- Kyri Demby, a teacher at Jacob Elementary, is a musician and author who teaches children to make good choices.
- Diane Porter, the first African-American woman elected to chair the JCPS board, has worked throughout her career to promote racial equity.
By Jim Gaines
Two Jefferson County educators are recipients of the 2021 Robinson Award for Diversity and Equity in Public Education.
Elementary teacher Kyri Demby and Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) board chair Diane Porter were presented with their awards during the April 7 meeting of the Kentucky Board of Education (KBE).
The KBE has given the Robinson Award since 2004 to a person or group that displays outstanding leadership, commitment and service in promoting equity and opportunities to learn at high levels for all Kentucky students.
The award is named for Samuel Robinson, a former educator who served on the KBE from 1991 to 2004. He is known for being a racial and social justice advocate and for promoting the difference education can make in the lives of all students.
Award criteria include successful efforts to close socioeconomic and/or racial achievement gaps, and significantly improving learning, achievement or other measured outcomes among students of color or economically disadvantaged students.
Kyri Demby teaches music and art to grades K-5 at Jacob Elementary School (Jefferson County). Demby said it’s humbling that his work is drawing recognition.
“I don’t think I do anything important or special, but I’m just thankful that somebody found it award-worthy,” he said.
Demby said he hopes the impact of receiving the Robinson Award will be to show others they can make a difference, encouraging them to teach skills to children, and amplify his message of self-control for students.
Phyllis Ferrell, a computer teacher at Jacob Elementary, nominated Demby, her friend and coworker.
“He brings so much to our state, and especially to our school, to our children,” she said. “I don’t know where he gets all of the inspiration and all of the energy to do everything he does.”
Demby has authored nine books, most of them for children. His first was “Lori Biscuit, the Musical Detective,” which he wrote to explain the concepts of “loud” and “soft.”
“As a teacher, I always tell stories to my kids,” Demby said. “One day I decided maybe I should write these stories down.”
Each of his children’s books illustrates a specific concept through an entertaining story, he said. The books’ main purpose, though, is to teach young people to “stop, think and breathe” when making decisions, helping them make the right choices, Demby said.
Ferrell said Demby’s books feature animals as characters to redirect their focus from racial and cultural stereotypes to self-awareness, self-regulation and mindfulness. So does the workshop for students at Maryhurst Academy (Jefferson County) that he conducts with a therapist, she said. The workshop, called “Musical Malleable Moments,” teaches students to be more aware of their own thoughts and behavior.
One of his YouTube channels, “Demby’s Playful Parables,” features music and stories with main characters of color, providing role models that often are lacking in educational materials, Ferrell said. Another YouTube channel, “Demby’s Teaching Tips,” shows teachers classroom management tools to increase participation by children from diverse backgrounds.
As a member of Jacob Elementary’s racial equity committee, Demby is helping all staff members learn how to build more racially just classrooms, she said. His professional development sessions for other educators – not just those at Jacob – offer insights on teaching methods to reach all student populations, Ferrell said.
He is an inspirational Black man making a difference in a highly diverse school, during a time when we all need to celebrate diversity, she said.
“Mr. Demby, he’s getting the job done,” Ferrell said.
Demby continues to teach music and perform in the community as well as at school.
“I take my birthday as a time to do a benefit concert for the Ronald McDonald House,” he said. He has done that for five years, and he holds another benefit show for three groups in Winchester.
Demby taught for nine years at Alta Vista Elementary in Sarasota, Fla., once being named the school’s teacher of the year. When he moved to Louisville, he worked as a substitute teacher for a few years until coming to Jacob Elementary full time in 2012.
Originally from Crestview, Fla., Demby began playing piano and by age 10 was directing his church choir.
“And I just kept doing it all the way through school,” he said.
Demby attended Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Fla., where he worked with churches and community groups, including starting an after-school arts program at a Presbyterian church, he said.
“When I went to college, I had a choice of becoming a lawyer or a teacher, but teaching was my passion,” Demby said.
Also receiving the Robinson Award is Diane Porter, board chair for JCPS, the state’s largest school district.
“I’m always surprised when I receive recognition, because I think that everybody works as hard as I do,” she said. Porter said she appreciates and is humbled by the honor.
Although the award may have her name on it, she said, it’s really for JCPS, showing that the district is ahead of many others nationwide in acting to promote racial equity.
“Whatever has been said, no one person can do the work,” Porter said. “One may plant the seed, but all must tend it.”
“I would like the board and the district to own this honor with me.”
Porter was nominated by Ashley Duncan, who is now vice president for inclusion and diversity at Republic Bank. Duncan began work for JCPS as diversity hiring specialist in January 2018, a position which Porter advocated creating.
Porter’s decisions always hinge on how they will affect the district’s families and students, Duncan said. That means all students, not just those of color, she said.
“I don’t know that she gets enough credit for this, but her number one priority is always treating people with dignity and respect,” Duncan said.
During Porter’s tenure, the JCPS board adopted a racial equity policy – a first for Kentucky public schools, and one of only 12 in the nation at the time, Duncan said.
The policy was intended to improve outcomes for students of color by hiring diverse staff, effectively measuring staff members’ cultural competence and other methods, she said.
Under Porter’s leadership, the board created the W.E.B. DuBois Academy for boys and the Grace M. James Academy for Excellence for girls. While open to all students, the schools were designed with Afrocentric curricula to increase the sense of belonging for students of color, Duncan said.
A Louisville native, Porter came up through the city’s public school system and graduated from the University of Louisville.
“I started my education at a segregated school,” she said.
Porter attended the Virginia Avenue Colored School, which was built in 1923, renamed Jessie R. Carter Elementary School in 1970 and integrated in 1975. Today it houses the West End School for boys.
Porter has always tried to recall her student experience as she seeks to improve the school system for others, she said.
Porter has served as a teacher, a counselor, an assistant principal, a principal and a central office administrator. She retired in 2009 as director of Career/Workforce Education and the JCPS School-to-Career Program.
After nearly 40 years in education, Porter thought she was retired for good. But the next year, then-Commissioner of Education Terry Holliday appointed her to the District 1 seat on the Jefferson County Board of Education, and she felt called by her community to serve.
She was elected to the seat in November 2010. In 2012, Porter became the first African-American woman elected as JCPS board chair. After two years as vice-chair, she again became board chair in 2018.
“Education is part of me,” Porter said. “I’m honored to be an educator. I have put my life into this career and I’m very happy for that.”
But her proudest accomplishment, she said, was raising her daughter, who died five years ago.
“She was always a part of me, and I think that was the job I did best,” Porter said.