Shelby County Schools

Shelby County Schools makes academic gains, pushes faster growth

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN
Sharpe Elementary students share what they've learned during summer vocabulary camp.

Shelby County’s students managed to slightly bump their test scores up last year, according to district-wide results released Wednesday. That’s despite a tumultuous year that included the historic merging of Memphis City and Shelby County School districts, massive layoffs and significant change in board and administrative leadership.

“If you think about what the staff has been through with the challenges of the merger and separation (of the district) and the huge challenges related to that, they deserve a pat on the back for continuing to educate our children and improve their performance with all of the distractions that we’ve had going on,” said William White, chief of planning and accountability.

But the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, or TCAP, scores showed, as the district fractures into seven districts and undergoes dramatic reform, education leaders have a long way to go to catch Memphis-area students up to their peers across the state. District leaders said Wednesday they will shift their focus this year from operational efforts to improving teacher quality.

“When we look at the sheer rates of proficient and advanced, we’re not satisfied with where we are,” White said.

Wednesday’s results only detailed district-level data. School-level scores will be released later in August. The state used combined test information from legacy Memphis City and legacy Shelby County in 2012-13 to establish this year’s target goals that the merged district needed to meet.

Shelby County Schools met 10 of the 11 academic goals set by the state in several areas including literacy and math, but missed its graduation rate goal by 3.7 percent with 73.7 percent of its students graduating last year.

Shelby County saw growth in all subject areas except for high school English III and third through eighth grade math which each dipped a percentage point.  Only a quarter of students scored proficient or advanced in high school English III and a little more than 41 percent of third through eighth grade students were proficient or advanced in math.

Only 41 percent of the district’s third through eighth graders are reading at a proficient or advanced level.

Shelby County Schools saw the largest improvement in high school Algebra I which increased from 46 percent to 54 percent.

But Memphis-area students’ scores were far lower than the state’s average scores.

For example, around 47 percent of Memphis-area high school students scored proficient or advanced on the state’s biology tests compared to 63 percent of the state’s average district. However, biology and science are not subjects that count against districts in the state’s accountability measure.

Last year, the district’s leaders attempted to merge two districts after Memphis City schools gave up its charter, becoming one of the largest districts in the country and bringing in a slate of new leaders. The effort failed when six municipalities petitioned the state to create their own separate districts. That sparked a lawsuit and dramatic budget cuts that lead to massive layoffs and school closings.

Meanwhile, several schools in Memphis were taken over by the state-run Achievement School District after chronically-low dismal test results.  Several more schools in Memphis could likely be taken over by the state over the next several years.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson II said Wednesday he was glad to see the district’s gains outpace statewide gains but was not satisfied.

“We are very pleased to know we’re trending in the right direction,” Hopson said. “However, we cannot rest with slight gains; we must press forward with a more aggressive agenda that increases student achievement at a more rapid rate.”

In the upcoming school year, which begins on Monday,  the district will focus more on improving literacy and college and career readiness.

“We believe the best way to address (improvement) is to focus on teacher and leader effectiveness at every grade level,” White said.  “Our focus is making sure that we have highly effective teachers, and that we provide support for teachers and leaders who are not as effective as we’d like.”

If a student is not reading well in the third grade, White says, the district has to work with parents to intervene.

“We need (parents) to help develop their child’s language skills through conversations and their literacy skills by reading with them,” he said.

Hopson recently set the district’s long-range goals earlier this year to have 80 percent of its students graduating “college-and career-ready,” 90 percent of students graduating and 100 percent of college- and career-ready students heading to postsecondary opportunities by 2025.

Hopson also hired former Memphis City Schools leader Carol Johnson to help guide the district in making decisions and in selecting its next chief of academics.

And he vowed to the families of students at several schools he shuttered last year that they would have additional education opportunities at their new schools.  One of the opportunities Shelby County is piloting this year is blended learning, which provides students with laptops to use in class and at home to continue studying and receive academic support.  The district spent $5.5 million to place the program in 16 schools.

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

Follow us on Twitter: @TajuanaCheshier@chalkbeattn.

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History alive

Inspired by Hamilton, Colorado students perform their own raps and poems on the big stage

PHOTO: Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post
From left, West Leadership Academy's Alexandra Andazola Chavez, Jose Torres Andazola, Rossy Martinez Sanchez, and Zehydi Chaparro Rojas perform "The Story of Peggy."

The plush red seats at the Wednesday matinee of Hamilton in Denver were filled with 2,700 teenagers who’d spent weeks studying a special curriculum about the hip-hop musical’s namesake, Alexander Hamilton, and the other Founding Fathers. Even though the show’s four-week Denver run had been sold out for months, the teenagers were seeing it for free.

Some of them had dressed for the occasion in high-heeled boots and three-piece suits. Others wore jeans and Converse. They represented 38 Colorado high schools that serve high proportions of students from low-income families, and many of them were students of color.

That’s notable because most of the cast of Hamilton are actors of color. Hamilton, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson are played by black and Latino actors, a decision creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has said reflects America’s racial makeup and is meant to pull the audience into the story of an immigrant, Hamilton, who played an important role in the nation’s founding.

Before the show, 23 students took the stage to perform their own spoken word poems, raps, monologues, and scenes inspired by what they’d learned from the Hamilton Education Program curriculum, which was devised in part by Miranda and has its own hashtag: #EduHam.

“My body felt electrified,” said Josiah Blackbear, a 15-year-old sophomore at West Early College in Denver, who performed a rap he’d written about Alexander Hamilton. “The words I was speaking brought power and truth to the rest of the venue.”

Here is video of six of the student performances, including one entirely in Spanish.


During Memphis visit, former Newark schools chief touts ways to change student discipline

PHOTO: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
Cami Anderson when she was superintendent of schools in Newark, New Jersey.

