Create later start times, save the district’s elementary and middle school world language program: Shelby County School leaders heard a slew of requests and suggestions from teachers and parents during the district’s third community budget forum, held at Whitehaven High School on Thursday evening.

Following the presentation of the 2014-15 budget and public questions, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson II offered his thoughts on the feasibility of the requests brought up in the meeting.

“You all have raised some very valid concerns, but there are a whole myriad of things that if we had an unlimited amount of resources, we’d keep all this stuff and add some more in the budget,” Hopson said. “We’re going to go back and sharpen our pencils and see whether some of the issues we heard in all of the meetings will lead us to make some changes as to what we prioritized in the budget. We’re really listening and we’re going to do our best to make the best decision, not based on emotion or hyperbole, but in the best interest of all these kids.”

The 140,000-student district’s budget this school year was $1.2 billion, while the new proposed budget is $961.3 million – a 19 percent cut, reflecting anticipated enrollment drops as students transfer to new school districts in the suburbs of Memphis and charter schools and as more schools are run by the state-run Achievement School District. The new budget requires staff and program cuts.

During the meeting, three world language teachers asked the district not to cut the elementary and middle school programs from the budget. They cited several benefits of learning a foreign language early, including greater fluency of students at the high school level and the competitive career edge of bilingualism.

“This is a cutting edge program that has received national recognition,” said Maria Milla, a Spanish teacher at John P. Freeman Optional School. “It will be a crime to cut this program. Teaching Spanish is my passion; if I can’t do that then I am certified to teach math.”

Milla said the program could attract parents to Shelby County Schools and away from the six new municipal school districts – Bartlett, Cordova, Germantown, Millington, Arlington and Lakeland. “Students are learning Chinese, Japanese and Russian; those are critical languages according to the Department of Defense.”

Michele Ransom, a middle school Spanish teacher at Craigmont Middle, said those fluent in a foreign language can earn one-third more than someone who is not bilingual.

Ransom said about 28 world language teachers in the elementary and middle schools stand to lose their positions.

SCS Supt. Dorsey Hopson II talks with world language teachers after Thursday night's community budget forum at Whitehaven High School,
SCS Supt. Dorsey Hopson II talks with world language teachers after Thursday night’s community budget forum at Whitehaven High School,
PHOTO CREDIT: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN

“The program started under Memphis City Schools and at Craigmont. We’ve met and exceeded our growth rates,” she said. “I guess when the dust settles, I may have a position; we’re in a hold position.”

Ransom, who along with some of her colleagues spoke with Hopson after the meeting, said an online petition has garnered more than 1,200 signatures calling for the program to be saved.

During a STEM Expo at Whitehaven Elementary on Wednesday, Principal Tommy Elliot said his students are thriving in Russian classes. 

In other school-related requests from Thursday’s community budget forum, a small group of parents asked the district to consider a later start time for students. The parents gave examples of other districts in Kentucky and Virginia that have successfully pushed start times later without adding extra transportation costs.

All of the public questions and requests will be posted on the district’s website on Monday.

The Shelby County School Board will hold its monthly meeting at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. Additional public comments and discussions about the 2014-15 budget are on the agenda.