City Visionary: Dr. J. Helen Perkins

Memphis is a place full of seemingly tireless people creatively working to push the city forward--grit and grind doesn't just characterize our basketball. In this series, we introduce you to some of the city's visionary leaders who are facing challenges and innovating for solutions.
Dr. J. Helen Perkins found her calling at a young age.

"My mother really loved to read and required that I read and study daily," said Perkins about her upbringing in Seminole, Okla. By the third grade, Perkins had announced to her parents that she was going to "teach reading to people all over the world."

Her dedication and passion for literacy instruction was fostered by her mother, who only had a 7th grade education. 

That motherly support paid off. Perkins has fast become a fixture in the field of urban transliteracy. An Associate Professor of Reading and Urban Literacy at the University of Memphis, she has published many nationally recognized articles, chapters and books that detail strategies for teaching impoverished children. 

Memphis, she believes, is the perfect place to carry out the culmination of her 38-plus years of experience in education. "The University of Memphis offered me a position because of my expertise and experience in reading and urban literacy; they were very much aware of my love for children and their academic success," she said of making Memphis home.

Soon after the move to Memphis from her native home in Oklahoma, Perkins created the Memphis Literacy Academy to improve instruction in urban schools. This is a place for principals and teachers from underperforming schools to come and learn strategies to teach reading more effectively. 
Outside of her scholarly work, Perkins serves as the President of the Association of Literacy Educators and Researchers and sits as the Board Chair for Porter-Leath, which has, under her leadership, received over $12 million in grants and contracts. She received the 2015 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Award and the Urban Impact Award, and she has served as Editor of the international publication The Reading Teacher and has been on the Tennessee Reading Association Advocacy Committee.

Today, Perkins continues the family tradition of putting education first by encouraging her own two daughters, who are now both teachers in Memphis public schools. 

What is your education philosophy?
It is my belief that all children have the right to a quality education.

What is the change you would most like to see in Memphis?
I would love to see our parents become more involved in their children's education. Research has clearly indicated that when parents are involved in their children's education, the students are stronger academically. We could witness a serious growth in literacy and academics in Shelby County if parents became more involved through reading to their children, helping with homework, volunteering at school, attending parent conferences, working with the schools on discipline and so much more! Parents are essential to their children's education.

What excites you about your work?
In my work, the passion drives me to work really hard. As an Associate Professor at the University, I enjoy teaching my courses and conducting research. It is difficult for me to say "no" when invited to present or speak to a group about literacy strategies which involves an audience of students, teachers, staff, administrators or parents.  

"Transliteracy" is a relatively new term. Can you help us understand what it means?
The 21st century demands that a literate person possess a wide range of abilities and competencies--multiple literacies. We now have a term--transliteracies--that addresses our need to read and understand concepts and ideas via increased formats (oral, print, visual and digital). My work helps to prepare our children to be successful and then contribute to society. 

What is one of your favorite things about Memphis?
There are many enjoyable and wonderful things to do in Memphis. The southern food is delicious! I really enjoy the plays and musicals at Hattiloo Theatre; I've been a subscriber for a few years and attend several entertaining plays a year. The plays are great while showcasing local talent.

Whose leadership or work do you admire in Memphis?
I admire the work of the Life Church under the Leadership of Pastor John Siebeling. We [our congregation] are giving back to the community daily through many projects. I really love that each Friday, 2,500 to 3,000 children each receive a bag with simple meals and snacks to be eaten throughout the weekend.

You've written a very successful children's book, Casey's Lamb.  What is the book about and why did you write it?
Our youngest daughter, Casey, showed lambs at stock shows while she was in high school. She kept her lambs at the agriculture barn, and while spending time there with her, I decided that I would write a book based upon her work with her lambs. I thought that one day when I had grandchildren, I would use the book to teach them how to read. I did not plan to publish it, but my mentor saw the draft on my desk and encouraged me to send it to a publisher. While sharing my draft of the book with some students, I noted their excitement and they asked me if they could take care of lambs. I immediately began to search for books about African American children working with animals. I was only able to find about two books, which was very disappointing. So I sent the book to a publisher, and now it is part of two literacy programs for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

Read more articles by Kate Crowder.

Kate Crowder is a freelance writer and veteran educator who has taught for over a decade in public schools. The longtime Memphian and mother of three is frequently found on the stage as musician, actor, or director when not filling her role as contributor and Assistant Editor at High Ground News.
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