Welcome to The Dean’s List! The Dean’s List will profile up-and-comers in Memphis who are certain to be the next group of leaders in the nonprofit, corporate, government, and faith communities. The Dean’s List is curated by Kevin Dean, the Executive Director of Literacy Mid-South.
You’ll recognize Sam O’Bryant, 36, by his bow ties and his smile as he weaves his way between meetings about education policy and reform. Since 2012, Sam has served as the Deputy Director for Community Engagement and Strategic Partnership for SchoolSeed Foundation, a public education foundation that functions as a community engagement and fundraising intermediary with Shelby County Schools. Sam was chosen for the Dean’s List for his extensive work as an advocate and reformer in the Shelby County Schools. Sam is destined to be an important piece of the education system in Memphis for years to come!
Sam was born and raised in Greenwood, MS. Sam graduated from Alcorn State University with a BS in Agronomy and Webster University with a Masters of Public Administration. Prior to that, Sam lived in Little Rock, AR and worked for Pulaski County government for a little over 5 years. Sam also worked at the William J. Clinton School of Public Service for nearly 2 years. Sam and his wife, Jacqueline, have three adorable children.
We asked Sam a few questions about his love for Memphis and how we can all make it better:
If you could describe your feelings about Memphis in three words, what would they be?
Unapologetically, Unashamedly Southern
Tell us why your job is important for Memphis.
My job is important because it allows me to connect promising ideas to the goals of Shelby County Schools. For example, for the past two years, we have partnered with the HBCU Awareness Foundation in their efforts to produce a mobile college fair. We have been able to introduce 30 or more historically black colleges and universities to approximately 4100 students per semester. The data we’ve seen from the 2014/2015 HBCU recruitment fair shows that 1600 students have been admitted, and close to 400 are offered full or partial scholarships. This partner effort helps SCS with their Destination 2025 goal of more students being enrolled in a post-secondary opportunity after completing high school.
Another program that we use to share information and bring the community out is our SchoolSeed Speaker Series. A missing piece of the conversation in education reform is the academic success of students of color, primarily black males. What SchoolSeed has been able to do is feature speakers that are nationally recognized for their research as it relates to black male academic success and positive learning environments. Our speakers have included Dr. Ivory Toldson and Dr. Shaun Harper. Dr. Toldson is on the White Staff as the Executive Director for the White House Initiative on HBCUs. Dr. Harper is a co-director for RISE, a national initiative to help boys and men of color thrive at every stage of life. RISE is backed by nationally recognized organizations including The Atlantic Philanthropies, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and Annie E. Casey Foundation. Being able to engage parents, community leaders, and school administrators around the issue of black male achievement is key to effectively addressing it and offering effective solutions for it.
What are some of the biggest challenges the Shelby County Schools face in the next ten years?
The biggest challenge facing Shelby County Schools is, quite honestly, the negative perception that it isn’t a district capable of producing desired results. There are certain obstacles that come with being an urban school district which also has children that come from families with income challenges. In spite of those obstacles, Shelby County Schools has survived a merger, a de-merger, and the financial shortfalls that come with the changing student populations. SCS has an improved evaluation metric to determine which teachers are effective, coupled with peer coaching to guide all teachers toward becoming effective. The most recent TCAP Assessment showed improvement in 9 (out of 10) areas. And the I-Zone schools have shown how successful they can be when given the opportunity to innovate. Lastly, SCS has reported an increased graduation rate. These are just a few examples that prove that SCS is a district on the rise.
Name three people in Memphis that you view as mentors.
(1) Dr. Beverly Cross, who serves as the Moss Chair of Excellence in the School of Education at the University of Memphis; (2) Vincent McCaskill, who serves as the Executive Director of SchoolSeed; and (3) Dr. Douglas Scarboro, who serves as the Memphis Regional Executive of the Federal Reserve Bank
If one of your friends was coming to Memphis to visit and wanted you to build their itinerary, what would it look like?
We’d start with a late lunch at Pearl’s Oyster House, then waste some time at Bass Pro Shops, grab a bite to eat at Huey’s, catch a Grizzlies game, and then hang out on Beale for a little bit. This was a tough question, honestly. My friends and I don’t do itineraries… which means we’d probably only do two of the things listed.
What’s the one Memphis restaurant you couldn’t live without?
Just one? The Office @ Uptown is a necessary, weekly visit. After that, I’d say Pearl’s, and then Huey’s
Who has the best dessert in Memphis?
The Ultimate Fudge Pie at Westy’s
What makes Memphis different from other cities?
Not many cities can claim a multi-faceted cultural identify molded by music, civil rights, and agriculture like Memphis. We are the city that is the Home of the Blues and Elvis, the city where Dr. King fought his final fight, and the city that built an empire from the cotton fields of the Delta.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
I want to further my education and obtain an EdD with hopes of leading a consulting firm, foundation, or a major philanthropic effort focused on equity and public policy. Most importantly, I want to hear God and allow my steps to be ordered by Him.
What’s the one misconception people have about Memphis that is simply untrue?
Many of our misconceptions, I think, come from movies and pop culture. Hustle and Flow made many people believe that Memphis had no air conditioning.
What area of town is your favorite and why?
My favorite would have to be the Midtown/Central Gardens corridor. I like the houses and I miss Libertyland.
What can Memphians do to make a difference in our community?
We simply have to care and understand the needs of the people who are not able to be in the room when we make decisions on the direction of this city. I’m speaking, specifically, of individuals in poverty and children. If you’re in a meeting talking about poverty, but everyone in the room is in a senior level role and has an active checking and savings account, you may not be getting to the root of the issue. Youth leadership development has been proven to provide a needed voice on issues pertaining to youth. Not getting to the root of the issue delays any difference that can be made. We make a difference right now by including people who are dealing with those issues right now.
What is one thing you’re most excited about for Memphis?
We have an engaged number of talented, young professionals that are committed to seeing better for this city. I’m excited for the future of Memphis.