Shelby County Schools unveil priorities for transforming public education by 2025

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson presents "Destination 2025" to the school board on Jan. 20, highlighting five priorities to improve student success incrementally to meet long-term strategic goals.

How does a beleaguered school district eat an elephant? One bite at a time, according to Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson, who this week unveiled the district’s strategic plan for transforming public education in Greater Memphis by 2025.

Grappling with data showing how thousands of its students start behind each year and stay behind throughout their school experience, Hopson outlined priorities of the district’s new “80-90-100” plan, under which 80 percent of seniors would graduate college or career-ready, 90 percent of students would graduate on time, and 100 percent of college- or career-ready graduates would enroll in college or other post-secondary opportunities.

The challenge: Students who start school but are not ready for kindergarten tend to stay behind. Those same students generally are not reading on grade level by the third grade. They then are not proficient in seventh-grade math and ultimately unready for college, according to the district’s data.

“It’s a negative trend that will continue to impact our community if we don’t change course,” Hopson told the Shelby County School Board at a work session on Tuesday. “This plan is a significant shift in culture for our district. We are striving for student outcomes that are more ambitious than anything we’ve attempted before, and we are ready to be accountable for our successes and failures in a very transparent way.”

The board approved the district’s 80-90-100 goals last April, and the district has since been developing an action plan based on community input meetings, school employee surveys, discussions with community leaders, and focus groups with teachers and principals.

Hopson said the district has identified five priorities to reach its ambitious goals:

  • Strengthen early literacy;
  • Improve post-secondary readiness;
  • Develop teachers, leaders and central office staff to drive student success;
  • Expand high-quality school options;
  • Mobilize family and community partners

Beginning with the 2015-16 school year, the district’s budget will reflect investment in these priorities, as will its alignment of department-level goals.

Chief Academic Officer Heidi Ramirez will present the district’s new literacy plan in February to address the district’s first priority–strengthening early literacy.

Currently, only 30 percent of district third-graders are reading on grade level. By 2025, the district aims to increase that number to 90 percent. To reach its goal, Shelby County Schools will need to improve its third-grade reading proficiency by more than 5 percent annually, or 470 students.

Post-secondary readiness is another priority because currently only 72 percent of students graduate on time, with an estimated 60 percent enrolling in post-secondary opportunities. The goal is to increase the graduation rate to 90 percent by 2025, with 100 percent of graduates who are college- or career-ready enrolling in post-secondary opportunities. To accomplish this, the numbers would need to increase by almost 2 percent annually, or 150 students each year.

Proposed strategies include providing more access to rigorous prep courses and personalized learning opportunities; expanding career pathways based on workforce demands and student interests; improving the district’s “early warning” system to intervene with students at risk of dropping out; providing better college and career counseling and supports to opportunities such as Tennessee Promise scholarships; and building partnerships with business and higher education communities to improve readiness.

The district also wants to address lackluster customer service.

“Things are getting better, but we still have a long way to go,” Hopson said.  “There’s an expectation when you come in contact with [Shelby County Schools], it should be customer friendly.  We have to be specific and intentional to change the culture. For people who don’t want to change, they are going to need to look for work somewhere else.”

Board chairwoman Teresa Jones suggested the district name an overseer to ensure implementation of the sweeping strategic plan. “We need to have one person who is dedicated to making sure all of the parts are moving in the right direction and in a timely manner,” Jones told Hopson.

Learn more about the 80-90-100 strategic plan here. Do you think the district’s plan is on target? Give us your feedback in the comments below.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

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