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.

father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community.