Student Voice

Memphis school leaders have extra money to invest for first time in years. Here’s how one student thinks they should spend it.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Amal Altareb, 16, is a student leader at Central High School.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson unveiled a $945 million spending plan this week that focuses largely on boosting teacher pay, classroom supports and struggling schools.

It’s a big deal, as the proposal marks the first time since the 2013 merger of city and county schools that Shelby County Schools hasn’t faced major cuts to balance its budget. Hopson’s administration projects having enough money to strategically invest in schools by adding counselors, assistant principals, instructional coaches and interventionists for literacy and math.

Chalkbeat spoke recently about the proposed investments with Amal Altareb, 16, a junior at Central High School and student leader with Facing History and Ourselves. In preparation, Amal polled about 30 classmates about what they would do if they held the district’s purse strings.

Here are the highlights of our Q&A:

What are the biggest needs at your school?

Central is an old school, and you can really tell sometimes. I know there are a lot of older schools in Memphis. How a school looks may not seem like a big deal, but we’re in the buildings all day. If the bathrooms don’t work or a school looks really rundown, that matters to the students who spend so many hours there.

Many students (that I polled) also talked about restorative justice. (Disciplinary) options shouldn’t be just (in-school suspension), suspension or even expulsion if a student acts out. It should be about why the student acted out. There needs to be more help and support for teachers and principals, so they’re not responsible for handling discipline. Or everyone needs training in what restorative justice means.

What do you want district leaders to know about your school?

There are so many great things going on at Central. We have a group that meets every week called Warriors Unite. Here, we talk about what’s going on at our school and in our community, and what we can do about it. Students are actively thinking about a lot of the problems that people in charge of our schools are thinking about, and we should all be around the same table much more often.

I also want district leaders to talk more about why students have to spend so much time testing. Teachers shouldn’t have to teach students to a test, but I think that’s often what teachers have to do. One student told me that tests take away from instructional time and falsely represent the work of teachers, which I really agree with. I’m definitely for holding students accountable for our work and making sure that we’re learning what we need to be successful. But it seems like there’s much more emphasis on “how can students do better on this test so our schools rank better?” rather than “are students learning what they need to be successful after high school?”

What do you think about the district’s proposed spending priorities for next school year?

I think raises for teachers is really amazing. They work hard and deserve to be rewarded for that. I was also really excited to hear about the increases in counselors and behavior specialists. That goes back to what I was saying earlier with restorative justice — teachers can’t be expected to do it all. They need more help.


You can read more details about the spending plan here.

Looming threat

Report: Looming financial threats could undermine ‘fresh’ start for new Detroit district

The creation of a new school district last year gave Detroit schools a break from years of crippling debt, allowing the new district to report a healthy budget surplus going into its second year.

It’s the first time since 2007 that the city’s main school district has ended the year with a surplus.

But a report released this morning — just days after Superintendent Nikolai Vitti took over the district — warns of looming financial challenges that “could derail the ‘fresh’ financial start that state policymakers crafted for the school district.”

The report, from the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, notes that almost a third of the district’s $64 million surplus is the cost savings from more than 200 vacant teaching positions.

Those vacancies have caused serious problems in schools including classrooms crammed with 40 or 50 kids. The district says it’s been trying to fill those positions. But as it struggles to recruit teachers, it is also saving money by not having to pay them.

Other problems highlighted in the report include the district’s need to use its buildings more efficiently at a time when many schools are more than half empty. “While a business case might be made to close an under-utilized building in one part of the city, such a closure can create challenges and new costs for the districts and the families involved,” the report states. It notes that past school closings have driven students out of the district and forced kids to travel long distances to school.

The report also warns that if academics don’t improve soon, student enrollment — and state dollars tied to enrollment — could continue to fall.

Read the full report here:

 

Teacher Pay

Every Tennessee teacher will make at least $33,745 under new salary schedule

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Some teachers in 46 Tennessee districts will see a pay boost next year after the State Board of Education voted Wednesday to raise the minimum salary for educators across the state.

The unanimous vote raises the minimum pay from $32,445 to $33,745, or an increase of 4 percent. The minimum salary is the lowest that a district can pay its teachers, and usually applies to new educators.

The boost under the new schedule won’t affect most Tennessee districts, including the largest ones in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga — where teacher salaries already exceed the state minimum. (You can see the list of districts impacted here.)

The state’s largest teachers union lauded the increase, which will be funded under the state’s 2017-18 budget under Gov. Bill Haslam.

“Teachers statewide are increasingly struggling to support their own families on the stagnant wages of a public school teacher,” said Barbara Gray, president of the Tennessee Education Association. “It is unacceptable for teachers to have to choose between the profession they love and their ability to keep the lights on at home or send their own children to college.”

Tennessee is one of 17 states that use salary schedules to dictate minimum teacher pay, according to a 2016 analysis by the Education Commission of the States. In that analysis, Tennessee ranked 10th out of 17 on starting pay.

The 4 percent raise is a step toward addressing a nationwide issue: the widening gap in teacher wages. On average, teachers earn just 77 percent of what other college graduates earn, according to a 2016 study from the Economic Policy Institute. Tennessee ranks 40th in that study, with its teachers earning 70 percent in comparison to other graduates.

View the Economic Policy Institute’s data in full: