From Milwaukee to Memphis

New chief academic officer maps attack on low literacy levels

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Heidi Ramirez visits a class in 2014 at Southwind High School in Memphis soon after she was named the district's chief academic officer. Ramirez announced her resignation from Shelby County Schools on Tuesday.

For Shelby County Schools’ chief academic officer, Heidi Ramirez, improving students’ performance starts with the creation of a literacy plan to help those reading below grade level – nearly half of the student population.

Ramirez, who was appointed in October, is planning an offensive against the low literacy levels that plague Memphis students and are seen as holding the city’s economic development back. Only a third of students in kindergarten through third grade are reading on grade level, according to the 2014 state report card, and advocacy groups estimate that about a quarter of adults in Memphis are functionally illiterate. 

Ramirez told Chalkbeat that she and her administrative team are spending the next several weeks drafting a comprehensive literacy plan that lays out expectations for students, curriculum and testing, and training for teachers at each grade level.

“The plan will need to lay out an instructional vision and also be clear about the kinds of the assessments that the district needs,” Ramirez said. “It will have to be a plan that the entire district can get behind.”

As part of the process, Ramirez is visiting schools and asking educators about the efforts they already have underway to boost students’ reading and writing skills. Ramirez said she would visit schools on an ongoing basis to inform her office’s initiatives.

During a recent visit to Southwind High School, where half of students are reading on grade level, Ramirez asked teachers to explain their strategies for improving literacy and the extent that literacy challenges interfere with instruction.

Shelby County Schools Chief Academic Officer Heidi Ramirez meets students at Southwind High  in this Nov. 25, 2014 photo.
PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN
Shelby County Schools Chief Academic Officer Heidi Ramirez meets students at Southwind High in this Nov. 25, 2014 photo.

Principal Terrence Anthony Brown said the schools “no grade book closure” practice is used to encourage students to keep working toward mastery in the subjects where they struggle.

“If you give up attempting, then you’ll fail,” said Brown, who also added students receive before and after school tutoring. “One of our challenges is motivating students. They have to be accepting, willing to study and retake tests until they are proficient.”

A world history teacher, Jeanie Williams, told Ramirez the district needs a centralized database to share lessons and ideas that work well in the classroom.

“It would be so helpful if we had a way for teachers to share what (successful) lessons they are using in the classroom,” Williams said.

Ramirez’s arrival in Shelby County follows criticism about the absence of experienced educators among Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s top schools officials. Trained as an art teacher but without any classroom teaching experience, Ramirez most recently has been a consultant focusing on curriculum and instruction. She previously was chief academic officer in Milwaukee, where she also emphasized literacy during her two-year tenure between 2010 and 2012.

That emphasis resulted in a “comprehensive literacy plan” that included curriculum standards for each grade, a vision for integrating literacy into all academic subjects, and resources to make sure students with disabilities shared in the literacy push. Under her leadership, Milwaukee selected a literacy curriculum produced by the publishing company Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and reading scores rose the following year.

Ramirez arrives in a district that is facing a number of policy questions related to charter schools, state school takeovers, student mobility, and other issues. She declined to address those often controversial topics during her conversation with Chalkbeat, instead emphasizing that her focus is on academics — and on how to involve families and communities to support academic growth.

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Ramirez hears academic ideas from Southwind High world history teacher Jeanie Williams during her visit on Nov.25,2014

“We want parents to be clear about how they can support [instruction],” she said. “Parents should have a good sense about what they should see in their child’s classroom. … There’s a whole range of ways parents can be involved.”

Those ways, she said, could involve learning how to question their children after reading together, talking to their children about current events, or helping their children learn new words.

But even as she characterized the district’s literacy needs as urgent, Ramirez said she would proceed cautiously to ensure that educators support the initiative. Some local educators have criticized the introduction of new learning standards known as the Common Core as being too fast to be effective.

“We also have to pace the work as we roll it out to make sure we don’t overwhelm the staff,” Ramirez said.

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

Follow us on Twitter: @TajuanaCheshier@chalkbeattn.

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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

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”