Tequilla Banks has an undergraduate degree from Yale, a Master’s from the University of Tennessee and once she’s completed her dissertation you can call her Dr. Banks. But all that lofty learning is just icing on her education cake, she says.
“I think back at how different my life could have been without a good education,” says Tequilla, now the Executive Director of the Department of Teacher Talent and Effectiveness. “I loved Yale and I liked UT but I LOVED my high school. That was the difference for me. I was engaged, I wanted to learn, I came to school and my teachers cared.”
That high school she loved was Riverview High in Wilson, Ark. And the experiences and choices made available to her because of those caring, engaged teachers are things she thinks every child deserves. That’s what inspires her to do the hard work of overseeing the Teacher Effectiveness Initiative, the cutting edge program that seeks to put an effective teacher in every MCS classroom.
She was raised by her grandparents in the town of Joyner in the Arkansas Delta. Her grandfather was a sharecropper. Her grandmother was the custodian at the elementary school she attended. Despite their poverty, Tequilla says they found a way to pay for anything having to do with her school. They told her that if she wanted more, she had to get her education.
“My grandfather was one of the most intelligent people I knew.” Tequilla said. “He was born in 1910 and opportunities were different for him. But he always made it clear there are no excuses for you not to achieve and excel.”
And excel she did. Her guidance counselor first put the idea of applying to Yale in her mind.
“ He saw my ACT scores and said, ‘I think you are going to go to an Ivy school,’ Tequilla said. “I was like, ‘Oh, I am?’ When I got my acceptance letter to Yale, he was the first call I made. I loved him.”
There was a lot more for Tequilla. Studying psychology at Yale, she developed skills working with people (she’s a licensed therapist) and discovered a passion for research and strengthened her desire to work as a change agent. She earned her Master’s in social work from UT and spent several years as a school social worker.
“That connected the dots for me,” she said. “I would do therapy with the kids and think, ‘I really need to be with their parents. How do you catch the problem earlier?’ I realized that education is the key. I really think it’s how you break the cycle.”
She came to MCS in 2004, first managing a program evaluation team. When Dr. Kriner Cash took over the district in 2008, Tequilla says she was excited by what she saw.
‘”When Dr. Cash came it was so apparent that he lives by the data,” she recalls. “For me being in research, that was right up my alley, because remember, I want to influence policy and programs based on the data.”
With that intense focus on data Cash and his team defined “fault lines” in the district that ultimately led to the creation of TEI and the invitation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to apply for grant money to fund it.
“All things being equal, you take two children—both from poverty—and introduce a high quality teacher to one of them, that’s the one that’s more likely to be successful,” she says. “Our early work, that’s what it’s all about—defining and clearly understanding what we mean when we say effective teaching. And then measuring that so we know who is good and so we can help others become more effective.”
She’s confident that the reform work under way in MCS today can and must translate to the unified district that is set to become a reality in 2013.
“It all comes back to the students and making sure students have choices,” she said. “In the MCS district, the measure of college readiness (based on ACT scores) hovers between four and five percent. Shelby County’s is 20 percent. Neither is enough.
“There’s a need for this work across our community and across our state. Teacher quality is important for any community.”
And, Tequila says, the goal of an effective teacher in every classroom is definitely attainable.
“It's going to take a lot of courage,” she said. “Will we get there tomorrow? No. But I do think it's possible.”
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