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Barbara Prescott’s passion for education was inspired in her family living room as a child and has taken her to boardrooms and meeting rooms throughout Shelby County as she led the development of a blueprint for a world-class public education system for Shelby County.
My father was an immigrant (from Austria) and he had pride in the fact that the United States offers public education as a right,” she said. “That, plus my role as a mother, led me to care deeply about our schools.”
It’s a commitment that led her to enter a winning race for the City of Memphis Schools Board where she served twice as president. “If I wanted things to be better, I thought I should get about making it happen,” Mrs. Prescott said.
Most recently, her leadership for education culminated in her role as chairwoman of the 21-member Transition Planning Commission. “I was willing to be chairwoman because it is a historic time in our community and a historic time to come together to provide the best possible education that our children can have,” she said.
Defying the predictions of many, the Transition Planning Commission was not merely successful in putting together a plan for the new unified school district for Shelby County. Rather, the Commission assembled one of the boldest, most ambitious roadmaps for public education ever developed in any community in the U.S.
Barbara Hyde, president of J.R. Hyde III Family Foundation, said the final report of the Commission “is a testament to Barbara Prescott’s conscientious commitment to providing every student with a quality education.” “Barbara has been on the front lines of fighting for better schools and she is without peer in her ability to build consensus, camaraderie, collaboration, and a strong strategic vision that can anchor the unified district on a strong foundation,” she said.
The more than 200 pages in the plan lays out recommendations for planning and budgeting, personnel decisions, governance, instruction, student services, outsourced services, security, and nutrition.
The heart of the blueprint for a school system known for its quality calls for:
• Universal pre-kindergarten
• Doubling the number of advanced placement (AP) classes
• Emphasis on STEM curriculum
• Multiple achievement paths” to accommodate multiple operators and give leaders more autonomy
• Growing the Gates Foundation's Teacher Effectiveness Initiative
• Targeted student interventions
• Higher common core standards
• Development of job-embedded professional development
It’s hard to imagine anyone else who could have responded as capably to the yeoman’s job of chairing the Transition Planning Commission. The Transition Planning Commission has spent more than 400 hours in 150 meetings. Each member of the Commission was appointed to two of its seven committees and executive committee. Remarkably, Mrs. Prescott attended most of the meetings of all the committees.
In addition, she attended the Commission’s series of public meetings attended by more than 14,000 people. “We’ve been all over the community to gather community and stakeholder input,” she said. “We’ve had town hall meetings in every community and every part of Memphis and Shelby County.”
In the most impressive demonstration of transparency of any public process in our community, summaries of the hearings and the presentation for the meetings were posted on the Transition Planning Commission website. Meanwhile, the public input was incorporated into the Commission’s recommendations.
To support the work of the Commission, Boston Consulting was hired to help with the merger plan. “We did not have a budget, but the philanthropic and business community provided us with the funding to hire the best firm in the country. The Hyde Foundation’s support was enormously helpful.”
The highest hurdle for the Transition Planning Commission’s work has been to close an estimated $72 million deficit in funding that will take place as a result of the merger. “We have looked for efficiencies,” said Mrs. Prescott, adding that they include cuts, closings, outsourcing, and combined functions, and to “vigorously pursue” additional sources of funds.
As the foundation for all of its work, the Transition Planning Commission early on developed 10 Guiding Principles for the Commission which can be embraced by every citizen of this community as they consider the future of Shelby
• The academic success and well-being of our students come first.
• Educators and staff are our most important resource.
• We have high expectations.
• We are all in this together.
• We aim to enhance our district by balancing stability with needed change.
• We desire excellent community schools and options for all.
• We believe parent engagement is essential.
• We must save where we can to fund what we need.
• We value strong leadership.
• This is our once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
While the Commission was charged with planning for a 147,000 student district, its recommendations are relevant even if the municipalities create their own school districts, she said. “All the recommendations are good recommendations regardless of how big the district is. Whether it’s 147,000 or 120,000, it will be more than the present Memphis City Schools. Regardless of the size, we have to merge two operations and our recommendations go to that reality.”
All of Mrs. Prescott’s knowledge and experience were put to the test with the Transition Planning Commission. In addition to being elected to the Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioners, Mrs. Prescott also was on the board of directors of the Tennessee School Boards Association and served as president in 2002. A Licensed Professional Counselor and vice-president of Allie Prescott & Partners, she serves on the boards of Memphis Collegiate Schools; Girls Inc., and New Leaders for New Schools. She is on the board of trustees for Christ United Methodist Church and a member of the Dean’s Advisory Council for the College of Education at University of Memphis.
Regardless of her specific role, Mrs. Prescott is a model for the brand of leadership that is making so much happen in Memphis. Here’s her advice to others:
• Find out what your passion is. “That’s always where you can make the most impact. If there’s not the passion, there won’t be the perseverance.”
• Try to take your passion and begin to get involved. “I believe in being a joiner where you have an interest. Memphis has a lot of good leadership training programs. A few people are born with leadership but you can learn it as well.”
• Remember: one person can make a difference. “You have to believe that you can make a difference.”
• Learn all that you can. “I tell young people to look at leadership as a skill.”
Because of the Transition Planning Commission, Shelby County has the chance to get it right when it comes to its new unified school district. Most of all, it’s a testament to Mrs. Prescott’s dedication to world-class public education for every student in our community.