The start of the 2014-15 school year Monday marked the first day that eight districts—Shelby County Schools, which includes Memphis and some of the surrounding county, six new school districts in the Memphis suburbs, and the state-run Achievement School District—will operate simultaneously in this corner of southwestern Tennessee.
The stakes are high for schools across the county. Shelby County Schools has set a goal to dramatically improve the district’s graduation rate and academic performance in the next decade. The district’s lowest-performing schools are eligible to be taken over by the state.
The Achievement School District, which aims to dramatically improve academics in schools that were ranked in the bottom 5 percent in the state, is entering its third year and striving for increased stability and consistent results across its schools.
And the new districts in Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland, and Millington are hoping to prove that their first year will go smoothly—and that the creation of their districts were worth the legal back-and-forth and debate that have dominated the public conversation around schools for more than three years.
Chalkbeat Tennessee visited schools in Shelby County Schools, the ASD, and two of the six new suburban school systems to see how the first day of school went.
Shelby County Schools
The first day of school often means a review of rules and procedures, but many teachers across the county hit the ground running to gauge what students know and which techniques they should use this year to get them to where they need to be.
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson II toured classrooms where students were working on writing assignments and others where teachers were reviewing mathematical formulas.
Hopson said his goal this year is to “figure out a way to drastically improve student literacy and academics overall.”
Hopson spent the first day of classes visiting the brand-new Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, A.B. Hill Elementary, Riverview K-8 and Germantown Elementary.
While visiting A.B. Hill, Hopson along with his administration team and the school’s principal Veronica Parish walked in the surrounding neighborhood taking note of the blight in the area where students live.
“When I’m in schools like A.B. Hill that have only a handful of students, I understand the feeling the community has of ‘don’t close our school,'” Hopson said.
He called schools ‘a beacon of hope’ in communities like A.B. Hill that have been stricken by poverty. Hopson has often said that providing students with quality educational opportunities is the only way to stop the cycle of poverty in Memphis’ hard-struck areas.
Hopson praised A.B. Hill principal Veronica Parish for increasing student growth in the midst of facing district changes to grade configurations at her previous school, Riverview Elementary, which is now a kindergarten through eighth grade school under principal Rosalind Martin.
At Riverview, Hopson was greeted by Martin, who was dressed in full military fatigues as part of this year’s theme of “Bootcamp to Improve Student Literacy.”
“I love your theme for literacy,” Hopson told the principal.
Riverview’s K-8 configuration is new this year, the result of the merger of Riverview Elementary and Riverview Middle School. Martin had been the principal at Riverview Middle.
Riverview K-8 is also one of the district’s Innovation Zone schools, which means the school has more site-based initiatives that it can use to address low student performance. The school will be one of the 16 sites that will participate in the blended learning pilot, which will put computers in students’ hands so they can continue learning at school and home.
Martin said the students have longer days and an hour-long intervention time in subjects where they need to improve. Riverview is also using single-gender classrooms in some subject areas. The impact has been fewer behavioral problems and improved performance, Martin said.
Riverview seventh grader Anthony Poindexter’s new school year resolution is to work to improve his reading skills, the subject is not among his favorites. Poindexter prefers math and hopes to become a football player or a veterinarian.
Achievement School District
Students at Fairley High School returned to a familiar, but somewhat different campus now that their school is operated by Green Dot, a state-approved charter operator. Fairley, which had been placed on the state’s priority list after ranking in the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state, is officially part of the Achievement School District rather than Shelby County Schools now.
The school is still called Fairley High School, and it is still required to serve all students who would have attended the school when it was part of Shelby County Schools. As of late Monday morning, some 500 students were at school. School leaders had planned for more than 600 students, and are hoping more students will enroll in the next few weeks.
Students on their first day back Monday said they were adjusting to the changes, which included new paint and classroom numbers. In some hallways, old pictures of the school mascot, a bulldog had been painted over; in others, new versions of the mascot had been “tattoed” onto the wall.
Early in the day, a group of seniors helped direct younger students to their new classes.
The students were also adjusting to new teachers. In one classroom, a teacher on her very first day called roll. “I might not pronounce all of your names correctly,” she said.
Megan Quaile, the chief growth officer for Green Dot, which also runs schools in California, said, “ACT scores at the school need to go up. But we also want kids to want to be here.” Green Dot is tasked with improving the school’s academic performance dramatically.
One wrinkle Monday morning: Buses, provided by Durham School Services, were running close to 40 minutes late.
Before school started, Fairley teachers wrote individual resolutions for the new school year. Their resolutions, along with community members’ and students’, will be posted in the halls of the school.
James Sullivan, a former Shelby County Schools teacher who is now teaching Algebra 1 at Green Dot, said that he hopes to increase his students’ ACT scores so far.
The six schools that are directly run by the Achievement School District in the Frayser neighborhood also opened Monday. This is the ASD’s third year running schools, and the first year that the ASD has not added additional direct-run schools. Ash Solar, director of the direct-run schools, said school leaders were glad to be able to focus on improving schools and sharing best practices rather than on starting up new ones.
Six new charter schools, and 23 school altogether, are part of the ASD this year.
Municipal School Districts
In their inaugural year as independent school districts, not just students and teachers but leaders and administrators had an especially nervous and exciting first day in Lakeland and Arlington.
Parents at Lakeland elementary bought last minute supplies from the school store, hugged their students goodbye and then Principal Joretha Lockhart gave her first welcome on the intercom.
The pressure to keep performance high is also a factor for Arlington High, a high performing school last year.
“It’s easier to get to the top than it is to stay on top,” said Chris Duncan, principal. “Put the things in place to give opportunities for kids to succeed.”
But the first day ran smoothly, he said: if you hadn’t been reading the papers or watching the news, you wouldn’t have known that anything was different this year.