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Shelby County School system lacks coherence now, but shows some encouraging signs, study says

Shelby County Schools excels at attracting and developing talent but lacks many of the other ingredients for a successful modern school system, according to a new independent review by the Center on Reinventing Public Education that was commissioned by the district.  

The review focused on whether or not the district has the policies in place to support a mixed district that is composed of many kinds of schools including charter schools, district schools and schools that have been taken over by the state.Memphis City and legacy Shelby County school districts merged in 2013 in what became the largest school system merger in the history of the U.S.  In the run-up to the merger, a transition committee decided that the newly-formed Shelby County Schools would become a “portfolio district” in which “a district manages a portfolio of different school types, including some operated by charter organizations, and all schools are held to the same performance expectations,” according to the study.Although the district received low marks, the report enumerated a number of assets that suggests SCS could soon improve:

SCS has a number of promising elements already in place including new, respected leadership backed by a strong board, sustained efforts to attract high-quality teachers and principals, a promising pilot effort to turn around struggling schools (the Innovation Zone), a growing charter sector that includes some excellent schools and is interested in working with the district, and a philanthropic community committed to working on education.

The report also included a long list of recommended changes:

  • Make sure every neighborhood has a viable school option and identify schools with overcrowding.
  • Give principals more freedom around hiring, budget, curriculum and their school calendars.
  • Start evaluating the central office as if it were another school contractor based on how well it supports schools;
  • Reevaluate the district’s finances, including shifting money to schools, closing under-enrolled schools and clarifying charter school funding;
  • Create a framework for evaluating all schools and then use that framework to make decisions about growing, closing or intervening in schools;
  • Get more feedback from families and explain how the district plan relates to families’ needs.

The report warned that, though SCS survived the largest school merger in American history, it can’t let bureaucratic issues continue to dominate its attention:

SCS must deal with myriad procedural items resulting from the two-district merger, and the de-merger of six municipalities. It would be easy to become distracted from the core work of teaching and learning.