collaborative learning

Effort to embed literacy classes in summer camps explodes in Shelby County

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Kayla Terrell, 8, reacts to getting a question correct on her reading worksheet.

Jada Bougard and Kayla Terrell looked to each other and then back down at their vocabulary worksheets. ‘What word should we match for “frozen rain,” Jada asked. “Precipitation or hail?”

Kayla flipped back to the short story that she and her classmates, 40 eight- and nine-year-olds, just read at a daily literacy intervention class at the Thomas B. Davis YMCA in Whitehaven.

“Hail!” she said, pumping her fists into the air when the teacher declared her answer correct.

The two girls are among more than 1,000 Memphis children receiving reading instruction through their camps this summer because of an unprecedented effort to get community groups across the city working toward the same goals.

That effort is spearheaded by Seeding Success, the Memphis member of StriveTogether, a national “collective impact” initiative. Memphis community groups agreed last summer to an ambitious slate of goals, including to have 90 percent of Memphis third-graders reading on grade level by 2025.

Currently, only about a third of local third graders read on grade level, and many fall behind over the summer vacation, according to Mark Sturgis, Seeding Success’s executive director. (Seeding Success and Chalkbeat both receive funds from the Pyramid Peak Foundation).

“Years of research has shown that third-grade reading is indicative of post-secondary success,” Sturgis said. “We know that kids lose ground in the summer, regardless of how effective their teachers were. There’s a strong place for the community to stand in that gap. That’s why we’ve formed our network and focused on the summer.”

Designed by Literacy Mid-South, the summer literacy program gives partner sites everything they need to offer 45 to 90 minutes of K-3 literacy instruction everyday.

That includes materials, teacher training, and ideas about how to deliver lessons. It also includes information about the test scores of students enrolled in their camps, which Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District have agreed to share with Seeding Success.

Because of the data-sharing, organizations can tailor literacy intervention to their own students, rather than treating all students as if they are on the same reading level.

Kim Morgan-West, the YMCA camp director, said having student test scores in hand allows her team to group students based on skill level and focus on the students who are the furthest behind.

“We were able to see a lot of improvement in our students who participated last summer, especially in their confidence to read,” Morgan-West said. “Literacy is the base for all learning, and summer is a great time to strengthen that base. It’s exciting to be able to expand our program this year and better tailor it to our students’ specific needs.”

Literacy Mid-South typically focuses on adult learning —the group estimates that about a quarter of adults in Memphis are functionally illiterate — but decided to support summer programs for school-age children after Seeding Success brought local groups together.

“We saw a huge correlation” between students’ low third-grade scores and adult illiteracy, said Kevin Dean, executive director of Literacy Mid-South. “And we saw an opportunity, because so many summer camps have students walk through their doors every day, but they just weren’t teaching them reading.”

A pilot version of the program last summer served 350 students at six sites. This year, 10 times as many students are enrolled at 15 different locations, ranging from the Whitehaven YMCA to Memphis Athletic Ministries to a summer program run by the Memphis Teacher Residency teacher training program.

The rapid expansion came after Seeding Success’s internal evaluation showed that participation prevented students from losing academic ground over the summer, a phenomenon known as the “summer slide” that tends to hit low-income students hardest.

Literacy Data Chart
PHOTO: Seeding Success

According to Seeding Success’s data from last summer, 74 percent of the 350 students who participated maintained their reading levels over the summer or improved. Only six students showed a backslide, Sturgis said.

Students typically lose two to three months in reading achievement over the summer, according to the National Summer Learning Association.

Students who participate over the summer will receive a book at the end of every week that they are in the program, in an effort to encourage students to continue reading at home, Sturgis said.

“Many students don’t have access to books at home,” he said. “And even if they did, they can’t learn to read well on their own. That’s why basic, foundational skills need to be taught first.”

To reach Memphis’s 90-percent on-track goal by 2025, 500 more third-graders will need to read at grade level every year. Sturgis is confident that goal is attainable.

“It’s easy for a lone teacher to feel overwhelmed at this vast need,” he said. “We can move the needle slowly and progressively if we mobilize the entire community. Because without literacy skills, students are going to get left behind for a lifetime.”

Editor’s note: The third graph has been updated to include the number of Memphis children participating in the program.

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

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