Shelby County Schools

Shelby County Schools wants to bring accountability, kindergarten-readiness to city’s Head Start program

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN
Students at Sharpe Elementary.

Shelby County Schools administrators said Tuesday they will use their control of the city’s Head Start program to emphasize reading skills, teacher accountability and kindergarten readiness for low-income Memphis children under five.

The board on Tuesday accepted $33 million in federal and state grants to take over the area’s Head Start program which serves around 5,000 low-income students educational, health and social services throughout the day. That’s 2,000 students more than Shelby County served when it ran the program last year.

“We have a unique opportunity to place high, rigorous standards in our early childhood programs…” Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson II said Tuesday.

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell declined to apply for the funds this year because he said that most Head Start programs are run by non-profits or people who are experts in working with students, according to the blog Smart City Memphis.
Luttrell also said that too much Head Start money was going to employee benefits and a new provider would be able to put more of that money in the classroom.
Both Porter-Leath, which served 640 students for the county under the previous Head Start contract, and Shelby County Schools submitted proposals to take over the contract which began on July 1.
Some pre-K advocates have suggested that Shelby County Schools will have more incentive to prepare their students for the academic demands of kindergarten than the county did.
School officials say fewer than 30 percent of students in Shelby County enter kindergarten prepared for school. A referendum to expand pre-K last November lost, in part due to criticisms that a sales tax disproportionately falls on the poor and that the revenues might be used to lower the property taxes of the rich.
Around 8,000 children in Shelby County are eligible for Head Start, meaning 3,000 will still go unserved this year, an area of concern for administrators.

Superintendent Hopson said Tuesday that the Head Start grant gives the district the opportunity to place high, rigorous standards in more early childhood programs and select better contractors to oversee some of the classes.

Along with its already-existing voluntary pre-K classes, the district will now offer more than 100 early education classes by this fall, some that will be operated by contracted partners including Kindercare, Kiddie College and Great Adventures. The district also uses money out of its operating budget and from the Federal Race to the Top grant to pay for pre-K classes. Those pots of money have been strained in recent years.

DeAnna McClendon, the district’s Early Childhood Program Manager said all Head Start classes this fall will look more similar to the district’s K-12 academic programs and have a stronger emphasis on reading and higher standards for pre-K teachers. Officials on Tuesday showed board members a rubric in which students will be measured on their language and reading acquisition throughout the year.

McClendon also said the district would hire additional positions to assure program quality including a data compliance advisor and assistant, an education analyst, a strategic initiatives manager and three early childhood instructional advisors.

Some of the county’s approximately 350 Head Start workers attended last month’s board meeting amid concerns that they could lose their jobs or suffer a reduction in benefits.

But Netra Weatherby, a Head Start family services advocate said she was told teachers would still have their jobs at the same rate of pay. Weatherby thanked Superintendent Dorsey Hopson II after Tuesday’s meeting.

Contact Tajuana Cheshier at and (901) 730-4013.

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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