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.

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