year in review

Five stories that shaped Memphis public schools in 2016

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
School closure public meeting at Carnes Elementary School.

Memphis is not only home to Tennessee’s largest public school district. It’s also a national hub for school improvement efforts supported by local, state, federal and philanthropic initiatives. Here are some of the city’s biggest education storylines for 2016:

Shelby County Schools began to ‘right-size’ its footprint by systematically closing and consolidating schools.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Frisli Hernandez, a student from Charjean Elementary School, speaks at a December school board meeting where school leaders considered several consolidation projects.

Shelby County Schools had 22,000 empty seats in aging school buildings this year, meaning the limited resources of the cash-strapped school system were spread thin. While Memphis leaders have closed schools annually in recent years, 2016 saw the launch of the first systematic process for addressing the district’s under-enrollment challenges. The action was spurred by a comprehensive footprint analysis ordered by Superintendent Dorsey Hopson in 2015 to guide school closures for the next five years. Hopson’s goal is to align the numbers of students and seats, while also boosting academic and programmatic quality. He estimates the district will need to close up to 18 schools. In his first round of recommendations, Hopson is seeking to consolidate five schools into three new buildings and close two more outright. The final vote on that proposal is scheduled for early next year.

The state-run Achievement School District took a one-year pause in school takeovers, while its lineup of charter networks began to change.

Citing the transition to Tennessee’s new TNReady test, ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson announced a “hold harmless” year, freezing the school turnaround district at 31 schools in Memphis and two in Nashville. The pause allowed the ASD to put more focus on supports for its portfolio of charter networks, which have struggled with operational issues ranging from facilities to enrollment. But ongoing efforts to bolster enrollment were not enough for two charter operators. Memphis-based Gestalt Community Schools announced in October plans to pull out of both of its ASD schools in North Memphis, leaving the future of those schools uncertain. Then this week, the Memphis board for KIPP voted to exit and close one of its four ASD schools. With a limited pool of high-quality national charter networks, the ASD is working to cultivate more local operators to be part of its future expansion. But that expansion may be slowed under a new education plan proposed by the State Department of Education.

Enrollment wars heated up.

Shelby County Schools’ enrollment has dropped drastically since the state-run district began its annual expansion in 2012, and six suburban municipalities broke off to form their own school systems in 2014. After years of watching the drain of students — and the funding they bring — Shelby County school leaders finally

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Kirby Middle School re-opens under the state-run Achievement School District.

had enough. This spring, the district went on the offense and rezoned parts of schools slated to shift to the ASD. Leaders also actively sought to retain students through tactics that ASD officials said amounted to misinformation and withholding of enrollment information.

But collaboration became an emerging priority for Shelby County Schools and its growing charter sector.

Memphis has more charter schools than any city in Tennessee, and charter leaders long have griped that Shelby County Schools could do more to support operators of charters authorized by the local school board. In January, both groups committed to working through turf battles. The resulting committee has begun to shape policy around funding, facilities and accountability. But that work didn’t come soon enough. The State Board of Education rapped Shelby County Schools for its lack of process after the school board’s hastened revocation of three charters this spring led to appeals — the first of their kind in Tennessee.

The local district managed to close its funding gap — for now.

With enrollment and funding down and the last of a $90 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation drying up, Shelby County Schools started out the year facing an $86 million deficit. Leaders managed to close that gap little by little, culminating with a significant $22 million boost from the Shelby County Board of Commissioners only days before the new fiscal year. The extra money came during an especially high-stakes year and helped the district give its teachers a 3 percent raise. For next year, district leaders are moving up their annual budget timeline to address deficits sooner and get more community input. The public’s first look at a proposed budget is expected in January.

What's your education story?

How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate

PHOTO: Provided
Jean Russell

Jean Russell is on sabbatical from her work as a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School in Fort Wayne after being named the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year. Her work as 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year ignited her interest in education policy, and she is in the first cohort of TeachPlus statewide policy fellows. Nineteen other teachers from urban, suburban and rural areas are also members of the class. Below is Russell’s story condensed and lightly edited for clarity. For more stories from parents, students and educators, see our “What’s Your Education Story?” occasional series.

When I started this January as the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year, my overarching goal for my year of service is to focus on recruitment and retention of great teachers. One of the things that came up was the opportunity to serve on the ISTEP alternative assessment panel. (The committee was charged with choosing a replacement for the state’s exam.)

I definitely felt like that was something that is affecting recruitment and retention of great teachers in Indiana, and yet I was reticent about whether or not I was equipped to really be a part of that and to be a helpful voice at the table because policy is not something in my 26 years of teaching that I’ve had anything to do with before this.

The first couple of times that I went to those meetings, I like I just was out of my league, and I didn’t really feel like there was much I could contribute. And I think it was the third meeting, there came a point where a couple of people were saying things where I just felt like having the inside-the-classroom, in-the-trenches voice would really help the conversation.

I was so nervous. I remember, I was shaking, and my voice was cracking. The meetings were in the House of Representatives, so I had to push the button and lean into the microphone, and I’m like, “Hi, I’m Jean Russell.”

But I said what I knew, “I’ve been giving this test for 25 years and these are my experiences, and this is what I think.” I think the biggest surprise in that moment — I won’t ever forget that moment — was that they listened. And I knew that because they were asking good follow-up questions and making references back to what I had said. It sort of became a part of that conversation for that meeting. I never became very outspoken, but I think at that point, I realized that there is most assuredly a time when teacher voice at the table is important to decision making.

I feel like the four walls of my classroom just blew down, and suddenly I realized how many stakeholders there are in my little classroom, in my little hallway, in my little school.

(In the past, policy) just did not make my radar. I think I just felt like, nobody was really interested in what I thought. The work of the classroom is so intense and there’s such a sense of urgency every day to move everybody forward that this broader idea of education, I think I just thought it was something that happened to you and you just work within those perimeters. For the first time in 26 years, I’m realizing that that’s not necessarily the case.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.