Shelby County Schools

Shelby County Schools board will examine its contracting with woman- and minority-owned businesses

Board member Chris Caldwell has led the charge to sue the state for not fully funding the BEP formula.

Shelby County’s school board has created a subcommittee to investigate how many of the district’s contracts are with minority- and woman-owned businesses.

The district currently does not have a way to ascertain which contracts are with minority- and woman-owned businesses, according to spokesman Christian Ross.

The issue of whether government contracts are going to such businesses has been raised in other local government agencies in recent months. The Commercial Appeal reported in May that the Shelby County Commission, like the school district, has not taken stock of how many contracts go to black-, Hispanic-, -and woman-owned businesses in years—and when it did, the portion was very small, despite the fact that Shelby County is majority African-American. The Shelby County Commission is now considering a study into disparities in how contracts are awarded.

At Tuesday’s board work session, board member Shante Avant gave an update on a new board subcommittee’s work on the issue. “There’s been a lot of public domain conversation about making sure we have minority and local businesses receiving contracts with large entities such as our district, the city, and the county,” she said. “We’re happy to move forward and set goals to promote minority- and woman-owned businesses.” She said the work was in the early stages.

Earlier in the meeting, discussions about which architects would be used for new district building projects and which nursing service the district would contract with both touched on the question of whether businesses were owned by local minorities and women.

In the case of the nursing contract, one of the vendors qualified as being minority- or woman-owned while the other two did not.

In the case of the architects, board member Teresa Jones said that district officials had realized that the list of contractors who work with Shelby County Schools has not been updated for several years. She encouraged the district to create an updated list, and when a district official said the list would be updated after several projects were completed, she asked for a sense of urgency.

Superintendent Hopson said that the district would create a new list “ASAP.”

The issue also surfaced at a meeting of the school district’s facilities committee earlier this month. When board members were presented with a list of appraisers who evaluate the district’s property, they noticed that none were minority-owned.

Board member David Reaves said some practical barriers might stand in the way for contractors. He cited a friend whose company did roofing, but was not certified to use the specific materials the district requires contractors to use.

Jones asked the district to look into its contracting process. And facilities committee chair Billy Orgel suggested that the district determine the number of contracts from minority-owned businesses. “We have to have the numbers to have a good discussion.”

Bernal Smith, the publisher of the Tri-State Defender, agreed. “I’m of the school of thought that you can’t fix what you don’t measure,” he said.

“It’s a myth that the businesses aren’t out there,” he said. Smith and several other local business owners are hoping to push city and county leaders to consider their contracting procedures.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.