Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell speaks on education, jobs

Mayor Mark H. Luttrell, Jr. was a teacher before he became Shelby County’s director of corrections, its sheriff, and, in 2010, its mayor. Luttrell, a Republican, was a member of the Transition Planning Commission that helped merge legacy Memphis City Schools and legacy Shelby County Schools into one district.

Shelby County Mayor Mark H. Luttrell.
Shelby County Mayor Mark H. Luttrell.

Chalkbeat Tennessee sat down with Mayor Luttrell and got his take on the new merged school district, how education ties into public health and the justice system, and on some of his hopes for the city.

On the connection between jobs and education: 

Education impacts homelessness, impacts poverty, impacts health, impacts crime, impacts economic development – they’re all interrelated.

I’m a big proponent of creating jobs. Our unemployment is higher than state and national average by about a percentage point. We are making incremental progress. But what we’ve discovered is, the issue’s not so much jobs as people qualified to do the jobs. That’s where education comes in…

I visited a medical device company, and many of those jobs on the floor…just require being able to read a blueprint and do high-school level math. We’re focusing on how can we get those basic skill sets in place.

On charter schools and the state-run Achievement School District. 

What I’m seeing in education gives me a great deal of hope: Charter schools, the Achievement Schools, the progress that’s being made in the school system.

…When I look at the Achievement Schools, I think, if I were a student, I want to be in one of those schools. They’re aggressive and pretty progressive. Some of them are wearing those suits and ties…Chris [Barbic, the head of the ASD] is a dynamo.

On how the merger improved Shelby County Schools, and his hopes for collaboration: 

I think the reality is, we have to shake things up a little bit, we have to do something different than what’s been done. I think the merging of the school systems, which did not come about through altruistic reasons – it came about because of political plays – gave us an opportunity to reflect on where we are and to take the opportunity to improve.

There are so many things that could be done to make this whole system [the county’s schools] work better, if we do indeed make a very diverse system, or very diverse systems, unified and municipal  – if we use it as an opportunity to build collaborative services.

I think there are tremendous opportunities to look for shared services.

On local control and the municipalities:

I have no problem with the concept of local control, responsibility at the local level. That’s more the trend nationally than the megasystem. I think the universe is such that you can have multiple school systems in the same county. But it can’t be racially motivated…

I’ve discussed with municipal leaders their desire to have a diverse school system. If this leads to more diversity and collaboration throughout the school system, the merger is going to work.

On big changes: 

What we’re going through is a pretty radical transition. It’s not going to be seamless – there’s usually several years of transition. There’s always resistance.

Education commissioner Huffman is doing pretty innovative things, governor [Bill] Haslam is doing innovative things…I think the NAEP scores are an affirmation of changes that are taking place.

On Memphians’ generosity: 

Memphians can be harder on themselves than anyone else. This is a very generous community.

For example, every year, a group invites all the homeless people in the city to go to the convention center to receive services…And sometimes we have more volunteers than we have homeless. That generosity – that gives me a great deal of hope.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”