Back to school

Why does Tennessee start its school year so dang early?

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
In Nashville, school started this year with half day on Aug. 3, while students in Memphis went back on Aug. 8.

For almost all public school students in Tennessee, the dog days of August aren’t spent at the swimming pool or summer camp, but back at school.

Many Tennesseans remember school days when they returned to class on the first day after Labor Day. But beginning in the 1980s, the average start date has crept from early September to closer to July as districts search for ways to boost academic outcomes, as well as to address educational inequity.

This year, nearly all Tennessee districts kicked off school in early August, with the earliest start being July 25 and the latest Aug. 17. State law prohibits school starts before Aug. 1 unless the local school board votes to start earlier — an option taken this year by 14 districts.

While schools in the Northeast generally start school in early September, those in other regions increasingly are returning to class in August. National experts attribute the shift in school calendars to testing. An earlier start date means students have more time to prepare for end-of-year state tests and Advanced Placement exams — and that testing for the first semester can end before students’ winter break.

“Tennessee testing is the first week in May,” explains Joe Bass, spokesman for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, which resumed classes Aug. 3. “Having as many instructional days before that is going to be a benefit.”

There’s no research on whether Tennessee districts with earlier start dates have consequently higher test scores. But studies do show that the more time kids spend in school in general, the better their chances of academic success.

In a few cases, the shift to an early August start has been aimed at giving students more than the requisite 180 days in school.

Some districts such as Oak Ridge, Alcoa City and Maryville in East Tennessee operate on a “balanced calendar,” with a summer break of eight weeks instead of 12, giving students more short breaks throughout the year. Schools can use some of those breaks as “intersessions” to offer remedial coursework or other academic programs.

District leaders hope this approach protects kids from “summer slide,” learning loss that hits low-income kids especially hard during summer breaks. When Metro Nashville moved to a balanced calendar in 2012, it moved up the district’s start date by a little more than a week, to the first week of August.

Nashville officials emphasized the potential positive impact of the change on the district’s large population of English language learners, whose language skills recede when they’re not at school speaking English. Kids who don’t have regular access to food also benefit from shorter breaks. When federal funds ran out to pay for intersession for Nashville students, the district abandoned its “balanced” calendar. But the early start date stuck. Nashville’s school board has set its annual start date for the Wednesday on or after Aug. 1.

The encroachment of class time on summer days have led to several campaigns from Tennessee’s tourism industry to set a statewide uniform start date after Labor Day. In the 1980s, the owners of the now-defunct Opryland USA theme park in Nashville helped to lead the charge — both because of the tourism revenue lost when kids spend August in school and the teenage labor lost when older students go back to school. However, district leaders balked at the proposed state mandate, successfully arguing that the start of school should be a local matter. Similar unsuccessful campaigns raged as recently as 2013.

But more and more, Tennessee kids can’t imagine August any other way.

Zekiyah Brown, a fifth-grader at East Nashville Magnet Middle School, said she didn’t mind returning to school on Aug. 3. Her mother, Adrienne Hockett, who attended Nashville schools when the school calendar started later in August, doesn’t mind either.

“I was excited,” recalled Zekiyah as she was finishing her school day on Wednesday, “because I get to go to a new school and meet new people.”

How does your district compare to other districts in Tennessee? Check out a spreadsheet from the Tennessee Department of Education on start times:

Note: In Sumner County, most schools started Aug. 8. Union Elementary school, a year-round school, started in July. 

Student activist

With Townsend Harris in turmoil over interim principal, one student quietly takes a leading role

PHOTO: The Classic
Alex Chen walks the hallway during a student sit-in he helped organize at Townsend Harris High School.

While students across the nation have taken to the streets to protest President Trump, some are fighting battles closer to home. Just ask Alex Chen, the student union president at Townsend Harris High School, who is helping to lead a high-profile fight against Interim Acting Principal Rosemarie Jahoda.

Chen spent much of his February break rallying fellow students, alumni and parents from the elite Queens school to demonstrate in front of City Hall on Friday, asking the city to remove Jahoda from consideration for the permanent post. The controversy has put the 17-year-old in the uncomfortable position of going against his school’s top official.

But Chen insists this isn’t a student vs. principal situation.

“It might have felt like that sometimes, but I don’t really see it that way. I see it more as a community that’s rising up,” he said.

Opposition has mounted against Jahoda since September, when she stepped in to lead the school. More than 3,500 people, including self-identified parents and alumni, have signed a petition against her, claiming that she has harassed faculty, changed course offerings without proper input and that she has been “aloof or even combative” toward students.

In a statement, Jahoda said: “While I am frustrated by many of these inaccurate allegations, I remain 100% focused on serving students and families at Townsend Harris and working to move the school community forward.”

Meanwhile, Chen has been thrust into the spotlight. In December, during a student sit-in he helped organize, he had a tense standoff with Deputy Superintendent Leticia Pineiro.

“How are your teachers being harassed? I’m curious,” the superintendent quipped to Chen in a livestream broadcast by the student newspaper. “You’re speaking and I believe people should speak from fact. I’m a factual person.”

