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In Memphis, support mounts for online teachers — even as superintendent says remote option is ‘not ideal’

Alan Petersime/Chalkbeat

Some school board members say they will back Shelby County Schools plan to use online teachers to fill high school vacancies — even as they decry a district culture that they believe is driving away Memphis teachers.

The district brought the revised contract with the Texas-based Proximity Learning to the full board for approval earlier this week after some committee members asked for more options. A vote is scheduled for Tuesday’s board meeting.

The proposal, which Superintendent Joris Ray acknowledged is “not ideal,” comes as districts nationwide are struggling to recruit and retain enough teachers.

“We have to do something and do something now because our students need quality instruction,” he told board members.

Even if schools eventually fill their openings, a study out of Brown University found that students without a permanent teacher on the first day of school score lower on tests. And some evidence suggests that academically advanced students perform better in traditional classrooms than in online ones.

With Proximity Learning, teachers would instruct students in real time via video conferencing. An educational assistant would monitor classrooms and assist students. (A Knoxville-based company recently acquired Proximity.)

Althea Greene, the board’s lone former teacher, said she would vote to approve the contract. The central problem, she said, is not remote teaching, but why Tennessee’s largest district is having trouble finding and keeping traditional classroom teachers in the first place.

“My concern is that there are teachers that are leaving the profession daily. And I think we really need to look at how to maintain educators in our district,” she said, noting that she’s heard from many teachers who feel bullied or intimidated by their administrators. “[Remote teaching] to me is a Band-Aid for a bomb and it’s a temporary fix. But we need it for our students to be educated.”

Ray reminded board members that addressing the district’s culture is one of the priorities he established when he was appointed interim leader early this year. (Ray took on the role in a permanent capacity in April, after Shelby County Schools abandoned its national superintendent search.) He also said he is planning to commission a “culture audit” through a consultant.

Superintendent Joris Ray 
Superintendent Joris Ray
Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

The $841,000 contract would pay for at least seven high school teachers in algebra, English, biology, and history for up to a year — down from $998,000 for 15 teachers two weeks ago. As of Tuesday, Shelby County Schools had 117 classroom openings, seven of which are for specially licensed high school courses, said Yolanda Martin, the district’s interim chief of human resources.

In the meantime, long-term substitutes continue to teach some high school courses. Other classes have been combined, meaning that some teachers could be “out of compliance” with class-size requirements, Martin said. If the contract is approved, the remote classes could start within three weeks.

Martin said other Tennessee districts hire remote teachers through Proximity Learning, including Wilson County and neighboring Fayette County.

Evan Erdberg, CEO and founder of Proximity Learning, told Chalkbeat he founded the company in 2009 to ensure all districts with high needs can have access to quality teachers. He cited three high-poverty districts in Louisiana and Georgia that use remote teachers in core subjects, such as English, math, science, and social studies, and have reported high student achievement.

Shelby County Schools listed seven positions in six schools where Proximity Learning could be used:

  • Algebra I and II at G.W. Carver High School
  • Algebra I at Northwest Prep High School
  • Algebra I at Kingsbury High School
  • English I at Douglass High School
  • Biology at Central High School
  • U.S. History at Wooddale High School

“What this is really about is equity. We partner with school districts to bring state-certified teachers into the classrooms where there are long-term subs and instability,” he said in an email. “Unfortunately we are in a state of crisis in America where access to teachers is decreasing.”

Board member Kevin Woods suggested using the company’s methods with teachers at other Memphis high schools, but acknowledged the district may not yet have the technology necessary to do that.

“What are they doing that we can’t do [a year from now] by providing that interface for our high-performing teachers that you already know have been vetted by us, have a proven track record by us, but simply just need the pathway to provide the services?” he said. Ray said his leadership team is exploring the idea so that a similar contract would not have to be presented again next year.

Board member Shante Avant also said she would support the contract, but wanted specific goals to know whether or not remote teaching was helpful for students. She also wanted more information about the district’s overall teacher recruitment strategy so the board would not have to consider something like this again.

“We want to make sure the administration understands this isn’t an acceptable long-term solution,” she said. “This should only be a Band-Aid for this particular situation.”

Board member Joyce Dorse-Coleman, who leads the committee that the contract was initially presented to, said blaming the vacancies on what district leaders are calling a “teacher shortage” nationwide is not enough.

“Why are we losing so many teachers? Are we actually asking the right questions to find out why a district that has so much to offer is having to lose — and I know this nationwide. I’m talking about what’s going on in my house,” she said.

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