Tennessee

New school year kicks off with big changes, big goals

Students check their schedules in 2014 at Fairley High, a turnaround school in Memphis under Tennessee's Achievement School District.

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.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson II tours the neighborhood around A.B. Hill Elementary.  He is accompanied by his administrative team as well as SCS Board member Chris Caldwell and members of local media.
PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson II tours the neighborhood around A.B. Hill Elementary. He is accompanied by his administrative team as well as SCS Board member Chris Caldwell and members of local media.

“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.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson II talks academic goals with Riverview K-8 principal Rosalind Martin on the first day back to school Monday.  Martin said her school's theme this year is "Bootcamp to Improve Literacy."  Martin and her staff will wear their military gear each Monday during the school year.
PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson II talks academic goals with Riverview K-8 principal Rosalind Martin on the first day back to school Monday. Martin said her school’s theme this year is “Bootcamp to Improve Literacy.” Martin and her staff will wear their military gear each Monday during the school year.

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.

Riverview seventh grader Anthony Poindexter Jr and his mother Lysandra Bradford filled out his registration paperwork on the first day of school on Aug. 4.  Poindexter plans to work harder in reading this year.
PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN
Riverview seventh grader Anthony Poindexter Jr and his mother Lysandra Bradford filled out his registration paperwork on the first day of school on Aug. 4. Poindexter plans to work harder in reading this year.

 

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.

Fairley High School teachers wrote resolutions for the new year.
Fairley High School teachers wrote resolutions for the new year.
Student Jasmine Jeffries, a senior, says her goal for the new year is to learn more - especially in AP government. She was struck by all the changes to the school's building.
Student Jasmine Jeffries, a senior, says her goal for the new year is to learn more – especially in AP government. She was struck by all the changes to the school’s building.
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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.

Students in Spanish IV discuss their goals for the year at Arlington High School on the first day of school.
PHOTO: Oliver Morrison
Students in Spanish IV discuss their goals for the year at Arlington High School on the first day of school.
Employees documented how many students got off each bus and what time they arrived. Superintendent Ted Horrell said he hopes that they're able to consolidate the students into fewer routes
PHOTO: Oliver Morrison
Employees documented how many students got off each bus and what time they arrived. Superintendent Ted Horrell said he hopes that they’re able to consolidate the students into fewer routes

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.

Last year students complained that the cafeteria food was bad and they are hoping that the new district will bring better quality food.
PHOTO: Oliver Morrison
Last year students complained that the cafeteria food was bad and they are hoping that the new district will bring better quality food.

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 cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

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