Chen spoke slowly, his voice a near whisper. Even when the superintendent suggested Chen had invaded her personal space, Chen stayed quiet and calm.

“I really just wanted to be able to communicate with her,” he later told Chalkbeat.

He returned to class, replaying the scene in his head and wondering whether he had handled it right. When he walked in the door, his classmates burst into applause.

“He’s become this symbol for everyone involved. And I think he earned it,” said Brian Sweeney, an English teacher and newspaper advisor who has Chen in his journalism class. “When you’re in that video with everyone watching, and you’re willing to keep talking and keep saying what you think … there’s a lot of trust for everyone involved.”

Since the sit-in, the School Leadership Team at Townsend took the unusual step of making Chen a co-chair of the board, made up of teachers, parents and union reps.

“I believe it was a matter of trust and productivity. We needed co-chairs who could move forward with the issues at the table, rather than be stuck in tension,” Chen said.

Even while he fights to make sure Jahoda isn’t appointed permanently, Chen said he has maintained a “very professional relationship” with her. In SLT and student union meetings where Jahoda is present, Chen said he makes an effort to “stick to the agenda.”

“We still have to keep the school running,” he said. “In the hallways, I’ll say good morning. I’ll say hello. Because that’s what you’re supposed to do.”

The Department of Education opened applications for a permanent principal on Feb. 1 and said the process takes up to 90 days. The pushback against Jahoda means many are watching the department’s next moves. This week, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz wrote a letter to Chancellor Carmen Fariña about the matter.

“Accusations and troubling accounts are occurring on a daily basis,” she wrote. “The students of our system deserve to know that the DOE is providing the tools, atmosphere and attention needed to fulfill our responsibilities to them.”

Chen has responsibilities of his own. At home in Hollis Hills, he helps take care of his younger sister and is expected to finish his chores. He’s looking for a job to have a bit of his own money. And with senior year winding down, he spends a lot of time chasing scholarships. Chen hopes to study business at University of Pennsylvania, though lately many people have asked him whether he’ll go into politics.

“I don’t think I will for now, because there’s a lot that goes on in politics that kind of disturbs me,” he said. “After high school, after college, after your youth, it seems like people [tend] to be more self-interested than to help in the community.”

under study

No longer at the bottom: These 20 schools are Tennessee’s model for turnaround

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Whitehaven Elementary School students work on a robotics project. The Memphis school has moved off of the state's list of lowest-performing schools.

When Education Commissioner Candice McQueen gave a stinging assessment this week of Tennessee’s school turnaround work, she cited a small number of schools as the exception.

Twenty have improved enough in the last five years to move off of the state’s list of “priority schools” that are in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent.

Of those, the State Department of Education has conducted case studies of 10 former priority schools in Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga and Hardeman County:

  • Chickasaw Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Douglass K-8, Shelby County Schools
  • Ford Road Elementary, Shelby County Schools
  • Gra-Mar Middle, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
  • Hamilton Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Treadwell Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, Hamilton County Schools
  • Whiteville Elementary, Hardeman County Schools
  • City University Boys Preparatory High, Shelby County Schools
  • Springdale Elementary, Shelby County Schools

The first six are part of state-supported innovation zones in Memphis and Nashville. Two schools — in Chattanooga and Hardeman County — have received federal school improvement grants. The last two did not receive federal or state interventions but were studied because their scores improved at a faster rate than 85 percent of schools in 2015.

Ten other former priority schools, all in Shelby County Schools in Memphis, have improved with only local or philanthropic support. The state plans to examine these closer in the coming months:

  • Alcy Elementary
  • Cherokee Elementary, Innovation Zone
  • Hickory Ridge Middle
  • Manassas High
  • Manor Lake Elementary
  • Memphis Academy of Science & Engineering High (charter school)
  • Memphis School of Excellence High (charter school)
  • Oakhaven Middle
  • South Park Elementary
  • Whitehaven Elementary
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A classroom at Ford Road Elementary in Memphis, which is among those that have exited the state’s list of lowest performing schools.

McQueen told lawmakers Tuesday that it’s “a little embarrassing” that only 16 percent of priority schools have moved off of the state’s 2012 and 2014 lists that identify 126 failing schools.

The case studies, in part, have informed the school improvement component of Tennessee’s new plan for its schools under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

“… We have learned that a combination of school leadership, effective teaching with a focus on depth of instruction around standards, and services focused on non-academic supports has led to strong outcomes in these schools,” McQueen said in a statement Wednesday.

Tennessee’s proposed new plan for turnaround work would gives more authority to local districts to make their own improvements before the state-run Achievement School District steps in.

One ASD school — Brick Church in Nashville — also has moved off of the state’s priority list, but was excluded from the state’s analysis because there were not enough years of test data to compare since its takeover by the state-run district.

“What we can’t do as a state is support — in terms of funding and time — district interventions that don’t work,” McQueen said. “We have to learn from what is working because we know we have much more work to do and many more students that have need.”

Chalkbeat reporter Grace Tatter contributed to this report.