South City

Sweep it clean: The leader behind Booker T. Washington’s comeback story

When principal Alisha Kiner joined Booker T. Washington, the historically African-American high school had a graduation rate of 53 percent. Her leadership has skyrocketed that figure. In 2017, the school graduated its largest class of seniors. 

There’s an old Negro spiritual that says “Sweep it clean; Ain't going to tarry here.”

Alishia Coleman-Kiner took the broom and swept despair away from the beloved Booker T. Washington High School. Once considered a stalemate to the education scene, the first African-American school in Memphis is heading towards a future defined for and by the community it serves.  

A few minutes after the interview for this article started, Kiner’s phone rings.

“I’m sorry, may I take this?”

It’s a relative, maybe a friend, with an update about her disabled mother who lives with Kiner.

“She’s a trooper; I’ve never heard her complain. If you knew her issues, you’d say ‘Really? She’s been through all of that and never complains?’ She never complains.”

Kiner carries that persona, one of a woman who doesn’t complain about the afflictions that ailed BTW such as the low graduation rate and the high dropout and disciplinary rates.

Principal Alisha Kiner jumps in to help some students in a double dutch jump rope session in the gym at Booker T. Washington.

“When I came the school was on an upswing academically,” said Kiner. “We saw one thing in the classroom, but data showed another. It was quite daunting.”

Kiner was hired by then superintendent Carol Johnson in 2005 as part of a cohort of principals brought in to turn around Memphis schools deemed failing by Tennessee Department of Education. Then, BTW’s graduation rate had dropped to 53 percent.

When Kiner jumped in, instead of starting with exercises to improve testing, she worked to instill self-worth and value in her students.

 “It sounds trite, but perceptions have to be changed inside-out. What sways people is what you think about yourself. So we started with establishing who we are and what our goals were,” she explained.

After extensive research, Kiner and her team developed a gender-specific 9th grade academy. Studies show the transition into high school can be overwhelming can cause a higher chance of dropping out within the first year. Kiner was not only able to retain her freshmen, but create a system that could zero-in on the issues that could affect a potential dropout including learning disabilities, emotional intelligence and behavioral adjustments.

Now, BTW’s graduation rate has skyrocketed to 90 percent over the years, graduating 111 students this May.

The troubles of this world

Kiner is not a fan of one particular letter grade: D.

Dropouts and death.

Principal Alisha Kiner's portrait hangs on the wall alongside her predecessors. She is the second woman to serve as principal at the school.

Being a principal at a school that is surrounded by poverty and therefore crime, she has become familiar with both. 2017 is the first year the school has not suffered any losses of either.

“I had a couple of girls who were hit by cars and a young man who walked across the stage with a bullet in his arm, but I didn’t lose anybody which is a relief,” she said.

Kiner has intentionally built a familiar structure within an education environment. The heightened responsibility keeps students on their toes, but it makes Kiner’s grief even deeper when she loses a student.

However, Kiner continues to stand as a matriarch within the school and the community. Days before graduation in 2016, Myneishia Johnson, a senior, was killed by a stray bullet while walking home from Beale Street with friends. The incident devastated the students, parents and the community.

Administrative staff at the office at Booker T. Washington. In the left corner is a portrait of Myneishia Johnson, who was killed before her 2016 graduation.

Kiner decided it was only fair and fitting for Johnson’s 1-year-old son to walk across the stage, held by his grandmother, to receive her diploma in his mother’s honor. When Kiner received a vicious email criticizing her for the decision, she wasted no time clapping back to defend her “baby.”

“You have NO idea how hard my student was working to overcome every single obstacle in her life. She worked a job every day, she kept her OWN baby (we had to ask her if we could keep him), she played on the basketball team, she did well in all of her Honor’s classes, she kept up with younger siblings and made them come to school, and most importantly, she NEVER missed a day of school.”

It is evident that Kiner’s dedication, motherly wit and leadership has carried many of her students throughout their life.

“Ms. Kiner had a big impact on my life, since 9th grade. She’s been like a mother to me,” said Acacia O’Kelly, a former student and friend of Myenishia.

“Even though she made me a bit nervous when I got to the 12th grade. She used to keep me in check saying, ‘Get another strike and you will be walking around your mama’s mailbox getting your diploma.’”

How I got over

Before Kiner’s grandfather died, she told him about her plans after college. Sitting on his North Memphis porch, Kiner told her grandfather she wanted to become a teacher.
In the halls of the school, a framed quote from its namesake Booker T. Washington reads "Do a common thing in an uncommon way." “And to see the tears, because he hadn’t gone to school, and to hear him say ‘I got a teacher!’ It made him very proud.”

Kiner taught for 10 years at Trezevant High School before becoming an administrator at BTW. Kiner’s father dropped out of BTW, but later graduated from Southside High. He was one of the first students to integrate the school. He later became a pastor of a church in the South Memphis community. Her mother was also an educator.

Kiner calls her parents “master manipulators,” instilling pride, responsibility and good behavior, which are values she also instills in her students.

“I write it on their diplomas. They represent me when they go out into the world.”

BTW has an impressive list of notable alumni including former NAACP executive director Benjamin Hooks, former mayor of Washington, D.C, Marion Berry, and civil rights activist Maxine Smith.

