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Memphis district considers adding 15 days to school year to help students catch up

Candous Brown teaches one of her 12th-grade English classes at Raleigh-Egypt High School. Brown has been teaching in Memphis for 10 years.
Shelby County Schools estimates a longer school year would cost between $25 million and $30 million. 
Caroline Bauman/Chalkbeat

A calendar Shelby County Schools is considering for the 2020-21 school year would add 15 days, including shortening fall and Thanksgiving breaks, costing the district up to $30 million.

The school year, which for students would start on the previously scheduled date of Aug. 10, also would not include days for teachers to catch up on district required training, according to screenshots from a group of teachers advising the district.

It is the first detailed look at one of several ways Shelby County Schools is considering making up for lost time because of school closures brought on by the pandemic. After evaluating all the ideas, the district plans to present a proposal to the school board on Tuesday, and estimates a longer school year would cost between $25 million and $30 million.

Superintendent Joris Ray speaks to new members of the district’s teacher advisory council on Feb. 26.
Superintendent Joris Ray speaks to new members of the district’s teacher advisory council on Feb. 26.
Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Superintendent Joris Ray said in an email to teachers Thursday that the idea is the “first step” to mitigate students’ potential learning losses. He also said members of his advisory group were concerned about state testing requirements and teacher pay as he finished crafting the calendar proposal. Community meetings are scheduled for later this month to gather more input.

“The bottom line is that students need more time for learning and extending the school year is one way to start,” he said.

The highlights of the idea are:

  • Teachers would report to school Friday, July 31, one day earlier than scheduled
  • Fall break would be a four-day weekend instead of a full week
  • Thanksgiving break would start Wednesday instead of the full week
  • Students and teachers would return from winter break on Jan. 4, one day earlier than scheduled
  • The school year would end June 7 for students, nine days later than scheduled
  • The last day for teachers would be June 9, which is 10 days later than scheduled

Jaleta Miller, a math teacher at White Station Middle School, said when she saw the additional dates, she felt overwhelmed. She’s not convinced the new calendar would help mitigate student learning loss before state tests in the spring since most of the added days are at the end of the school year.

Before the district closed March 13, she said she only had two more concepts to teach from the state’s requirements. Then she and many others had planned to review lessons to prepare for state tests in April. After Tennessee’s standardized tests in April and May, most teachers would have stopped teaching new material.

“I don’t believe this schedule is the answer to student gap and learning,” she said. “What it is going to do is result in teacher frustration and moving on to the municipal districts,” in the suburbs.

Board member Althea Greene, a former teacher, said she has received hundreds of emails and texts from educators denouncing the idea.

“If we’re going to be supportive of teachers after the governor took away raises, the least we can do is be responsive to some of their thoughts,” Greene said.

Gov. Bill Lee’s initial budget called for a 4% increase in state money allocated for teacher raises. That proposal was slashed to 2% in April as state lawmakers grappled with the coronavirus pandemic’s effect on the economy. State lawmakers are considering further cuts to teacher pay raises.

Laura Tippit, a gifted education teacher at Snowden K-8, said the expectation was unfair.

“Do more with no raise. That seems to be the teacher standard, doesn’t it?” she said.

Tippit said she would rather the state waive testing again so teachers could spend more time on instruction.

Michalyn Easter-Thomas, a teacher, city councilwoman, and member of Ray’s school re-entry task force, said teachers are already “underpaid and overworked.”

“If anything, we need to reduce the amount of days as the anticipated fall wave of COVID-19 will have us sitting out more days than presumed,” she said in a Facebook post.

Ray said the district will consider many options to help students catch up. In his email to teachers this week, he said, “Adding days to next school year should not be seen as a punishment or an attempt to make up all of the learning loss in one year.”

Ray’s administration is expected to present a calendar proposal to the school board 5 p.m. Tuesday at an academic committee meeting. A district spokeswoman said board members are expected to vote on a 2020-21 calendar at its regular monthly meeting on June 30.

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