Tennessee

Memphis leaders tell students to ‘be present!’ while launching school attendance campaign

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
From left: Cherokee Elementary School principal Rodney Rowan, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson speak Wednesday at a press conference in Memphis about initiatives designed to increase student attendance in Shelby County Schools.

Addressing a chronic problem that drains both critical learning time and valuable state funding from schools, community leaders in Memphis launched a campaign Wednesday targeting student absenteeism.

The campaign, titled “Represent Everyday,” coincides with national Attendance Awareness Month and is being conducted by Shelby County Schools in partnership with local officials, the nonprofit Seeding Success organization, and the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies.

“Nothing good comes from absenteeism,” Shelby County Mayor Mark Lutrell said at a joint news conference at Cherokee Elementary School. “If we don’t start focusing on the essentials and basics at this age, then we’ve missed the opportunity and that will have ramifications throughout life.”

Last year, 22,000 K-12 students missed at least 10 percent of their classes, or roughly 18 days of school, according to Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich. In Shelby County Schools, a student is considered truant if he or she misses five or more days of class.

“If everyone in this room leaves here today and spreads the word that for the month of September, everyone is going to do everything they can to make sure our children go to school every day ready to learn, there will be no need for the (district attorney’s) office to prosecute any truancy cases,” Weirich said. “The absolute last thing our office wants to do is prosecute parents because their kids aren’t going to school.”

The campaign encourages the Memphis community to work together to get kids in their classrooms, particularly in early grades when children are gaining the skills that build their foundation for learning.

Research shows that students who arrive at school academically ready to learn — but then miss 10 percent of their kindergarten and first-grade years — score an average of 60 points below similar students with good attendance on third-grade reading tests.

Shelby County Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said many students in Memphis miss class because of barriers stemming from “suffocating poverty.” Some miss because they lack reliable transportation or have health issues like asthma but lack the proper health care, he said.

Hopson said the campaign is designed to provide incentives, not punishment. He encouraged schools to host pizza parties for good attendance or similar periodic rewards.

Diane Terrell, executive director of the Memphis Grizzlies Foundation, announced the NBA team will provide prizes for good attendance throughout the year. At the end of the first nine weeks of classes, students with 95 percent attendance or better are eligible for a drawing for tickets to a basketball game. The school with the highest attendance rate will receive a similar reward — dinner and tickets to a game. NBA players also will periodically visit schools with high levels of attendance.

Seven Cherokee Elementary School students are honored for perfect attendance during the 2014-15 school year.
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Seven Cherokee Elementary School students are honored for perfect attendance during the 2014-15 school year.

Cherokee Elementary School, which has an average daily attendance rate of more than 95 percent, served as the backdrop for Wednesday’s launch and honored seven students for perfect attendance last year.

Principal Rodney Rowan said good attendance has been vital to strong academic gains in 2014-15 at his school, where he posts the school’s attendance number in the hallways every day and students are rewarded with a “jeans day” if they achieve perfect attendance for 20 days. Students also are invited to parties every two weeks for perfect attendance and good conduct. In addition, Cherokee keeps a clothes closet stocked with gently worn items, including winter coats, so that inadequate clothing can never be a reason why a student misses class.

Before classes began on Aug. 10, Shelby County Schools also struggled to get its students registered, despite an unprecedented push that included a new online registration system, a longer registration period, and even neighborhood canvassing around some schools. By the end of the first week of school, an estimated 9,000 students still were not registered — a chronic issue that has perplexed education leaders for decades.

As of Wednesday, about 102,000 students were registered with the district, and officials were trying to track down about 1,900 students they anticipated would return to Shelby County Schools, according to district spokeswoman Kristin Tallent.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.