Leadership shift

Six things to know about Memphis’ new mayor on education

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Known as the Bluff City, Memphis is Tennessee's most populated city.

Jim Strickland defeated incumbent Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Thursday on the promise of change. But little was said during the race about what kind of change Memphians could expect of its beleaguered system of K-12 education. As Strickland prepares to take office on Jan. 1, here are six things to know about the mayor-elect, the mayor’s authority and about Memphis schools.

1. The city mayor’s legal authority over public schools is limited.

The city school board’s vote in 2010 to surrender its charter led to a countywide referendum vote to merge the city and county school systems. The historic change shifted responsibilities for funding K-12 education completely to the Shelby County Commission, working with a county mayor. While acknowledging that the city mayor has no direct power over public schools, Strickland has said he wants to be involved in the conversation. “We no longer fund the city schools, but that doesn’t mean we’re out of the education business,” he said during an August debate at the National Civil Rights Museum.

2. As mayor, Strickland can use his office as a bully pulpit to prioritize and champion issues that are critical to the city, including education.

Strickland’s seven-year track record as a city council member is highlighted by public safety, budget issues and cleaning up blight. As mayor, he can choose to put a spotlight on education, which directly impacts the city’s quality of life, quality of the local workforce, and potential for economic growth. Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has identified support of early childhood education programs and policies aimed toward the eradication of poverty as two areas where the mayor’s leadership could lead to improved student achievement.

3. Strickland supports universal pre-kindergarten.

The importance of early learning programs is one of the few education issues he has spoken about publicly. “When only 28 percent of third-graders in (Shelby County) public schools read at third-grade level, we must all take action,” Strickland has said. “We are failing our children.”

4. He will take the helm of the city at a time when its public schools face daunting challenges.

Since the 2013 merger, the consolidated district has undergone $275 million in budget cuts while dealing with shrinking student enrollment. Rather than the merger unifying school services, the city’s educational landscape has splintered to include a growing charter sector, the introduction of the state-run Achievement School District, and the creation of six suburban school districts. The city has the highest concentration of low-performing schools in the state, and there are major state, county and philanthropic efforts under way to turn them around.

Jim Strickland
Jim Strickland

5. Strickland must build trust with the black community that comprises the majority of its public education system.

In a city that is 63 percent black, he will be Memphis’ first white mayor in 24 years, having outdistanced 10 candidates, including three top challengers who are black. The student population of Shelby County Schools, meanwhile, is 67.6 percent black, 20.2 percent white, 9.2 percent Hispanic and 2.7 percent Asian, according to the most recent data from the state Department of Education. The district is Tennessee’s largest public school system.

6. The mayor-elect did not graduate from K-12 public schools.

Strickland graduated in 1982 from Christian Brothers High School, a Catholic, all-male college prep school in Memphis. He went on to get his bachelor’s and law degrees at the University of Memphis, where he also served as student body president. He and his wife, Melyne, have two school-age children.

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

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”