Destination 2025

Shelby County Schools superintendent rallies support for 2025 plan

PHOTO: D. Burnette
Students at Cummings Elementary School in Memphis participate in a rally to build community support for Superintendent Dorsey Hopson's 10-year vision plan for Shelby County Schools. Cummings was one of eight Tennessee schools honored April 10 by the state Board of Education.

Cummings Elementary School is considered an academic “jewel” in south Memphis for fostering community support and raising student test scores in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

On Wednesday, Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson used the math magnet school as the backdrop to rally community support for his “Destination 2025” vision plan, which would replicate Cummings’ success throughout the beleaguered district.

Hopson outlined a five-point plan to get at least 80 percent of the district’s students college- or career-ready; 90 percent to graduate on time; and 100 percent of college- or career-ready students to enroll in college or other post-secondary career opportunities. Currently, just 11 percent of the district’s 100,000 students – mostly black and mostly poor – are college- or career-ready based on ACT scores, with only 40 percent of its seniors going on to college.

In order to meet the goals approved last April by the school board, Hopson said administrators must vastly improve the teaching force, increase access to pre-kindergarten programs, better engage the community, and provide better school choices for students.

“This is a heavy lift, and it’s going to take more than just teachers,” Hopson said. “This is going to take a village.”

The rally featured cheering students decked in red, a performance by the high-stepping Whitehaven High School drum line, and a surprise appearance by “Grizz,” the mascot of the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies, who at one point dipped Chief Academic Officer Heidi Ramirez and gave her a kiss.

Hopson – a Memphis Whitehaven High School graduate and lawyer by trade – is in his second year on the job. During presentations and conversations with business leaders and philanthropists, he regularly refers to “Destination 2025” as driving his day-to-day decisions and has dubbed the 80/90/100 goals as a “call to action.”

Pockets of poverty

Created in a historic merger with Memphis City Schools in 2013 and now the state’s largest public school district, Shelby County Schools has struggled with an exodus of students, massive budget cuts, and the looming threat of the state taking over of almost a third of its low-performing schools. Hopson must propose this month ways to cut another estimated $50 million from the district’s budget for the 2015-16 school year.

To meet the challenges, Hopson has given principals more autonomy in hiring, proposed dramatic changes in the way teachers are compensated, and closed several schools to consolidate, cut costs and place students in front of better-performing teachers.

Literacy is a particular challenge in Memphis and Shelby County. Two-thirds of the district’s third-graders and half of its 8th-graders don’t read at grade level. This weekend, Ramirez is training teachers about blending literacy skills into every classroom lesson, no matter the subject.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson
PHOTO: Daarel Burnette II
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson

From downtown Memphis to the county’s suburbs, a large portion of the district’s students come from pockets of entrenched poverty, where related challenges include absent guardians, a high student mobility rate and a large special education population.

Some of Hopson’s initiatives such as the district’s Innovation Zone – a cluster of low-performing schools with special flexibilities under state law – have proven successful, while others such merit-based pay increases for teachers have drawn large protests from educators.

The audience at Wednesday’s rally included school board members, philanthropists, community partners and community activists. Several praised 80-90-100 goals as inspiring and the vision as a road map to the future.

Whitehaven PTA member Dee Moore has been working to get parents, many of whom work two or more jobs, to register their children for pre-kindergarten classes and attend parent-teacher conferences. She said Hopson’s speech was  inspiring. “We have to help get this done,” Moore said.

Beacon of hope

Cummings sits in the historic Soulsville USA neighborhood. Home to Stax Recoreds and once famous for the musicians who grew up here, the median household income hovers around $20,000. More than 20 percent of the homes are vacant.

In the last five years, administrators have closed at least five schools in the community because of substandard academics or low enrollment. The school board will decide later this month whether to close two more schools less than a mile from Cummings to avoid state takeover.

But Cummings stands as a beacon of hope. A laboratory school for LeMoyne-Owen College students, it is one of the district’s optional schools, meaning students have to perform well academically to enroll and stay at the school. This year, Cummings was recognized as a distinguished Title I school for closing achievement gaps between special education and mainstream students.

Principal Lisa Frieson has worked with local churches and businesses to provide students with after-school tutoring and social services to clamp down on issues such as truancy and hunger. “We need the adults to step in and support these children,” she said.

Eighth-grader Christian Brown described a rigorous course schedule that starts with literacy and ends with a class dedicated to studying. While he likes the school’s focus on math, he itches for a creative outlet. He pointed out that the school’s trophy case is full of medals for art, music and debate clubs – many programs which no longer exist because of budget cuts and raised academic standards.

Christian Brown
PHOTO: Daarel Burnette II
Christian Brown

On his way out, Hopson stopped Christian in the hallway and asked about his plans after leaving Cummings. Christian told him he wants to be a scientist and has been considering several high schools. East High School sent him a letter of interest, he said, but he prefers Whitehaven since he wants to travel the world one day. While Hopson cut several language programs across the city last year, he spared the programs at Whitehaven, which offers classes in French, German, Spanish, Chinese, Russian and Arabic.

Just a few minutes earlier, Hopson told Christian and his peers: “You can do amazing things, anything you put your mind to, if you work hard. You can be teachers, doctors, lawyers and on and on. I can’t wait to see you in 2025.”

Contact Daarel Burnette II at [email protected] or 901-260-3705.

Follow us on Twitter: @Daarel, @chalkbeattn.

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defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.