Responding to an influx of students from Central America and a federal investigation into how Shelby County Schools is treating them, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson wants to create a “newcomer program” for high schoolers new to the U.S.
The program for English language learners would be housed at Wooddale High School and would accept 100 students this fall. A second location is planned for the following year.
The $750,000 program is part of Hopson’s proposed budget, which the school board is expected to approve in May.
Newcomer programs have been in place for years in cities with a long history of educating immigrant students. Others like Nashville and Indianapolis have added them in recent years as their immigrant populations have swelled.
In Memphis, English learners are the district’s fastest-growing subgroup and make up about 8 percent of the student population. Most are from Spanish-speaking countries, but many are refugees from elsewhere.
Under Shelby County’s plan, core classes such as math, science, history and language arts would be infused with English language learning for up to two years. Students would join the rest of the student population for elective classes.
Currently, the district places newcomers in two class periods of English language learning before they join core classes alongside native English speakers — an approach that officials say contributes to the achievement gap between subgroups.
The school-within-a-school model would be more intensive. “What we want to do … is to help them fill in those gaps while they are developing a foundation in English,” said ESL adviser Andrew Duck.
The program would create a new option for English language learners in Memphis following the 2016 closure of Messick Adult Center. Before the state pulled its workforce development contract with Shelby County Schools, Messick was the district’s only ELL program for adults and students ages 16 and older.
The newcomers program also would help address concerns raised by a federal civil rights investigation launched last year into how the district treats English learners and communicates with their parents. The Associated Press reported that Shelby County Schools was among several districts nationwide that discouraged unaccompanied minors from Central America from enrolling in its schools and encouraged them instead to attend an adult learning center.
“We’ve seen kids get turned away from schools when they try to go register without any real explanation,” said Casey Bryant, legal director for Latino Memphis, a nonprofit organization serving the city’s Spanish-speaking population. “The closure of Messick meant that those high school-aged kids who were being turned away didn’t have any place to attend school.”
The federal investigation is ongoing and, if the district is found in violation, Shelby County Schools would have to negotiate a resolution with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights — or face a lawsuit.
Duck said the investigation offered “a kick in the pants” for launching the newcomers program — but that the influx of students from Central America is the bigger motivator. “… We had actually been working on this off and on since 2007 in the Memphis City Schools system,” he said.
And Tennessee’s new schools plan, submitted under the new federal education law, places a higher emphasis on how schools serve English learners, giving Memphis leaders one more reason to step up services for those students.
Officials say Wooddale High School was chosen as the program’s first site because of available space there and its proximity to Hickory Ridge, an area with one of the city’s largest populations of English learner students. The school is now at 70 percent capacity.