As the top schools chief in Newark, Cami Anderson was horrified at the strict discipline policy she saw in one of her high schools. Since then, she has left the New Jersey district and taken her ideas on the road about reducing suspensions and moving away from exclusionary discipline practices.

This week, Anderson came to Memphis as part of her Discipline Revolution Project at the invitation of Stand for Children Tennessee, The Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, School Seed, and Shelby County Schools. The New Teacher Project is partnering with her on the national tour.

Anderson has been meeting with Shelby County Schools administrators and board members as well as charter school leaders, philanthropists, education advocates, and students. Her time will culminate in a public event hosted by Stand for Children on Thursday at the National Civil Rights Museum.

Chalkbeat sat down with Anderson after she explained to a group of about 40 charter leaders her six focus areas to reduce classroom disruptions while also preventing sending students home when they’re in trouble. (This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.)

Related story: Tennessee students more likely to be suspended if they’re black boys — or live in Memphis

Question: How did you land on student discipline as an area you wanted to focus on?

Answer: If there’s actually a thread in my career, it’s this. I essentially ran the system of supports for the kids in New York City who are on their last stop on the train, so to speak. I’ve always worked with kids who are marginalized, the ones who really struggled in school. So, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what we need to get better at collectively to serve all kids, to really embrace the “all means all.” That’s been my lifelong question.

The three areas to me where inequities are most obvious are: enrollment policies, how we handle discipline, and mobility and how a kid stays connected to school. Discipline is where it comes to a head. It’s both a place where our collective inability to reach all kids shows up and it’s also an opportunity if we actually figure out how to prevent young people from misstepping in the first place, but then respond in healthy ways when they do Then we’d actually start to solve the broader equity issues.

Q. School leaders say they don’t want to have a lot of suspensions because students miss out on class. But they’re also not sure what to replace suspensions with to manage student behavior well. What would you say to them?

"You can’t just be against something. You have to be for something."Cami Anderson

A. That’s one of the main reasons we started Discipline Revolution Project. We don’t want you to do X, whatever X is: suspend kids, use corporal punishment. But educators are saying, rightfully so, then what are we doing? Our whole framework is trying to answer that question and give them tools to get to the “why” behind finding alternative responses.

Most people who use punitive or exclusionary discipline don’t actually think it works that well. They just don’t have a lot of other tools. So, when you give folks a lot of other tools and they find that it works, it’s a very powerful thing. When people try out a restorative conference, they say “Oh, I feel better. The kid feels better. And we actually got back to the lesson faster.” You can’t just be against something. You have to be for something.

I’ve heard a lot of demand for basics of restorative practices (conflict resolution between students and students and teachers), though I don’t think they should stop there. They want training for student support teams. And overwhelmingly, the places I’ve been want to talk about how teacher bias plays into who gets disciplined, but they don’t know how to start the conversation and for it to be productive.

Q. Memphis’ two school districts have emphasized a bottom-up approach on discipline reform: adding behavior specialists, school counselors, soliciting support from principals and teachers. How have you seen other districts do it?

"Policy-level change is critical but insufficient if you only do that."Cami Anderson

A. I’ve seen districts lead with policy and only make statements declaring they will cut suspensions in half or put a moratorium on suspensions or rewrite their policy. Policy-level change is critical but insufficient if you only do that. What you see is folks who are actually on the ground working with students may not have the strategies to replace it with something productive. That causes people to be more entrenched in their views that discipline reform wouldn’t work, some schools subtly pushing kids out, underreporting discipline data, all that.

I’ve also seen the opposite where it’s all about professional development and capacity but at no point is there is any accountability for those same schools, for example, that suspend 90 percent of the kids. People watch what you do, not what you say. If you don’t align your policies and your actions with your values, then you also have limits to the impacts you have for kids.

Frustrated with high suspension rates, Memphis schools shift to restorative justice

I’ve come to believe you need all of it and you need everyone working together. Stop admiring the problem and get on to the solutions.

Q. What pushed student discipline practices more widely into the national conversation? What have you observed from the conversation here in Memphis?

A. People are looking at data, which is a good thing, and seeing patterns like everyone else. Another thing is I believe a lot of people who got into education reform are completely dedicated to equity. And now they’re seeing this side of it, and like someone said in the training today, they feel a sense of “healthy guilt.” I think it’s great they’re having the courage to be honest. And then a lot of folks had kids. You start thinking, “Do I want any of that happening to my own kid?” I’m personally heartened and encouraged and motivated to see a collective sense of responsibility and focus on this.

There’s a lot of energy and candor in Memphis about this issue. Some other cities I’ve been in think they have it figured out when they don’t. When there’s that much energy, I think anywhere — including in Memphis — people can be tempted to devolve into the blame game, no matter what district or charter hat you wear. That energy can be the greatest asset or greatest liability.

Study: When Chicago cut down on suspensions, students saw test scores and attendance rise

Q. The school shooting in Parkland has been a catalyst for more conversations about the trauma students bring into the classroom — conversations that were already happening about violence in low-income communities of color. What would you say to school leaders on how to address that?

A. I’m most interested to know what adults can do to mitigate those risk factors for young people who experience trauma. I feel like it could take us down a very bad path to just observe that there are things called “adverse childhood experiences.” To me, that’s not enough. The question then is what are the environments and strategies that we can put in place as educators and adults to mitigate the impact of those traumatic experiences. Things like relationships, trust, consistency, high expectations, high supports, and support healthy identity development especially in times of conflict. We know from research that young people who face long odds who ultimately prevail, they are exposed to environments that really embody those things.

You can both be aware of and acknowledge those experiences that make it harder for them to succeed in school. But if you stop there, I don’t think you’re doing justice to young people. There are things we can do in schools to help create the environment to help them succeed.