New York

Friends and colleagues remember Terence "T" Tolbert, 44

Terence Tolbert with Mayor Bloomberg (via Facebook)
Terence Tolbert with Mayor Bloomberg (via Facebook)

Thoughts are falling many places this Election Day, and one place, especially among those who work at the Department of Education, is the life of Terence Tolbert, the DOE’s chief lobbyist who died Sunday night at age 44 while on a leave of absence to run Barack Obama’s campaign in Nevada.

Tolbert, by all accounts a tireless worker, was responsible for spearheading many of the DOE’s biggest projects, including the effort to raise the cap that kept the number of charter schools allowed in New York at 100 and the settlement of the historic Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit. He also was a reliable public face for the Bloomberg administration around the city, chairing hearings often attended by unhappy parents, and one of just a small number of African-Americans among the DOE’s top leadership.

So strong was his commitment to his work for the Bloomberg administration that a friend, Larry Blackmon, told me that in his final days campaigning for Obama, Tolbert was already starting to look forward to his next fight, on behalf of renewing the law that gives control of the public schools to the mayor. “He made it a point to me to tell me that the day after it was over he was packing up and he was driving back,” Blackmon said. “He was really looking forward to coming back home.”

But on Tolbert’s Facebook page, in our comments section, and in conversations I had with his friends this week, the overwhelming impression is less of a political operative than of a man who was a mentor and inspiration to many; a man who made many friends, despite a stubborn insistence on always telling things exactly as he saw them; and a man whose primary commitment was to public service.

Tolbert’s friends told me that his work at the DOE was the culmination of a life spent collecting political experiences, all with an eye toward returning to serve his community in the most powerful, productive form possible. A product of the St. Nicholas housing project in Harlem, Tolbert graduated from the Bronx High School of Science, where he was active in student government.

A friend from high school, Ben Austin, recalled a charismatic pitch Tolbert delivered when he asked to be elected to something called the principal’s advisory board. Standing on a podium, Tolbert introduced himself in verse, Austin recalled:

My name is Terence,
But you can call me T.
It’s easier for you
And it’s easier for me.

“He brought the house down and established himself as a great orator, even then,” Austin said.

Terence Tolbert in glasses, with Larry Blackmon (far left), Basil Smickle (left of Terence) and other friends. (Via Facebook)
Terence Tolbert in glasses, with Larry Blackmon (far left), Basil Smickle (left of Terence) and other friends. (Via Facebook)

Tolbert cut his political teeth as an aide to Assemblyman Keith Wright of Harlem, where he rose to become chief of staff. (Tolbert told the Times he saw their relationship as a kind of Batman and Robin act.) During that time, he developed a close network of friends, mostly other black men involved in politics, who supported and advised each other. “The key was to be able to talk a lot about and think about how we really make a difference in different levels of government: get the experience, get the exposure, and then be able to come back and support the community that we love,” a longtime friend of Tolbert’s, political consultant Basil Smikle, told me.

Smikle said Tolbert’s work at the DOE constituted his arrival at the end of the process, the part where the men “come back and support the community.” He said Tolbert would talk about his work in education constantly, at dinners and “off the clock.” Tolbert saw his work at DOE as a “mission,” Smikle said. Blackmon called it “a labor of love.”

Smikle added:

Talking to him about education, he was so passionate and adamant. He was passionate about a lot of things, but he was so passionate about his work there, because he really, really did believe that he was fighting for kids and on the side of children and parents. I really, really think that he felt very humbled by the ability to make whatever gains he could make through his efforts to help kids.

It was one of those things where I know he’s been passionate about many things in his life, but if you ever heard him talk about education, you’d be a believer in a minute.

Tolbert could be stubborn about his passions. “I always said that Terence was: it was hard to love him and easy to love him at the same time,” Blackmon said. The hard part, he said, was Tolbert’s honesty. “Terence would speak his mind and he wouldn’t hold back; it didn’t matter if it infuriated you. He was just not going to do what people wanted him to do, he wasn’t going to subscribe to conventional wisdom,” Blackmon said.

Tolbert’s loyalty was not just to his own convictions but to his friends. A deacon for the Episcopal Church, Tolbert presided over the weddings of several friends and never forgot to send birthday messages, friends said.

His mentoring of young people — which Smikle said was a deliberate choice he made, for the sake of strong political leadership — is already legendary. “He was very good about telling people, if you need a job, I’ll put you somewhere, so that you can learn and get the exposure,” Smikle said. “He was extraordinary about that. That is something that I think will be his legacy.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede