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.

HeidiRwithWilliams-MainArt3
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 tcheshier@chalkbeat.org and (901) 730-4013.

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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