Shelby County Schools welcomes timely settlement money

PHOTO: Jacklyn Zubrzycki
Ford Road Elementary is among schools in Shelby County's Innovation Zone, a program that stands to benefit from money headed to the district as part of a settlement with the city of Memphis.

Shelby County Schools is poised to receive a much-needed infusion of cash next week as part of a recently approved settlement with the city of Memphis in a longstanding dispute over school funding.

The district is to receive its first payment of $8 million by Feb. 15 as part of a $41 million settlement approved last month by both the Memphis City Council and Shelby County School Board. The agreement was reached just weeks before the district is expected to cut millions of dollars from its budget to counter a loss in students and tax revenue.

The money couldn’t come at a better time for the state’s largest public school district, which was created in 2013 in a historic merger of the city and county school systems. The combined district has struggled financially because of decreasing property tax revenue and the loss of thousands of students to new charter schools and six new municipal school districts – all while working to turn around dozens of academically underperforming schools.

The settlement stemmed from ongoing litigation and negotiations following the City Council’s 2008 decision to withhold $57 million from then-Memphis City Schools. At the time, the council said it was not legally obligated to pay the district and that the school system owed the city for prior debts.

Under the agreement reached in January, the city will provide payments or services to Shelby County Schools totaling almost $42 million over the next 15 years. Following the $8 million initial payment, the city will make annual payments of $1.3 million through 2030. In addition, the district will be forgiven for an $8 million bond debt from 1998, and the city will provide police officers at schools through June 30, 2016, valued at about $2 million.

“When you do mediation, when both sides are walking away a little upset, it’s a good deal,” Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said on Jan. 27 before the board voted to seal the deal. “To put this behind us, it’s best for the community and it’s what’s best for the district.”

District administrators haven’t decided specifically how to divide up the settlement money, and discussions are under way on how the district will receive the first payment, spokesman Christian Ross said Wednesday. However, Hopson previously has said much of the initial money likely will help bolster the district’s Innovation Zone, also known as the iZone, in an effort to improve test scores in the district’s lowest-performing schools.

In all, the district has 69 schools that are considered priority schools – defined as schools that fall in the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state. Seventeen of those are within the district’s iZone, a program created by the state in 2012 to fund turnaround efforts at schools that need it the most. The efforts – which include teacher signing bonuses, professional development and altered curriculum – are largely funded by federal School Improvement Grant money that soon will be depleted.

The district’s iZone has become a source of encouragement for the beleaguered school system, showing strong academic improvements in math and English scores at several of the schools. District administrators have proposed expanding its iZone in the fall.

“Our iZone schools are highly regarded as models for student achievement and school turnaround efforts both in the state of Tennessee and nationally,” Ross said.

Contact Daarel Burnette II at [email protected] or 901-260-3705.

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defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.