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Lori Phillips speaks at a Stand For Children panel event in February 2018. She will oversee spreading the community schools model in Memphis.

Lori Phillips speaks at a Stand For Children panel event in February 2018. She will oversee spreading the community schools model in Memphis.

Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Principal of community school promoted to help spread the model in Memphis

The founding principal of Memphis’ first “community school” has taken a new position leading efforts to engage families across the entire school district.

Lori Phillips became Shelby County Schools’ director of family and community engagement earlier this month, in a move that underscores the district’s commitment to expanding the community schools model.

District leaders said last summer that they plan to expand the model, which aims to meet students’ social and family needs as well as their academic ones, to up to 15 schools in the next three years. Spokeswoman Natalia Powers said last week that the district plans to convert three schools to community schools this fall but has not yet chosen them.

In her new role, Phillips will be responsible for leading that expansion. She’ll be able to draw on her experience at Belle Forest Community School, the elementary school in southeast Memphis that Phillips founded five years ago.

In keeping with the community schools model, Belle Forest houses a medical clinic and offers computer and financial literacy classes for parents. It also partners with local businesses and organizations to mitigate the impact of poverty seeping into the classroom. About 70 percent of students at Belle Forest are from low-income families.

It’s an approach that has grown in popularity as school districts across the country have recognized that more narrow efforts to improve student learning have not paid off. New York City has turned more than 100 schools into community schools, with mixed results. Colorado lawmakers are working to define and expand the model there. And in Tennessee, the approach has the backing of gubernatorial candidate Randy Boyd, who called community schools “one place to start” in improving low-performing schools.

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Shelby County Schools officials have lauded the work at Belle Forest but questioned the model’s cost. Community organizations and business would chip in for resources for the new community schools, but the district estimates its cost at about $100,000 per school. While that would represent a substantial new cost, it also would be one of the least expensive school improvement models that Shelby County Schools has replicated in recent years.

“We now have enough data that it’s a selling point,” Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin said at a panel event last fall. “And so we just need some advocates and people to help us replicate it. It’s an amazing school.”

Exactly what the district sees as the school’s successes is unclear. The school outperformed the district in math on last year’s state tests but saw its reading and science scores fall slightly. (The community schools model often helps in student learning, but in some cases show no effect, according to research on the topic.)

Griffin cited the school’s diversity and vibrancy when she praised Belle Forest in November. “It’s really like a melting pot,” she said. “It’s so diverse; they do some awesome and amazing things.”

She also said replicating the school — the task now on Phillips’ plate — would be a challenge, particularly because the school started fresh in a new building in 2013.

“As we talk about the best practices that have really impacted the student achievement, then we’ll be able to support that a little bit better,” Griffin said. “Because remember, that school is built from the ground up. It’s always been a community school.”

Phillips’ move means a leadership change for Belle Forest. Dinah Taylor, who had been an assistant principal, has replaced Phillips, according to the school’s website.