Eight years ago, Memphis City Schools started a “small schools” initiative, supported by the Gates Foundation, aimed at preventing students from falling through the cracks by creating high schools with dozens, rather than hundreds, of students in a grade.

Fast forward four years, and Grizzlies Academy, one of those small schools, had closed. Fast forward to today—two superintendents, a school merger, and a slew of legal and policy changes later—and Shelby County Schools leaders say larger, not smaller, schools will allow for the consolidation of resources and help improve academics for Memphis students. 

This kind of shift in strategy is common in school districts: Superintendents and boards often seek to make their mark by bringing new goals and initiatives. But as leadership and funders’ interests change over time, follow-through and lasting improvement in student achievement is less common.

Now Shelby County superintendent Dorsey Hopson II has set a goal: To dramatically improve Shelby County’s graduation rate through focusing on literacy, math and career counseling. Administrators say the approach is different than in the past. They are bringing in an outside organization, Strive Mid-South, to share and analyze data, and they are setting out clear numerical goals before creating a particular strategic plan.

The district’s “80-90-100% goals” say that 80 percent of students will be college and career ready, 90 percent of students altogether graduate, and 100 percent of students who are college- and career-ready go to some postsecondary options by 2025. The goals are aligned with Tennessee governor Bill Haslam’s “Drive to 55” plan, which aims to have 55 percent of Tennesseans holding postsecondary degrees by 2025.

“We have so many agencies and organizations that work with students. It’s really positive for the district to have this very clear outcome or goal so it can be translated to them,” said Barbara Prescott, a former Memphis City school board member and executive director of the PeopleFirst Partnership, which publicly supported the district’s goal. “It’s a rigorous goal, it’s a far-reaching goal, an ambitious goal. But when you start breaking it down, it’s a doable goal.”

New goals, new partnership, new plan

Strive Mid-South, a nonprofit funded by Target, United Way, FedEx, and the Pyramid Peak Foundation, connects other organizations working on education and government agencies with Shelby County Schools data, aiming to highlight areas where improvement is needed and help organizations share best practices. (Chalkbeat also receives funds from the Pyramid Peak Foundation.) 

In 2013, according to Strive, 68 percent of Shelby County students were not proficient in reading by third grade. Just under 70 percent of the district’s students graduated on time. Almost 95 percent of students in the district were not “college-ready” according to their ACT tests.

“Thinking about where are our are kids in relationship to these goals—it’s pretty staggering,” said Mark Sturgis, Strive Mid-South’s executive director at a community meeting about the goals.

The Shelby County board adopted the goals in April and says the district will have a new strategic plan—complete with targeted academic programs, teacher training and a more specific timeline—by December. (Here’s last year’s strategic plan, which focused on Common Core implementation and closing test score gaps between students of different races.)

The content of that plan is what will determine whether schools will actually improve, said Jason Grissom, a professor of education policy at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville. “It’s not uncommon for districts to set this kind of vision around benchmarks, but what that doesn’t give you is implementation.”

It isn’t clear how the data collected will specifically influence the creation and execution of the strategic plan.

But education leaders in the city are optimistic about the new partnership with Strive Mid-South and the concrete goals.

Changing the trajectory: Setting goals

Daniel Domenech, the executive director of the national School Superintendents’ Association, said big-city districts around the country struggle to maintain plans over time: Urban superintendents stay just three years on average, and board members tend to have shorter tenures than their suburban counterparts. Domenech said school-level staff are unlikely to buy into new programs or initiatives if they think they are passing fads.

Superintendents in Memphis have stuck around longer than that three-year average. Before current superintendent Dorsey E. Hopson II took the reins last winter, Kriner Cash had led the district for six years. His predecessor Carol Johnson led the district for five years. The board is currently considering extending Hopson’s contract, which is set to last until 2016.

But the past few years has been a time of transition for Shelby County Schools: A 21 member board that led the merger of legacy Memphis City Schools with suburban Shelby County Schools was succeeded by the current seven-member board, which will be replaced by a nine-member board later this summer. The district is also in the midst of preparing for six new school systems being carved out of its boundaries, responding to a growing state-run district taking over schools in its midst and a shrinking budget.

Domenech lauded Shelby County’s effort. “The way to set new goals is exactly the way they’re going about it: By involving community and getting buy-in from parents, local government, and business, so it becomes a reform everybody owns, not just the superintendent who’s there.”

Quantitative data of all sorts were featured prominently in the district’s roll-out of the new goals and the Strive partnership. A presentation at a recent board meeting even projected exactly how many additional students the district must graduate each year.

“Goal-setting is extremely important, especially tying it to metrics,” said Douglas Scarboro, the director of talent and human resources for Memphis mayor A.C. Wharton, whose office is working with Strive. “If we’re looking at 2025, and we have a goal focused on postsecondary education, we have to be very intentional right now in our planning.

The Shelby County board is considering using targets tied to the 80-90-100 goals to evaluate superintendent Dorsey Hopson II’s performance. Wayne Miller, the executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, or TOSS, said connecting superintendents’ evaluations to metrics is increasingly common. “The culture of accountability is present in all positions,” he said. He said TOSS supported such goals as long as the outcomes were reasonably within a superintendent’s control.

What’s Strive?

Strive Mid-South, which is one of several dozen similar city-based organizations playing a coordinating role among education organizations, plans to use data to help inform the district and other organizations about eight specific areas: Kindergarten readiness, 3rd grade reading proficiency, 7th grade math proficiency, 11th grade college readiness, high school graduation, postsecondary enrollment, and “opportunity youth,” who have already left school.

For instance, for an after-school program focused on literacy, Strive might provide student-performance data from the district so the organizations could track their participants’ progress and perhaps share teaching strategies with teachers. (Participating organizations have to agree to certain policies and privacy regulations regarding students’ data.) Strive might also connect that group with other organizations also focusing on literacy or working with students at that age level.

Ultimately, Sturgis said, Strive will also help share best practices among organizations working on different topics.

While many organizations were already focused on education issues in Shelby County, there had not previously been as much data sharing among the groups and with the school district, said the mayor’s office’s Scarboro. “Strive gives us this consistent data stream for the first time,” tracking cohorts of students over time and allowing organizations to see connections between their work, he said.

Dozens of organizations have signed on to Strive’s Seeding Success Collaborative Action Network, including the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Memphis, the Memphis Leadership Foundation, Teach For America, the mayor’s office and Literacy Mid-South. The state-run Achievement School District, which runs 15 schools in Memphis and plans to take over additional schools, is also one of Strive’s partners.

Strive is still looking to add on more community partners and organizations working on education in Memphis, Sturgis said. “This is not an initiative. It is fundamentally changing the way we work together.”

The district does not have a contract with Strive, said Stefani Everson, a district spokeswoman.

Keith Williams, the president of the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association, said, “while it is a worthy goal, it is very strange to me that it’s being led by these people, from outside the trained professionals already in the district.” The M-SCEA does not have an official stance on the goals.

Williams also wondered how the district’s goals for 2025 would affect students currently in school.

It is not clear what that the plan will look like. At several community meetings this May, Strive guided community members through a brainstorming session about what they thought the district should stop doing, what it should start doing, and what it’s already doing well.

Participants singled out the need for more guidance counselors, for continuing music education, and for more communication with families. Others suggested that the district stop promoting students who aren’t on grade level and to expand preschool options. One asked the district to stop paying for outside education consultants.

Sturgis told those gathered, “These goals are not just the responsibility of the district. this is a community effort and a community goal. You all are the first planners in this process to figure out how we get there.”