With lawsuit settlement, Shelby County School officials shift focus toward academic improvements

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick
Principals value data from observations of teachers more than their students' value-added scores, according to a new study.

With the municipality split and a subsequent lawsuit mostly settled, members of the Shelby County School Board and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson are shifting their attention toward improving student achievement by building a strategic plan,  placing technology into students’ hands in preparation for computerized testing and emphasizing student literacy in the classroom.

For the last year, the district has been enmeshed in a legal battle with six municipalities that wanted to form their own districts after legacy Shelby and Memphis City Schools merged last year. The board members have spent the majority of several meetings debating how to amicably split with the districts. Board members now say they want to shift their focus toward improving academic achievement for its students.  A large portion of Shelby County’s schools rank among the lowest-performing in the state.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the superintendent said he will spend the next few months building a strategic plan for the district.

Hopson said the district is looking to set a long-term target that would prepare the class of 2025 to be college or career ready.  Those students are now kindergartners in the district.

“We’re going to engage in an aggressive community engagement process,” Hopson told the board.  “We’re serious about improving student achievement and we want to hear from the board, community, principals, teachers – all of the stakeholders.  It’s a lot, but we have to make sure our direction is clear.”

Hopson said the process begins with evaluating what has and hasn’t worked for the schools and determining next steps.

Following Tuesday’s meeting, school board member Chris Caldwell and board chair Kevin Woods said they plan to advocate for improving student literacy.

At least 61 percent or 7,134 of Shelby County students in the third grade were not proficient in reading last year, according to a recent presentation to the board.  If academic interventions aren’t in place, researchers believe students will continue to struggle and are more likely to drop out of high school.

“Student literacy by the third grade is very important,” Caldwell said  “We also have to have parent engagement and support at home.”

Woods said the administration should make sure all students are ready for kindergarten by putting in place early academic interventions.

“Our focus is definitely on making sure all of our students are reading at grade level by the third grade,” Woods said.

 To address the needs of low-income students and their families, Shelby County School administrators proposed a  pilot “blended-learning” initiative that would give students computers they will eventually be able to take home. 

The district’s executive principal of virtual school, Cleon Franklin, said Tuesday night the blended learning proposal will help students for prepare for computerized testing including the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessment in 2014-15 school year. PARCC is administered on computers and tests Common Core math and reading standards recently adopted by Tennessee and other states.

Sixteen schools will be chosen for the pilot program.  The application for principals to apply is Friday, Franklin said.



School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede