friend.
Alisha: My pleasure. Thank you, Kevin. Good to see you.
Kevin: All right. Take care.
Thanks for joining, "What I Want to Know." Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. And don't forget to write a review too. Explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know you want to know using #WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK on social media. For more information on Stride, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining "What I Want to Know."
Alisha Morgan is a well-known leadership coach, K-12 education consultant, and is the parent of a teenage daughter. She was the first Black American from Cobb County to be elected to the Georgia House of Representatives. After serving six terms, Alisha turned her sights to education. As superintendent of Ivy Prep Academy, she led the successful turnaround of the school’s operations and performance. Alisha is now a spokesperson for the National Coalition for Public School Options.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.