Shelby County Schools

Shelby County board considers teacher and leader, nursing contracts

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has overseen Shelby County Schools since the 2013 merger of Memphis City Schools and the legacy Shelby County district.

 Shelby County Schools board members discussed at a work session on Tuesday whether contracts for some components of its teacher evaluation and professional development programs were the best use of the district’s resources.

The bulk of the contracts are ongoing agreements for programs the district has been using for years. But board members wondered whether some of the programs, including Tripod surveys provided by Cambridge Education and an online professional development video library provided through Teachscape, Inc., are actually effective and being used by teachers and district staff.

The Tripod survey counts for five percent of Shelby County teachers’ evaluations. Students in kindergarten through 12th grade are surveyed about classroom climate and teacher effectiveness several times each year. Board members were skeptical about whether the survey is effective, and whether it is worth a $635,000 contract. “Is there not some other way to do that?” asked Billy Orgel.

Some teacher groups, including the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, have questioned the accuracy of the survey and said it is inappropriate to have students make high-stakes decisions about their decisions. District chief innovation officer Bradley Leon said research has shown that the survey tends to line up with other measures of teacher quality.

Board member David Reaves then asked Leon why, if the survey is so useful, it is worth just five percent of a teacher’s evaluation. Leon said that the five percent target had been reached with the help of the Memphis Shelby County Education Association. He said other districts include student feedback as between five and 15 percent of a teacher’s evaluation.

Leon said the district could consider using a different, less-expensive survey, but that would require approval from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which specified that funds be used for Tripod as part of a major grant for the district’s Teacher & Leader Effectiveness program. (Chalkbeat also receives some funds from the Gates Foundation.)

Meanwhile, the $415,000 contract with Teachscape allows teachers to upload videos of their teaching. Teachers can choose—but are not required—to have videos used in their evaluations. Some principals in the district use the program so they can, for instance, share best practices teaching math or English language arts Common Core lessons. Teachscape has been in use since 2009, when it was piloted as part of the Gates-funded Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) Project.

Leon told board members that 5,000 videos of Shelby County teachers teaching had been uploaded, and 9,000 videos had been viewed this year.

Reaves said, “if this is a key tool we’re using, I don’t understand why we’re not requiring every teacher to use it [as part of their evaluation].”

Superintendent Dorsey E. Hopson II said that some teachers did not want to have the videos as part of their evaluations. “In the spirit of making sure people can use it and feel safe, we haven’t necessarily required it. We have to change the culture so people don’t feel like this is a punitive measure.”

Reaves also questioned whether the number of views and videos actually represented significant usage. The district had some 9,000 teachers overall this year, but some teachers may have uploaded multiple videos. “Can we actually make it part of our culture? If people aren’t using it, I will not vote for it.”

Orgel asked district staff to share with the board how many teachers were actually using the program, and how those teachers were ranked on the district’s evaluation system before next week’s meeting.

Board members will also vote next week on contracts with Curriculum Associates and Renaissance Learning to screen students in the district in math and in reading; with K-3 Reading Foundations to train teachers in reading; with My Learning Plan for systems to evaluate online educators; with Insight Education Group to train teacher observers; and with the Center for Educational Leadership for training for instructional leadership developers.

School nurses and facilities questions

In other actions, board members also previewed and discussed a slew of other contracts related to facilities and health issues that it will vote on at its business meeting next Tuesday.

The board will also vote next week on a $1.9 million contract with Well Child to provide 42 nurses to the district. Shunji Woods, the district’s director of coordinated school health, described the district’s overall distribution of nurses to board members.

The district has 166 nurses overall. The majority focus on working with children with disabilities or chronic health conditions, while others, including the contracted nurses, deal with chronic issues like allergies or diabetes at the school level. The contracted nurses will be assigned to five schools each, and will visit one school each day of the week.

Board chair Kevin Woods said that having quality nurses in schools ties to the district’s so-called “80-90-100 plan,” which is focused on raising student achievement and graduation rates in the district.

Shunji Woods said the high rates of absence due to chronic health issues like asthma might be alleviated by proper management encouraged by school nurses.

Board chair Woods suggested that the district consider expanding the number of nurses in its schools next year. The municipal school districts plan to have one school nurse per school.

The fate of several closed schools in the district was also discussed on Tuesday. Hopson told the board that two separate charter schools have expressed interest in the former Lanier Middle school building. He said the board may meet before July to determine which school will go in the building.

The board will vote next week on whether to approve contracts with a number of architects, including one to design a new building for the former Westhaven Elementary School. Board members also discussed plans to revisit the district’s list of contractors and providers to make sure it is up-to-date and includes woman- and minority-owned businesses.

Contact Jaclyn Zubrzycki at jzubrzycki

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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