The Memphis Model

As school year begins, teachers team up with in-class tutors at two Memphis high schools

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
College students train for newly created high school tutoring jobs during a summer training session at the University of Memphis.

Meah King started last school year at Memphis’ East High School as the sole teacher in her 10th-grade English classrooms, each with some 30 students and more than a third of whom were two to three years behind grade level in reading proficiency.

“I was fighting to get these kids up to grade level, teach curriculum and do it in nine months,” King recalls.

King will have reinforcements this year, however. When Shelby County Schools begins its new school year on Monday, her student-teacher ratio will drop from 28:1 to 7:1, thanks to the new “Memphis Model” tutoring program providing her with three more instructors for each class.

Roughly 145 University of Memphis students were trained this summer to begin working alongside teachers like King at East and Whitehaven high schools.

The additional support is designed to provide more individualized student attention in a district experimenting with new strategies to help struggling schools and struggling students, especially in addressing low literacy rates.

Both East and Whitehaven already have an after-school student tutoring program in place known as Peer Power 2.0. The Memphis Model will bring tutors into the classroom during the school day, however.

The expanded program is being offered through a partnership forged by Shelby County Schools, the University of Memphis, and the Peer Power Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded in 2005 to provide tutoring at select local schools.

“We’ve seen through the 2.0 model that being there during the day has a greater impact,” said Kela Jones, development director for Peer Power. “You’re able to shrink the ratio in the classroom so it presents more of a class size that you would see at a private school.”

The expanded effort will cost between $1.3 and $1.5 million, funded mostly by businessman Charlie McVean, a local philanthropist, founder of Peer Power, and a 1961 graduate of East High School.

The tutors, called “success coaches,” are primarily college students from the University of Memphis and will earn $11-12.50 an hour. They’ll be placed in Algebra I, Biology I, English I and some chemistry courses, where the need for individualized attention is greatest.

For instance, in state achievement tests taken last spring at East High School, 43 percent of students scored proficient in Algebra I, 17 percent in Biology I, and 34 percent in English I.

“This model will exhaust the student teacher ratio. I love it!” King said. “It gives students more intimate interaction with an instructor who is competent.”

King said she plans to break up her classroom into groups based on skill levels. Each success coach will work with a group to make sure students are able to follow her lessons.

“If there is an issue, then the first line of defense will be a success coach,” she said. “If they’re not successful, then that’s when I would step in.”

The tutoring partnership benefits the University of Memphis too, developing leadership and teamwork skills among its current college students, plus recruiting potential new college students as well, according to Thomas Nenon, dean of the College of Arts and Science.

“If more of these students leave high school prepared for college work, we think many of them might pursue their education at the University of Memphis,” Nenon said.

Faculty at both high schools joined their tutors in July in training sessions at the University of Memphis, where tutors took refresher courses in each subject. On one day, college students gathered in a lecture hall and listened to East High School math teachers Robert Jackson and Kelly Miller present a lesson on how to engage high school algebra students.

“This is how I explain it to the kids because they understand that analogy,” Jackson said as he wrote out an algebra equation on a whiteboard. “Bring them into the lesson by visualizing,” Miller added.

East High School teacher Robert Jackson shows tutors how to teach algebra equations to students.
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
East High School teacher Robert Jackson shows college tutors how to work with and instruct high school algebra students.

The students paid close attention — knowing they would be assessed in the subject later to determine which subject they’ll tutor.

Tutors are placed in one subject for the year based on their strengths and availability. Teachers also weigh in on which tutors they want to work with, as long as the tutors’ college course schedules matches their availability and they are proficient in that subject.

Matthew Carney, a University of Memphis graduate student, said the training sessions prepared him — both with the information he’ll have to teach and the best instructional approaches.

“It’s been extremely efficient,” he said.

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

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”