Collierville’s leader breaks down the municipality split

PHOTO: Oliver Morrison

John Aitken served as superintendent of Shelby County Schools from 2009 to 2013 amid one of its most tumultuous changes in recent memory, including the changes wrought by Race to the Top, a new teacher evaluation system and the merger with Memphis City Schools. Now as the superintendent of Collierville Schools he hopes that, after a busy start, his job will settle down and he can spend more time building relationships.

In this interview he talks to Chalkbeat about how, until this year, there hadn’t been a new district in Tennessee in over 60 years, what remaining challenges wake him up at night and when and how he plans to celebrate.

1. People are excited about moving into Collierville now that it has its own new municipal school district, according to Aitken. As students from nearby schools return to the district in the coming years, he expects Collierville Schools to grow so much that they will likely have to build more schools in the near future.

2. Aitken says he took over the superintendent job of legacy Shelby County Schools at a moment when so much of education in Shelby County was about to change. He spent so much time dealing with Race to the Top, evolving teacher evaluation models, the merger and demerger—that he was never able to fully settle in. Although he wasn’t in favor of the school merger last year, he thinks taking the job may have been his subconscious letting him know that the opportunity to lead his own community in Collierville would be coming soon.

3. Until this year, there hadn’t been a new school district in Tennessee in over 60 years.  Many times even the state’s Department of Education couldn’t answer his questions about policies and procedures.

4. The municipal districts have been passing hundreds of new policies in the last few months, but many of them are dictated by law and the other ones, he said, have drawn largely upon the practices of legacy Shelby County Schools.

5. Aitken says that in the future the district might start looking at changing more policies that are specific to Collierville’s community, such as new start times, but right now the focus is just on making sure that everything functions at the beginning of the year.

6. He says that some of the little details, such as getting the bus routes down, are what keep him up at night. And he says that he will be celebrating after the first payroll on Aug. 15, if everything goes well.

7. Aitken says that each of the municipal districts is unique and will have their own challenges.

8. There isn’t as much money for programs such as special education in the municipal districts, so he says they have to be more careful about how they spend their money.

9. Being superintendent of eight rather than 51 schools means that he thinks he’ll be able to be more hands on as superintendent.

10. Over the course of 35 years in education, he says he has been inspired by both helping his schools deal with tragedies, and sing at the weddings of the children of his former students.

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.