school snapshots

Vocabulary camp at Sharpe Elementary keeps students focused on reading this summer

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN
Twenty students at Sharpe Elementary are spending the summer in the school's vocabulary camp. Sharpe teachers are working to increase the literacy of its students. Earlier this year, 70 percent of the school's students were not reading on grade level.

Sharpe Elementary student Kyla Reed, 11, was once a shy reader. But she recently raised her hand with confidence to read a passage from her textbook during the school’s summer vocabulary camp this month.

When Kyla’s teacher Dawn Sledge asked about the difference between high and low pressure to make sure they understood what they were reading, Kyla and her classmates wiggled in their seats with their hands in the air.

Reed’s face held a satisfied smile as she answered Sledge’s question correctly.

“I want to be able to read faster and more fluently,” Reed said after class.

Twenty students are enrolled in the school’s first summer reading camp, which began on June 2 and will last through July 1.  The students and three teachers spend six hours a day, Monday through Friday,  focused on reading skills and vocabulary expansion. The program is paid for with the school’s Title I money, federal dollars geared toward low-income children.

Sharpe’s summer program is one of about 30 summer enrichment, intervention or speciality camps this summer. This year Sharpe Elementary’s goal on annual state tests was to increase student literacy from 28.1 to 45 percent – a 60 percent jump.  It is a large undertaking for a school with 70 percent of its students reading below grade level.

Whether Sharpe teachers and students were able to attain that goal will be released to the public by the state later this summer. School officials received ‘scale scores’ or early estimates of test scores in late May, but the information is for internal use only right now. Whatever the outcome of the scores,  Sharpe teachers said their work must continue to get every student reading on grade level.

This is the first year they’ve held a summer reading camp.  During a recent class nine students, some heading to fourth, fifth and sixth grades in August, began the day with word association.  The word of the day was ‘beautiful.’   Students tossed out synonyms and filled up a white board with their suggestions.

Sharpe Elementary students spend each morning doing word association to build vocabulary skills during a four week summer camp.
PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN
Sharpe Elementary students spend each morning doing word association to build vocabulary skills during a four week summer camp.

“They’re going to study etymology (the origin of words),” said Sledge, who teaches third grade at Sharpe during the school year.  “By the end of the summer program, they’ll be studying SAT words.” Some of the students involved in the summer vocabulary camp were also part of the school’s Emerging Readers program, which started last October and was held on Saturdays.

“We met for 33 consecutive Saturdays,” said Stephanie Gatewood, Sharpe’s family services specialist and the facilitator of Emerging Readers and administrator for the summer vocabulary camp.

In the summer vocabulary camp and Emerging Readers, students receive computer instruction using a system called Istation, one-on-one and small group instruction, read in groups and also read independently. After word association, Sledge’s students used Istation to work on their reading skills before lunch.  Even during the lunch break, small reading lessons are common place. During the “share around” activity, every student is asked to stand in a circle and tell what they’ve learned during the day.

Kyla, who will be in fifth grade this fall, is in both programs and has seen bumps in her reading and vocabulary abilities, according to Istation reports.

Sharpe Elementary students share what they've learned during summer vocabulary camp.
PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN
Sharpe Elementary students share what they’ve learned during summer vocabulary camp.

In another Sharpe classroom, seven second grade students in Amber Perry’s class had a discussion about vegetables that grow underground.  The students shared their favorite foods and Perry helped them with their spelling.

That afternoon, Perry’s students learned adverbs, verbs, adjectives and sight words. Back in the cafeteria, Sledge’s students discussed the characters, setting and plot from a story titled, “A Package for Mrs. Jewls,” an excerpt in their “Journeys Common Core” textbook. The students grew excited when Sledge explained they would be acting out the story. They all raised their hands to claim which characters they wanted to portray.

One student clamored to portray the teacher in the story, ‘Mrs. Jewls,’ while another wanted to be ‘Louis, the janitor.’

Sledge ended up drawing their names from a box to determine which parts they would read. When it was time for the run-through, students began to prepare the props they needed and held onto their textbooks to read their lines.

Sharpe principal Gary Zimmerman said the school has spent a year in a ‘hyper focus’ on reading. “We want to raise our students for the next grade level,” Zimmerman said.

Joel Jordan portrays Louis the janitor during a class read-through of 'A Package for Mrs. Jewls' from Wayside School is Falling Down.
PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN
Joel Jordan portrays Louis the janitor during a class read-through of ‘A Package for Mrs. Jewls’ from Wayside School is Falling Down



Contact Tajuana Cheshier at and (901) 730-4013. Follow us on Twitter: @TajuanaCheshier@chalkbeattn. Like us on Facebook: Sign up for our newsletter for regular updates on Tennessee education news:

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

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