Going deeper

School operations, enrichment cut ‘to the bone,’ says Shelby County’s state funding lawsuit

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Riverview School, near downtown Memphis, includes elementary-age children, as well as middle school students who live in a mostly low-income community. Shelby County leaders chose Riverview as the site to announce the district's funding lawsuit against the state.

Riverview School is tucked in a hilly neighborhood that hugs the Mississippi River just south of downtown Memphis. Its twisting roads are marked with potholes, littered with trash and lined with liquor stores, makeshift churches and burned or abandoned homes. Recently, the local district attorney declared the neighborhood a nuisance zone for roving street gangs that regularly exchange gunfire. With the average family bringing in less than $10,000 a year, it is one of the poorest census tracts in America.

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PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Some Riverview students walk home after finishing classes.

Against this backdrop, Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson opted to announce on Monday that the district’s school board has filed a lawsuit against the state of Tennessee for failing to live up to its constitutional obligation to provide its students an adequate education.

The state’s unwillingness to adequately fund its schools disproportionately impacts Memphis’ poor, black and disabled children, the lawsuit said.

“When you have some of the suffocating poverty that we have, to get to the results we’re trying to get to, it takes resources,” Hopson said in a news conference held in Riverview’s media center.

The 38-page lawsuit may provide the most detailed narrative yet of how five years of cutting close to $575 million from Memphis schools has impacted its neediest children.

Riverview, which serves 516 students in kindergarten through the eighth grade, could serve as the poster child for the district’s case against the state, say administrators. In the last five years, more than eight schools have been closed in bordering neighborhoods, sending a large portion of those students to Riverview and causing annual social and academic upheaval for the community.

Under annual budget cuts, the school axed its foreign language program and reduced its gifted program to just one hour a week. There are no sports fields for its middle schoolers to host home games. Band was almost cut this year, but the principal pulled funds from another account to keep the program alive.

“Because of the lack of funding,” the lawsuit contends, “the district is unable to provide many of these impoverished, mainly-minority students with an education that would allow them to achieve the outcomes mandated by the Tennessee Constitution, given the high-density urban setting in which the district operates, nor an education that is substantially equal to the education received by other students in the state.”

In descriptive, bulleted detail, the suit details dilapidated facilities, annual staff layoffs, and federally mandated course offerings and services axed. The district, under pressure by the state to boost its lagging test scores but without the money needed to do so, struggles to adequately evaluate its teachers or properly prepare students for tests, the lawsuit says.

The brief, filed by a law firm in Wichita, Kan., was based on hours of testimony from administrators, teachers and parents across Tennessee’s largest district, serving 109,000 students. Some administrators broke down in tears while describing the conditions in which students were coming to school, and their own inability to meet the students’ needs.

Shelby County Superintendent Dorsey Hopson speaks Monday about the district's funding lawsuit against the state as school board member Chris Caldwell looks on.
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Shelby County Superintendent Dorsey Hopson speaks about the district’s funding lawsuit against the state as school board member Chris Caldwell looks on.

“The suggestion that Shelby County Schools or any school district in Tennessee should accept this and should sacrifice a generation of students because the state of Tennessee has failed to fulfill its constitutional responsibility is unacceptable,” board member Chris Caldwell said during Monday’s news conference. “Our students don’t get these years back and their future opportunity to lead a successful life is harder to achieve because of it. All Tennessee children and their families deserve better than this.”

Shelby County is 82 percent black and its students speak more than 50 languages. Its test scores rank amongst the lowest in the state, with just 30 percent of its elementary students reading at grade level.

District budget cuts are due to a host of factors. Sales and property tax revenue decreased during the recession and, in recent years, the district has lost thousands of students — and the federal, state and local tax dollars that come with them — to surrounding districts and a growing crop of charter schools.

Exacerbating the challenges, the lawsuit contends, has been the state’s inability to properly fund its Basic Education Program, or BEP, a complex formula for distributing education funding across the state. The lawsuit charges that the BEP grossly miscalculates the costs of education and demands that the state invest millions of more dollars into public K-12 education, as well as vastly expand its pre-kindergarten offerings. A victory could bring at least $100 million more a year to Shelby County Schools alone, administrators say.

Gov. Bill Haslam and other state education leaders have declined to comment on the pending litigation involving Shelby County or another funding-related lawsuit filed last March by seven southeastern Tennessee districts led by Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga. The Shelby County suit’s focus is education funding for the district’s mostly minority, mostly poor population, which is why Memphis leaders chose to file a separate suit rather than join the Hamilton County litigation.

Robert Gowan, a lobbyist for the Coalition of Large Area School Systems, said the current litigation will be different from the 1988 lawsuit by 77 small school systems that claimed that the state’s education funding formula was inequitable and forced the creation of the BEP.

“It’s not going to be a case where you had with small schools a zero-sum game and small schools benefitted at the expense of large districts,” Gowan said. “These lawsuits are about adequacy and not equity. They’re not talking about how the pie is distributed. This is about trying to make the pie bigger.”

Hopson has said his administration has tried to protect the classroom when making budget cuts. But the lawsuit makes clear that those cuts have not only hit the classroom; they have hit every aspect of the school day.

The district transports students to school at 7 o’clock in the morning because “the operations side of the district is often cannibalized in a way that cuts services ‘to the bone,'” according to the lawsuit. Schools sometimes go weeks without heat in the winters and air conditioning in the spring and summer. Roofs are in disrepair, pipes leak, and staff have to close portions of buildings due to mold. While the state forbids districts from charging poor students to participate in extracurricular activities, Shelby County Schools charges them anyways to keep the activities alive.

“Somebody has to pay for them,” said Valerie Speakman, the district’s lawyer.

This past summer, the district cut 367 staff positions, including 41 central office jobs. That includes virtually all of its family specialists, the majority of its social workers, guidance counselors, reading intervention specialists and tutors.

School enhancements such as home economics, art, music and drama classes no longer exist at many Memphis high schools. And seniors are regularly pulled from foreign language classes — a course required to graduate — to make room for younger students.

Last year, Treadwell Elementary School couldn’t provide its staff with the training or resources to adequately respond to a surge of immigrants from Yemen and Honduras, according to the lawsuit.

Classes at the district’s four alternative schools for some of the city’s hardest-to-reach students are overcrowded and lack adequate security. If the student is in middle or high school, they have to find their own modes of transportation. Many don’t.

In addition, the district is unprepared for the state’s new TNReady achievement test to be administered online. During a pilot test run last school year, many schools experienced school-wide computer crashes because of outdated wiring and low-capacity technical infrastructures. Some schools don’t have enough computers.

Despite the cuts, the district has managed to boost test scores, a point Hopson attributed to innovative tactics and his hard-working staff. But it also may show that the state’s heavy focus on test score growth hides the lack of enrichment that occurs in schools.

Riverside teachers and staff get students on the right buses.
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Riverside teachers and staff help students find the right buses at the start of the school year.

At Riverview, which made a big push to get students to show up to school on time this year, principal LaTasha Harris said she and her staff have doubled as social workers, providing students with toothpaste, deodorant and free haircuts. 

The task can be overwhelming at times. On a recent day as the last school bell rang at 4:15 p.m. and children exited the building, many teachers also emerged, holding students’ hands as they directed them to the right school buses.

“We’re everything to these kids,” Harris said.

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. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.