When Kiner stepped on the scene, alumni of BTW held a meeting. They wanted to be assured that Kiner would uphold the school’s weighty legacy as well as turn the the school around.

“Traditions are important. You need history. Students need to know who walked these halls before them and how fortunate they are to share that legacy,” she said.

BTW was first founded as Clay Street School in the late 1860s for “the colored of Memphis,” at at the intersection of Lauderdale Avenue and Mississippi Boulevard. Over the next five decades, the building saw multiple renovations and name changes, yet never lost its intended purpose of educating African-American children.

In 1926, the school was officially renamed Booker T. Washington High School and hired its first black principal, Green P. Hamilton, for whom Hamilton Elementary, Middle and High schools in Memphis are named after.

Principal Alisha Kiner works with assistant principal Tara Harris-Davis. 

The school soon became affiliated Memphis Central High School, which was founded in 1909 and is Kiner’s alma mater. Central High, the white-only school, and BTW, the black-only school, share the same colors, green and gold, and the same mascot, the warrior.

To no surprise, BTW students would receive the hand-me-down downs of Central from books to uniforms.

The rivalry between the two schools continues today. It is easy to walk into barbershops and hear disputes over which high school came first, even among black people who later integrated Central after Brown vs. Board of Education.

It’s something even Kiner has to keep in mind and was confronted with when she started. She is the first principal to not have graduated from BTW.

“The established alumni made it really clear to me that the rivalry is still very real and protecting our history and legacy was priority. I have to be mindful of that pride,” she said.

Kiner believes the impact made within BTW’s walls have influenced the students' interactions in the greater community.

In 2017, Booker T. Washington graduated 111 students, which is the largest senior class in several years.

Under her leadership, students are offered general courses alongside specialty classes from entrepreneurship workshops to “code-switching” classes which allow students to learn how to navigate and adapt quickly to different cultures and situations.

“President Obama was a good tool for us. We remind students how much he’s criticized and disrespected, but he never reacted negatively. They remember that and use that when striving towards their goals. Behavior matters,” she said.

In 2011, President Obama delivered the commencement speech at BTW after seniors submitted a video about the trials and successes of their school. Competing against 450 schools nationwide, the President was drawn to the overwhelming changes and accomplishments the school had made over the years.

In a section of his address, President Obama said:

"Yes, you’re from South Memphis. Yes, you’ve always been underdogs. Nobody has handed you a thing. But that also means that whatever you accomplish in your life, you will have earned it. Whatever rewards and joys you reap, you’ll appreciate them that much more because they will have come through your own sweat and tears, products of your own effort and your own talents. You’ve shown more grit and determination in your childhoods than a lot of adults ever will. That’s who you are."

A change gone come

Kiner’s office overlooks the once populated Foote Homes public housing development where many of her students lived and from where many of her future students have been displaced.

Principal Alisha Kiner sits for profile in her office at Booker T. Washington.

Foote Homes was built in the 1940s when wealthy white families lived in Downtown neighborhoods. After school integration in the 1960s and school busing, white residents left the Downtown area, taking their wealth with them to suburban communities further east of Memphis.

As poverty increased, so did crime and divestment. When the Memphis Grizzlies and FedEx Forum made Downtown home, the possibly of gentrification loomed.

Called the South City redevelopment project, a project backed by a $30 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Community Development will replace Foote Homes with 712 new units of mixed-income housing.

Kiner admits that having to adjust to the change brings a bit of anxiety, but she’s planning for it.

“We as government have not done a good enough job trying to connect (people in poverty) with good enough opportunities,” says Paul Young, director of the City of Memphis Housing and Community Development, which oversees the South City project, in a High Ground interview earlier this month.

“These redevelopments will bring an economic mix as well opportunities to better support the residents who have been there such as educational opportunities, job skills training, and daycare services. All of that is happening with the families that have been relocated.”

The boarded-up buildings of Foote Homes, a public housing complex where many Booker T. Washington students once lived.  
However, Kiner is concerned about how a change in population caused by the influx of middle-class whites will affect BTW, a historically African-American school.

For the 2016 to 2017 year, BTW had 561 students enrolled, which is less than its capacity of 600 students, according to Chalkbeat Tennessee. While the student body is still predominately black, Kiner says she’s had her first white and non-english speaking students this year.

“The other part of the work is figuring out where we’re going because the demographics are going to change,” says Kiner. “That was once really simple for me because I knew my community. Now, we will have to address and adjust to what the new community looks like.”

Kiner is more than a champion for education. She’s a supporter of her community as well.

She’s earned her keep and staked her claim. Her castle, her fort, BTW is well protected and the community, because of her, has a promising future. As long as Kiner is in the heart of South Memphis, the community’s name can change, but its soul, history and legacy will stand strong with Kiner at the reins.

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Read more articles by Kirstin Cheers.

Kirstin Cheers is a native South Memphian and freelance journalist. She's written for The Tri-State Defender and is a current contributor for iLoveMemphis blog and Professionally, she's the communications specialist at United Way of the Mid-South, a non-profit that supports agencies serving people living in poverty.