New online student registration kicks off at Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Roxanna Vasquez, 11, speaks with district employee Brandon Pinson at the online student registration kickoff for Shelby County Schools.

Eleven-year-old Roxanna Vasquez huddled with her family around a computer during the online student registration kickoff event Monday at the Shelby County Schools Board of Education building in Memphis.

Within 30 minutes, Roxanna was officially registered to attend Colonial Middle School this fall — no paperwork and a reasonable wait time.

An easier, more efficient registration process is the goal as Tennessee’s largest public school district officially moved to all-online registration beginning this week. (See Chalkbeat’s preview of the change, including the challenge of the “digital divide” in Memphis.)

In previous years, student registration has been hampered by long lines and excessive paperwork that made it difficult for working parents to sign up their children for the new school year.

District officials hope the new system not only assists families, but provides administrators with more accurate and timely enrollment estimates, which are critical in planning and staffing schools for the new school year, which begins Aug. 10. In past years, registration day was held just a week before the first day of school, leaving administrators to scramble to manage those important details. In addition, many unregistered students would show up days and even weeks late to school, impacting school operations and funding.

Parents gather to work with district translator Silvia Cubillos.
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Parents seek assistance from district translator Silvia Cubillos.

Monday’s kickoff featured rows of computers, support personnel and translators at five locations in a campaign that will continue through Aug. 4.

While feedback was generally positive, there were some hiccups, including an invitation by one non-school group to help Hispanic families with the registration process — for a fee of up to $25. District officials immediately sent out warnings to ignore the social media invitation from a group called Villaseñor Taxes.

“I saw the ad for charging for help on Facebook,” said Plutarco Vasquez, Roxanna’s father, who is originally from Mexico and speaks in broken English. “It’s sad. Some people will pay that because they don’t know better. What the schools are doing today, all of this is free.”

online registration

A steady stream of parents kept two employees busy from the district’s English as a Second Language (ESL) department at the central office registration site. Additionally, the district’s location at 920 N. Highland St. was designated specifically for English language assistance.

As of Monday evening, more than 20,000 students — almost one-fifth of the district’s expected total enrollment — had completed or started the online registration process, said district spokesman Christian Ross.

The new process is better for parents who have to work and can’t take off for registration day, said Samantha Parks, who signed up her 9-year-old daughter for Getwell Elementary School. “It just makes more sense to do this from home or a library, wherever you can,” she said.

Even so, Parks wasn’t able to register her other two children because their student codes, known as “snapcodes,” were not showing up in the computer system. She was told that redoing their paperwork as if they were new students would address the problem.

A new process doesn’t come without challenges, including the distribution of snapcodes to parents. About 110,000 codes were mailed to parents, which took longer than originally expected, Ross said.

District employee Brandon Pinson works with Samantha Parks at the online registration event.
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
District employee Brandon Pinson works with Samantha Parks.

“We’ve had a lot of parents calling to ask where their snapcodes are,” Ross said. “Some have been able to receive them by email, and others are coming up to the district offices. We’re asking parents to be patient with us and recognize it’s not going as fast as we would want.”

Ross emphasized that the window for online registration is three weeks, so there is still sufficient time to work out the kinks.

“This has turned into positive for our school staff and parents, as it’s taken off a lot of stress that comes with thousands of parents showing up on one day to register their kids,” Ross said. “This gives more time for schools to have their doors ready to open on Aug. 10th.”

In addition to registration assistance, the kickoff event featured games for the kids, free Chick-fil-A dinners and a showcase of other district services. Children who came with their parents were able to receive a free physical, shoot basketball goals to win prizes, and learn about healthy eating from the district’s health services.

“This kind of thing is good for the kids to be a part of,” Parks said. “It makes what can be a stressful thing way more doable.”

Alliyah Parks, 9, tries to catch a basketball. Her mother had just finished registering her for school.
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Alliyah Parks, 9, tries to catch a basketball during a game. Her mother had just finished registering her for school.

Election Forum

Tennesseans are about to get their first good look at candidates for governor on education

Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tennesseans will elect their next governor in November.

For almost 16 years, two Tennessee governors from two different political parties have worked off mostly the same playbook when it comes to K-12 education.

This year, voters will choose a new governor who will determine if that playbook stays intact — or takes a different direction from the administrations of Bill Haslam, a Republican leaving office next January, and Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who preceded him.

Voters will get to hear from all but one of the major candidates Tuesday evening during the first gubernatorial forum televised statewide. Organizers say the spotlight on education is fitting since, based on one poll, it’s considered one of the top three issues facing Tennessee’s next governor. Both K-12 and higher education are on the table.

Candidates participating are:

  • Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet and former Tennessee state senator;
  • Randy Boyd, a Republican from Knoxville and former commissioner of Economic and Community Development and a Republican from Knoxville;
  • Karl Dean, a Democrat and former mayor of Nashville;
  • Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley and minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville and speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County

The seventh major candidate, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is in the midst of a congressional session in Washington, D.C.

The next governor will help decide whether Tennessee will stay the course under its massive overhaul of K-12 education initiated under Bredesen’s watch. The work was jump-started by the state’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, for which Tennessee agreed to adopt the Common Core academic standards for math and English; incorporate students’ scores from standardized tests in annual teacher evaluations; and establish a state-run turnaround district to intervene in low-performing schools at an unprecedented level.

Tennessee has since enjoyed steady student growth and watched its national rankings rise, but the transition hasn’t been pain-free. Pushback on its heavy-handed turnaround district led leaders to widen school improvement strategies. They also ordered new academic standards due to political backlash over the Common Core (though the revised standards are still basically grounded in Common Core).

A major issue now is whether the next governor and legislature will retain Tennessee’s across-the-board system of accountability for students, teachers, schools and districts. Snafus and outright failures with TNReady, the new standardized test that serves as the lynchpin, have prompted some calls to make the assessment just a diagnostic tool or scrap it altogether. Haslam and his leadership team have stood firm.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat recently. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group that works closely with Tennessee’s Department of Education, is a co-host of Tuesday’s forum. Known as SCORE, the group has sought to shape the election-year conversation with priorities that include teacher quality, improving literacy, and developing school leaders — all outgrowths of learnings during Tennessee’s Race to the Top era.

SCORE President David Mansouri said the goal is to maintain the momentum of historic gains in student achievement from the last decade. “The next administration’s education policy decisions will be crucial in determining whether Tennessee students continue to progress faster than students in other states and whether they graduate ready for postsecondary success,” he said Monday.

The one-hour forum will delve into a range of issues. College and career readiness, education equity, and school funding will be among the topics broached before each candidate is allowed a one-minute closing statement, according to David Plazas, a Tennessean editor who will help moderate the discussion.

“It will be really exciting,” Plazas promised. “We’re hoping the candidates are prepared to talk substantively on the issues and to avoid slogans.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. CT at Nashville’s Belmont University. Along with SCORE, it’s being co-hosted by USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. You can livestream the event here and learn more about attending or watching here.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

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