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Shelby County school board members.

Shelby County school board members.

Shelby County Schools board members ask for more coherence for district’s academic plan

The Shelby County school board voted Tuesday to approve a slate of contracts for organizations to provide professional development, testing, and evaluation services in the district. But board members raised concerns about the coherence of Shelby County’s academic plan and about which services the district outsources and which it provides itself.

“I’m having difficulty aligning all of these educational and professional development purchases,” board member Teresa Jones told superintendent Dorsey Hopson II. “We get them here and there, piecemeal. I have no concept as a board member how they are all gelling and coming together to promote student achievement.”

“If teacher effectiveness is our big initiative, and we have all these tools, how are we actually using them?” asked board member Shante Avant.

Board members and district officials have said that they intend this year to shift the focus from logistics to academic achievement in the district. The board helped guide the district through the merger of legacy Memphis City Schools with suburban Shelby County Schools and subsequent plans to carve six new school systems out of the district’s boundaries.

The district is home to many of the state’s lowest-performing schools and is at risk of losing control of many to the state-run Achievement School District.”

Earlier this spring, the board adopted ambitious targets for improving graduation rates and academic performance as part of what is being referred to as the “80-90-100” plan.

The board identified finding a replacement for Chief Academic Officer Roderick Richmond, who will leave his post at the end of June, as a top priority during meetings regarding Hopson’s contract which was extended for another two years Monday. Community members had raised concerns that Hopson, a lawyer by trade, lacks education experience.

But for now, Billy Orgel, a board member, said after the meeting that it sometimes seemed the district is “throwing pasta at the wall to see what works.” He said that, while he voted for the proposed contracts because the district needs to do something to improve literacy, the district should eventually have a more coherent plan.

The board voted Wednesday to approve contracts with Teachscape, Inc. for videos teachers can use as part of their evaluations; with Cambridge Education for Tripod surveys, used by students to evaluate their teachers; with the Center for Educational Leadership for training instructional leadership; with Sopris Learning for professional development in reading training; with Insight Education Group to train observers; and with Curriculum Associates and Renaissance learning for reading and math intervention screening. (The Insight contract is funded a grant by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; the Cambridge contract is split between the Gates Foundation and the district. The Gates Foundation also provides some funds to Chalkbeat.)

Teachscape and Sopris

The $239,000 Sopris Learning was for literacy instruction training used in 23 Memphis schools this year. The state funded last year’s training; this year, the district would fund training for all teachers working with kindergartners, first, second, or third graders.

Jones said she had heard concerns about the contract. “Will this actually be useful to teachers? I’m concerned that we’re not getting what we’re paying for.”

Richmond, the chief academic officer, said that the plan came recommended by the state of Tennessee, and aligned with both state and district plans to improve literacy.

The district’s $415,000 contract with Teachscape, Inc., which allows teachers to videotape their classes, was debated both last week and this week. Board members wondered why, if the program was so useful, it is not required that teachers use it. Monica Jordan, the district’s teacher and leader development manager, said that many teachers are uncomfortable viewing themselves on video. Others are afraid that the videos would be used punitively, she said.

Jordan said that 3,705 of the district’s more-than-9,000 teachers used the program this year, when it was entirely voluntary.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson II said he thought that teachers ranked 1 or 2 on the district’s evaluation system—the lowest scores on a scale of 1 to 5—should be required to use Teachscape to improve their teaching practice. Mandating that the videos be required would require a change in board policy, Hopson said.

“We’ve been doing this from 2009,” Hopson said. “I think it was a good tool to introduce. But we have to be more strategic.”

Board member Chris Caldwell told Hopson that union and teachers’ opinions should be taken into consideration before that change is made.

New Leaders

Board members also heard a presentation from Tim Ware, the executive director of New Leaders, a program that trains educators who want to become principals. The board will vote on its contract with New Leaders in upcoming weeks.

“School leadership makes a difference. We don’t have an internal pipeline to principal development, and it’s important to me,” Hopson said.

New Leaders has a significant presence in the district: forty-six principals and assistant principals have had some New Leaders training. (The district has more than 200 schools.) Ware touted some of the program’s high-performing alumni and results. He said that for every dollar contributed by Shelby County Schools, New Leaders fundraises to provide two.

Board chair Woods said that while he was “cautiously optimistic” about New Leaders’ results, he thought the district should eventually bring leadership training in-house. “You say that 8 of 22 principals in reward schools [singled out by the state for academic improvement] were New Leaders. Well, what about the other 14?” A small group of teachers gave Woods’ statements a round of applause.

After the meeting, Woods said he thought it made sense to outsource things like custodial services and bus drivers while bringing activities such as training principals back within the district’s purview. “We have a core competency for educating children,” he said.

The district is also considering outsourcing its substitute teachers, partly in order to avoid having them be classified as full-time employees and eligible for health benefits under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Other contracts

Board members Jones and Orgel also called for the district to improve its contracting practices in the non-academic realm. An agreement with AT&T fell through after AT&T decided it could not provide wireless service to the district, leaving the district to contract with ENA, a more-expensive provider of wireless services. AT&T was supposed to be providing services as of July 1, and informed the district just last week it would or could not. The change will cost the district some $2 million, though the district has reduced its overall spending on wireless.

Jones said that while AT&T dropped the ball, the district should not have been caught off-guard last minute by AT&T’s capabilities.

“I am compelled to vote for this [the new contract with ENA] because this is a service we have to have. But I think the public deserves to know why,” she said. “It’s incumbent on us not to allow this to happen to us…I won’t support the continued employment of anyone who is dropping the ball.”

“I agree with you,” said Hopson. “When you deal with a large muti-billion dollar entity and they say they can do something, you believe they can do it. But you have to inspect what you expect. To the extent that we are to blame, we’ll address it. We have blame. To the extent that the company has responsibility, we’ll deal with that too,” he said.

Board member Orgel also requested that the board’s facilities committee consider how the district determines which architect is assigned which building contract.

The district’s contract with Lenovo, which is slated to provide devices for a new blended learning program, was removed from the agenda.