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As opening bell rings, thousands of Memphis students are yet to register

A sign points the way to a registration event inside the headquarters of Shelby County Schools.
A sign points the way to a registration event inside the headquarters of Shelby County Schools.
Helen Carefoot

It’s not uncommon in Memphis for parents to wait until the first day of school to register their students.

That scenario played out again on Monday as some 6,000 students were signed up for Shelby County Schools, bringing total enrollment to about 71,000 thus far.

The numbers are still far short of the 90,000-plus students anticipated to attend the district’s 141 traditional schools. (Another 13,000 students are expected at 51 district-authorized charter schools, which handle their own registration.)

It’s also down from last year, when about 74,000 kids were registered before the opening bell rang. Despite an extended registration drive that began in May and frequent back-to-school events throughout the summer, only 65,000 students had signed up before the start of class this week.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called late registration the district’s biggest challenge to kicking off a new school year.

“Every second that a child spends trying to register after the first day is time that child is not in the classroom,” Hopson said after touring seven schools on opening day.

Enrollment determines the amount of per-pupil funding the district receives from local, state and federal governments. It also impacts hiring. Shelby County Schools now has 98 teaching positions left to fill, about the same as this time last year. Leaders of many other Tennessee districts are trying to fill positions, too. In Nashville, the need is especially great for math and special education teachers.

Leaders who have worked in high-poverty schools with transient populations offer a long list of reasons for why parents wait so long to send their child back to school in Memphis. For one, there’s confusion about zoning and choices in an increasingly splintered education landscape, which includes the state-run Achievement School District.

This year, fear of arrest is another reason. School leaders have sought to assure immigrant families that they’ll be protected when bringing their children to school, even if they don’t have authorization to reside in the United States. Memphis is among cities where federal immigration and customs agents have conducted raids over the summer.

Schools with large populations of Hispanic students have been impacted, though district leaders could not provide numbers on Tuesday.

“We are trending at about 80 percent of projected enrollment,” said Terry Ross, principal of Kingsbury High School. “We are making calls and sending robo calls to the families that have not shown up for registration.”

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