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 tcheshier@chalkbeat.org and (901) 730-4013.

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First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

Facilities

These 102 schools failed latest round of ‘blitz inspections’

PHOTO: Tim Boyle / Getty Images
Taft High School is one of 102 schools that will have to be reinspected.

Chicago Public Schools said Tuesday that 102 schools will require reinspection for cleanliness before students return to class in the fall. The district has been conducting “blitz inspections” at schools to help address widespread concerns about filthy conditions, including rats and rodent droppings.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported earlier in the year that complaints of a rodent infestation at a South Side elementary school had spurred an initial round of investigations, and that 91 of 125 schools failed them. The story brought citywide attention to the issue and raised questions about CPS’ decision to transition the work of keeping schools clean to two private contractors: Aramark, which is based in Philadelphia, and SodexoMAGIC, which is a joint venture between the French company Sodexo Inc. and Beverly Hills, California,-based Magic Johnson Enterprises.

Since 2014, the district has spent more than $400 million on contracts with the two companies.

CPS said in a statement Tuesday that it is “committed to carrying out a multi-pronged plan” that includes adding 200 additional custodians who are deep cleaning schools this summer. Of those, 100 custodians will remain with the district once the new school year begins. A district spokeswoman said monthly inspections will continue and that a “stronger facilities services structure” that employs one building manager to oversee janitorial and engineering services at each school will yield better results.

Jesse Sharkey, the vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, said that the additional custodians do little to make up for the mess. “(Mayor Rahm) Emanuel made a token commitment to increase full-time custodial staff by 100 next fall—about a tenth of the staff that was cut when (he) moved to privatize janitorial and facilities management services for CPS, and a fraction of what’s needed,” Sharkey said in a statement.

Schools that have not yet passed an inspection have received orders for actions, structures, and timelines for improvement, the district said. CPS does not inspect charter, contract, alternative, or options schools that operate outside of district-managed facilities.

Here’s a list of the schools that require reinspection.

ADDAMS
ALCOTT ES
ALDRIDGE
ASHBURN
AZUELA
BARTON
BELMONT-CRAGIN
BENNETT
CAMERON
CANTY
CARDENAS
CARROLL-ROSENWALD
CASTELLANOS
CHICAGO AGRICULTURE HS
CLINTON
COOK
COONLEY
CORLISS HS
CURTIS
DAVIS M
DUBOIS
DUNNE
DURKIN PARK
EARHART
EARLE
ELLINGTON
ERICSON
FAIRFIELD
FORT DEARBORN
FOSTER PARK
FRAZIER PROSPECTIVE
GALLISTEL
GARVY
GOETHE
HALEY
HARVARD
HAUGAN
HEARST
HEFFERAN
HOLMES
HOPE HS
HOPE INSTITUTE
HURLEY
IRVING
JACKSON M
JOPLIN
JORDAN
KENNEDY HS
KERSHAW
KIPLING
LANE TECH HS
LANGFORD
LAVIZZO
Lee Elementary
MARSHALL HS
MASON
MAYS
MCDOWELL
MCKAY
MORGAN PARK HS
MORRILL
MULTICULTURAL HS
NOBLE – COMER
NORTHSIDE LEARNING HS
NORTHSIDE PREP HS
NORTHWEST
OGLESBY
OTIS
OWENS
PARKER
PARKSIDE
PENN
PETERSON
POE
PRITZKER
PULLMAN
REVERE
RICKOVER MILITARY HS
RUDOLPH
RUGGLES
SCAMMON
SKINNER West
SMITH
SOUTH SHORE ES
SOUTH SHORE INTL HS
SPRY ES
SULLIVAN HS
SUTHERLAND
TAFT HS
TARKINGTON
TAYLOR
TELPOCHCALLI
THORP J
URBAN PREP – WEST HS
VOLTA
WASHINGTON H ES
WASHINGTON HS
WEBSTER
WELLS ES
WESTINGHOUSE HS
WHITNEY
WILDWOOD