Tennessee

Parents, teachers sue Shelby County Schools over closing of Memphis school

PHOTO: Daarel Burnette II
Attorney Paul Robinson discusses a lawsuit filed on behalf of members of Memphis' South Side community in the wake of the closing of a beloved neighborhood school.

Citing the historic U.S. Supreme Court case that led to integration of America’s public schools, a handful of Memphis parents and teachers are suing Shelby County Schools over a recent school closing, claiming that its students will receive an “inferior and unequal” education at the school to which they are being reassigned.

In a motion filed in U.S. District Court, three teachers, family members of two students, and a community activist argue that test scores at South Side Middle School, which is in the process of being shuttered, outpaced those at Riverview Middle School last year. They say Riverview is a dilapidated building in a gang-ridden neighborhood that would place students’ safety at risk. They also cite absence of computer and Spanish classes at Riverview, which were offered at South Side.

“It becomes an issue when the students are moving backward, not forward,” said Paul Robinson, the group’s lawyer, during a news conference on Thursday. “Everything is worse than what they have now. When you downgrade a child’s education or place them in an inferior environment, you’re violating their constitutional rights.”

The lawsuit, which was filed last week, appears to be the first of its kind in Memphis, where declining enrollment and budget cuts have forced the closure of 19 schools in Memphis since 2012, including South Side.

Robinson said lawyers across the nation have successfully argued that school closures violate students’ rights to a quality education. An alumnus of South Side, he said he is more concerned that students will be placed in a worse school setting than he is about South Side closing.

“An inferior education is inherently unequal and it violates the 14th Amendment,” Robinson said.

Contacted by Chalkbeat on Thursday about the lawsuit, a spokeswoman for Shelby County Schools declined to comment about ongoing litigation.

However, during a series of community meetings earlier this year, Shelby County administrators said they were moving students at South Side, where just one-fourth of students met the state’s reading expectations last year, to a school in the district’s Innovation Zone, a cluster of schools that receive intense interventions aimed at academic turnarounds. The iZone is an expensive initiative that has proven mostly effective since its launch by the district in 2013.

District leaders have said the school closings are necessary because operating under-enrolled schools is not financially or academically efficient. However, Chalkbeat analysis found that students’ test scores have sunk at schools that receive students from shuttered schools, and members of the Shelby County Board of Education have challenged administrators to be more purposeful in reassigning students in the future.

South Side and its future have been the subject of much recent discussion. Twice since 2013, the state’s Achievement School District (ASD) explored intervening after the middle school landed on the list of the state’s 5 percent of worst performing schools. But both times, the ASD withdrew amid protests from the community.

Meanwhile, the school’s student test scores have stagnated. Finally in January, Shelby County Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the district would shutter South Side at the close of the 2014-15 school year and move its students next school year to Riverview, its cross-town rival.

During a subsequent South Side community meeting, parents and students complained that prostitutes roam the streets and gang members regularly exchange gunfire near Riverview, less than two miles from SouthSide, which is nestled in an historic neighborhood rocked by economic shifts and a flood of home foreclosures.

Teachers questioned the accuracy of test score reports from the district that presented Riverview’s scores as better than South Side’s.

“We knew some of the things weren’t right,” said Tondalaya Jackson, the school’s physical education teacher who is among the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “We didn’t know we had a legal basis for it.”

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.