Barely halfway through opening day of the new school year, freshman math teacher Robert Jackson was reviewing a new code of conduct with students at East High School in Memphis.
Down two flights of stairs in the marbled building, honors English teacher Meah King was diving into a Langston Hughes’ poem on life’s challenges, pointing out contextual clues and challenging students to draw conclusions about the author’s intent.
Shelby County Superintendent Dorsey Hopson, visiting the storied high school Monday as part of a back-to-school tour, said he likes seeing his district’s 7,000 teachers dig in. The sooner teachers establish cultural norms and dive into curriculum, the better off students will be academically.
The challenge, Hopson said, is getting students to school.
Urban districts across the nation have struggled to get their students seated and learning on the first day of class. In the midst of high mobility rates and a challenging economic and social environment, working-class jobs typically last months instead of years, housing is often temporary, and children live in multiple homes with multiple caregivers. Parents often don’t know that the school year has started or which schools for which their children are zoned.
The result is a transient student population.
Despite the district’s unprecedented registration push for the 2015-16 school year, just 76 percent of its 108,000 projected students had registered for school by Monday, with even fewer showing up.
Those first few days of school are crucial, Hopson said. Rules are explained, relationships between teachers and students are established, and curriculum is rolled out.
“If they’re not there the first day of school, they’re already behind the eight ball,” Hopson said.
Over the summer, administrators aggressively pushed to get as many students registered as possible. Instead of everyone registering the Tuesday before school starts as the district has done in prior years, administrators extended the registration period to almost a month and launched an online registration process, including access to computers and the Internet at schools and special events. Except for a few glitches involving access to login information for some parents, the process generally went smoothly.
“Anytime you’re rolling out a new system like that, you’re going to have hiccups,” Hopson said.
Administrators could not readily disclose school registration numbers on Monday for prior years. However, they cited special attention given to 1,100 students who have been chronically absent in previous years. They managed to get 750 of them registered by calling 900 of their families’ homes and knocking on about 100 doors.
Hopson, who is entering his third year as superintendent of the city-county district consolidated in 2013, said he was pleased overall with this year’s launch.
After laying off about 500 teachers and administrators to budget cuts and losing several hundred more to attrition, administrators made 1,400 hires over the summer, managing to fully staff about 99 percent of the district’s classrooms by opening day. Only four out of the district’s more than 300 schools had two or more vacancies, the result of teachers quitting at the last minute, Hopson said.
At East High School, a historic institution that’s experienced tremendous demographic changes in recent years, principal Marilyn Hilliard promoted the new school year on the school’s red marquee, which is visible from Poplar Avenue, a main thoroughfare in Memphis. She extended the school’s summer hours to give students more time to register and, as students walked in the door on Monday, staff distributed printed copies of their schedules. By Monday afternoon, the hallways were cleared of lost students.
“The only way we can have instructional impact,” Hilliard said, “is if the students are in class in their desks.”