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Shelby County Schools makes plans to close gaps in Focus Schools

In recent years, the most publicized efforts to help Tennessee’s struggling students have targeted Priority Schools, where the majority of students are performing below grade level on state standardized tests. Schools ranked in the bottom 5 percent based on their test scores and graduation rates have been taken over by the state, restructured as part of “Innovation Zones” in Memphis and Nashville, or closed down altogether.

But now Shelby County Schools is putting new resources into closing achievement gaps in its Focus Schools, where overall academic performance is fine but where certain groups of students are lagging substantially behind their peers.

The district plans to hire approximately 40 new teachers this school year to provide academic support to students in its Focus Schools.

The positions are year-long, as they’re funded through a federal Race to the Top grant rather than the district’s general fund. But Cynthia Alexander Mitchell, assistant superintendent for academics, said Shelby County Schools will try to find ways to keep teachers in the schools for multiple years.

Focus Schools are identified as “the 10 percent of schools in the state with the largest achievement gaps between groups of students, such as racial and ethnic groups, students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, students with disabilities and English-language learners.”

In Shelby County Schools, six of 11 Focus Schools had large gaps between economically disadvantaged students and their peers. English-language learners were lagging in two schools, and students with disabilities were struggling in one. Two schools—Robert R. Church Elementary and Wells Station Elementary—were singled out for having fewer than 10 percent of students with disabilities scoring proficient on state tests. And one school, Grahamwood Elementary, was noted for having gaps between students with disabilities, economically disadvantaged students, and students who identify as either Black, Hispanic, or Native American and students who don’t fall into those categories.

The district has 180 traditional schools and 39 charter schools. Four schools that were part of Shelby County Schools in 2013-14 but are now part of the new school districts in the suburbs of Memphis are also on the focus list, as is one school in the state-run Achievement School District.

Shelby County superintendent Dorsey E. Hopson II said that the gaps in scores between the identified subgroups and their peers did not come as a surprise to district officials. “The gaps in those schools highlight the gaps we see throughout the district,” he said. “We need to address those gaps.”

The district announced an ambitious set of goals to improve academic performance and graduation rates across its schools earlier this year: The 80-90-100 plan would have 80 percent of Shelby County Schools students graduating “college- and career-ready,” 90 percent of its students graduating overall, and 100 percent of students who are college- and career-ready heading to postsecondary opportunities by 2025.

Assistant superintendent Mitchell said the district was putting a stronger focus on reaching struggling students across the district and closing gaps within schools this year. “In the past, we’ve focused on Priority Schools and missed the focus on Focus Schools,” Mitchell said.

Principals at Focus Schools wrote proposals outlining how the new staff members would help the schools improve education for students in identified groups. The district is still hiring teachers to fill those roles, which might include reading specialists or teachers who can work specifically with English language learners, depending on a school’s need.

Alexander said that schools are also developing more specialized strategies for closing gaps. Schools with gaps between economically disadvantaged students and their peers might create new tutoring programs, for instance. Schools whose English-language learners were identified as struggling might find new specialized teachers, Alexander said. Within schools, coaches will help work with teachers on strategies for assisting students in the identified groups.

Tennessee’s education department is currently working on plans and recommendations for the new batch of Focus Schools, according to Kelli Gauthier, a spokeswoman for the state. The federal education department called for the state to be more specific about its plans for addressing gaps in Focus Schools in a report earlier this spring.

The department plans to provide support for Focus Schools in each region of the state through its office of district support and regional offices. It will also likely run a grant program that would bring funds to the schools targeted at addressing gaps. Schools that won the last round of Focus School grants were awarded between $100,000 and $300,000 per year for two years.

Around the country, interventions for schools singled out for internal gaps tend to be less dramatic and more varied than interventions for failing schools. “It’s a more mixed bag of schools,” said Anne Hyslop, a senior policy analyst at Bellwether Education, in Washington.

For instance, every Priority School in Tennessee is also a Title I school—identified by the federal government as having a large number of economically disadvantaged students—while the focus list has both Title I schools and more affluent schools. The student bodies at the Focus Schools are also generally more racially and socioeconomically diverse than the student bodies in schools on the Priority List, which, in Shelby County, enroll mostly economically disadvantaged and minority students.

Parents at the Focus Schools were eager to hear specific plans for the schools. “I absolutely have no doubts that our principal and our teachers are doing the best with what they have. So as a parent, I’d like to hear what being on that list means for us in terms of how they’ll get more help to close those gaps,” said Ginger Spickler, whose children attend Peabody Elementary.

“The fact is that we have 400 incredible kids at Peabody who all deserve to be able to reach their potential, but they may need different things. That might mean that we have to take a look at how we do things now,” she said.

Mitchell said that the district hoped to have teachers in place as soon as possible. “You need to make sure supports are in place for every child in that school.”

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