Shelby County Schools

Memphis educators look to build rating system to help parents better navigate schools

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
This snapshot of charter school performance was used to indicate the value of having a school performance framework at a recent board meeting. This is NOT the scorecard the district intends to use.

Suppose you are a parent in Shelby County and you want to know which school is the best for your child. The state report card has information, but it takes at least some background knowledge to weed through the sea of acronyms such as TVAAS, NAEP or ACT.  The Tri-State Defender puts out an annual guide to charter, state-run, and district schools, but its profiles only include test scores in four subjects. The district website’s “Schools” section has each school’s address and principal name. Great Schools, a nonprofit website, has parent reviews and test scores but is missing some district information.

Parents often find themselves relying on word of mouth or conducting their own research into schools, and many do not know where their school stacks up in the district or state-wide.

Shelby County officials are hoping to change that.

A committee of school choice advocates, Achievement School District and Shelby County Schools officials are working to create a “school performance framework” aimed at helping parents and students understand how their schools are doing and navigate the increasing number of choices in the district.

Shelby County charter and traditional schools and the Achievement School District would all use the same template to rate schools’ academic performance, growth and culture. Though the framework will be new to Shelby County, other large urban districts, including Nashville, Denver, and New York City, have been using similar systems for years.

The district will have the framework in place by the 2015-16 school year.

Here’s more about why the district plans to create a school performance framework and how similar tools are working in other districts.

Why does Shelby County need a school performance framework?

In Memphis, the public education landscape is growing increasingly complex: The charter sector is growing, the state-run Achievement School District is expanding, and parents can opt to transfer their children through the district’s optional schools and general choice transfer programs.

“Given the growing number of school options, including charters and the ASD, the goal is to create a common school performance framework,” said Bradley Leon, the district’s chief strategy and innovation officer. Leon said the framework would help parents and students understand how their schools are doing; help them navigate as they choose schools for their children; and help the district understand its own schools.

Schools’ academic performance is already being used in major decisions like which schools to close and which should become part of the state-run Achievement School District, and parents can already opt to attend a charter school or can apply to transfer to various schools in the district. But that information about the schools is not compiled in one place. Officials say parents are often shocked by dramatic interventions like ASD takeovers because they do not know that their child attends a school ranked in the bottom five percent in the state. Other parents rely on word-of-mouth and reputation to determine that they should try to send their children to popular optional programs like the one at White Station Middle.

What would be included in the framework?

The framework would likely include a school’s performance on standardized tests; its growth in test scores; and measures of school culture. But just what measures will be used and how they will be weighted and presented has yet to be determined. Figuring out how to accurately assess and reflect school culture and climate is important but tricky, Leon said.

Around the country, each district’s framework looks different, and frameworks have evolved over time. New York City, for instance, includes a “peer school” component, in which schools are measured against other schools with similar student bodies. Nashville’s shares how many “high-quality seats” are in a school. Denver uses a teacher survey to evaluate school climate.

How will the framework be used?

District officials say knowing how schools rank should help parents decide where to send their students to school.

But the framework could eventually be used for higher-stakes decisions, too. Leon used a sample framework to demonstrate how the district might decide which charter schools should be approved for expansion in the district. The district is also likely to close more schools in coming years, and, given that the district is already citing low academic performance as a reason to close schools, the report card might be used to guide those decisions.

Who will be involved in creating it?

A working group of district officials and local education leaders has been involved in early meetings about what the framework should include. The district plans to involve parents, charter and district school leaders, teachers, and others over the next few months.

The initial working group includes Leon; Mary Earhart-Brown, Shelby County Schools’ manager of parent and community engagement; Sharon Griffin, Shelby County’s regional superintendent for its Innovation Zone Schools; Bill White, Shelby County’s director of planning and accountability; Achievement School District’s superintendent, Chris Barbic, and chief portfolio officer Malika Anderson; Jamal McCall, the director of KIPP Memphis; Derwin Sisnett, the director of Gestalt Community Schools; Stand For Children’s Memphis director Cardell Orrin; and Strive Mid-South director Mark Sturgis.

It’s good that the district recognizes that the ASD and charters make up part of the full range of our education landscape,” said Orrin. “Including them maximizes the value of the performance framework for everyone.” 

Most of the participants are proponents of school choice. The Center for Reinventing Public Education, or CRPE, will consult with the district to create the framework at no cost to the district, Leon said. CRPE highlighted the district’s need to provide more information to parents about school performance in a report released earlier this week.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded several districts, including Nashville, Denver, and New York City, to create school performance frameworks as part of a “district-charter collaboration” grant. The Gates Foundation has also funded CRPE and Great Schools. (Chalkbeat also receives funds from the Gates Foundation.)

What do similar frameworks look like in other districts and how are they working?

In New York City, which introduced the framework in 2007, some school leaders disapproved of the competitive dynamic introduced by the school performance framework (though high-scoring schools often celebrated their results). District officials said earlier this school year that the framework focused too heavily on test scores and could encourage schools to narrow their curricula. The district released a report on school accountability earlier this year, saying the focus should be on supporting rather than punishing schools.

Both the New York City and Denver districts also received criticism for weighting growth over achievement. In New York, parents said this could be misleading, as high-performing magnet schools could receive the same scores as schools with very low levels of proficiency if both schools showed similar growth over time.

For similar reasons, Denver is considering updating its rating system this year to shift more weight to student achievement rather than growth. It is also planning to incorporate more information about younger elementary grades.

Orrin said that in Shelby County, the weighting of various components of the system had yet to be determined. He said there had already been debate about whether growth or achievement should be more heavily weighted. He argued that for some, a school that is “growing” students could be a better fit than one that has high scores but lower growth.

What are the next steps?

The district’s planning committee will meet one more time before a more public planning process begins.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

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

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