comparing schools

In-house report card in the works for Memphis schools

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Teachers, parents and other education stakeholders offer input during a community meeting in Frayser about the future of Shelby County Schools.

As Memphis education leaders consider how to create more high-quality school options for students, they’re introducing a new way to measure them.

Instead of relying on the state’s annual report card, Shelby County Schools is developing its own measurement tool based on what Memphians say are the most important qualities in a school.

The proposed “school performance framework,” introduced this month during community meetings across Shelby County, would act as a report card for the district’s traditional schools.

A teacher speaks at the Whitehaven community meeting.
A teacher speaks at the Whitehaven community meeting.

“It will be created and driven by feedback on what the community sees as valuable,” said spokeswoman Natalia Powers.

It also would provide a platform to advertise its best schools as the district fights to retain and gain students to offset enrollment declines from a decade of charter school expansion in Memphis.

“There are other people out there fighting for your business and we want it,” said Catherine Battle, director of instructional leadership, who facilitated discussion at Monday night’s community at Oakhaven High School.

Charter leaders have been crafting a similar measure for their schools, which would help determine whether operators should be allowed to expand or lose existing charters, according to Brad Leon, the district’s chief of strategy and innovation.

Whether or not the district’s new measurement tool would factor into decisions about closing traditional schools would be determined by the school board. “Our primary purpose is to ensure parents and students have clear information,” according to a statement from the district.

The tool for traditional schools would assess them based on:

  • Academic performance: Percentage of students who are proficient or advanced in math, English, science and social studies based on state tests;
  • Academic growth: How much students improve in academic performance during the year based on the school’s TVAAS growth score.
  • School climate: Student attendance, truancy, teacher retention and suspensions; and
  • College and career readiness: graduation and dropout rates, ACT scores

During community meetings, district officials asked stakeholders which factors should carry the most weight in the overall score. School climate was often cited as the No. 1 priority by parents and educators in attendance, but others emphasized growth.

The feedback will inform the final report card framework that, if approved, would go into effect next school year.

Still, some questioned whether the framework would highlight inequities among schools instead of provide a true comparison.

“It’s going to show inequity because we’re all measured by the same instrument but we don’t all have the same resources or the same type of students,” said Melanie Black, Oakhaven’s principal. She cited her high school’s limited funds to host ACT prep courses for students who need it the most.

under study

Tennessee lawmakers to take a closer look at school closures

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
The once-bustling sidewalks outside of shuttered Lincoln Elementary School are empty today. Shelby County Schools closed the school in 2015.

In five years, more than 20 public schools have closed in Memphis, often leaving behind empty buildings that once served as neighborhood hubs.

Now, Rep. Joe Towns wants to hit the pause button.

The Memphis Democrat asked a House education subcommittee on Tuesday to consider a bill that would halt school closures statewide for five years. The measure would require the state comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability to study the impact on students and communities before allowing local districts to shutter schools again.

The panel will review Towns’ proposal during a summer study session.

Towns said empty school buildings hurt property values, lower tax revenue, and hit local governments in the pocketbook. Currently, there’s no Memphis-specific research on the economic impact of shuttering schools.

“There are unintended consequences,” Towns said. “What this does to a community is not good. Who here would want to live next to a school that’s been closed?”

Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican who chairs the subcommittee, said he sympathizes. But pausing school closures might make it more difficult for Shelby County Schools to balance its budget, he said.

“Our superintendent is faced with buildings that hold a thousand kids, and they’re down to 250,” White said. “I don’t want to put one more burden on them.”

Last fall, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the district may need to close 18 schools in the next five years if student enrollment continues to decline. Hopson recently unveiled a framework for investing in struggling schools before being considering them for closure.

Any future school closures in Memphis won’t be just to cut costs, district leaders have said. And for the first time since the historic merger, Shelby County Schools is not grappling with a budget deficit.

Community voices

Memphians weigh in on Hopson’s investment plan for struggling schools

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson speaks Monday night to about 175 educators, parents and students gathered to learn about Shelby County Schools' plan to make new investments in struggling schools

After years of closing struggling schools, Shelby County Schools is changing course and preparing to make investments in them, beginning with 19 schools that are challenged by academics, enrollment, aging buildings and intergenerational poverty.

This May, 11 of those schools will receive “treatment plans” tailored to their needs and based on learnings from the Innovation Zone, the district’s 5-year-old school turnaround initiative. The other eight schools already are part of a plan announced last fall to consolidate them into three new buildings.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin talked up the new dynamic Monday night during a community meeting attended by about 175 educators, parents and students. In his proposed budget for next school year, Hopson has set aside $5.9 million to pay for supports for the 11 schools dubbed “critical focus” schools. 

Here’s the framework for the changes and which schools will be impacted.

Monday’s gathering was first in which Memphians got to publicly weigh in on the district’s new game plan. Here’s what several stakeholders had to say:

Quinterious Martin

Quinterious Martin, 10th-grader at Westwood High School:

“It really helped me to hear that the label of ‘critical’ is going to help us out, not pull us down. I was worried when I first heard our school would be on the list of critical schools, but I get it now. The point is to help the schools out, not make them feel worse. To me, one thing Westwood really needs is more classes to get us ready for our future careers, like welding or mechanics. My commitment tonight was to always improve in what I do.”

Deborah Calvin, a teacher at Springdale Elementary School:

“I enjoyed the presentation tonight. I think it’s so important to know everyone is on the same page. The plan will only be successful if everyone in the community is aware of what the goals are. I think they made it really clear tonight that just more money doesn’t help turn a school. It takes a lot of community support. We really need more parent involvement at Springdale. Children need support when they go home. They need someone to sit down with them and work through homework or read.”

Catherine Starks, parent at Trezevant High School:

“Honestly, I think this is just going through the motions and something to keep parents quiet. Some schools may be getting the supports they need, but not all of them are. Trezevant is one that is not. … We need good leadership and we need someone to be advocates for our kids. I want to see the kids at our school get the support they need from the principal, the guidance counselor, the superintendent. Trezevant has had negative everything, but now we need some positive attention. And we really need the community to step up.”

Neshellda Johnson and daughter Rhyan

Neshellda Johnson, fourth-grade teacher at Hawkins Mill Elementary School:

“Hawkins Mill has been in the bottom 5 percent for awhile and has been targeted (for takeover) by the state for about four consecutive years. …  It’s refreshing to see that, instead of putting us on the chopping block, the district is looking to actually invest in us and give us the tools we need so we can continue to have growth. … I’m looking to the district for academic supports with regards to reading, more teachers assistants, more time for teaching and less time for testing, and more after-school and summer enrichment programs. And in addition to supports for our students, I’m hopeful there will be supports offered for our parents. We have a need for mental health and counseling services in our area.”

You can view the district’s full presentation from Monday night below: