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.