Back to school

Opening bell rings with about 76 percent of Shelby County students enrolled

PHOTO: Daarel Burnette II
Teacher Meah King (center) introduces curriculum to her students on Monday on the first day of class at East High School in Memphis.

Barely halfway through opening day of the new school year, freshman math teacher Robert Jackson was reviewing a new code of conduct with students at East High School in Memphis.

Down two flights of stairs in the marbled building, honors English teacher Meah King was diving into a Langston Hughes’ poem on life’s challenges, pointing out contextual clues and challenging students to draw conclusions about the author’s intent.

Shelby County Superintendent Dorsey Hopson, visiting the storied high school Monday as part of a back-to-school tour, said he likes seeing his district’s 7,000 teachers dig in. The sooner teachers establish cultural norms and dive into curriculum, the better off students will be academically.

The challenge, Hopson said, is getting students to school.

Urban districts across the nation have struggled to get their students seated and learning on the first day of class. In the midst of high mobility rates and a challenging economic and social environment, working-class jobs typically last months instead of years, housing is often temporary, and children live in multiple homes with multiple caregivers. Parents often don’t know that the school year has started or which schools for which their children are zoned.

The result is a transient student population.

Despite the district’s unprecedented registration push for the 2015-16 school year, just 76 percent of its 108,000 projected students had registered for school by Monday, with even fewer showing up.

Those first few days of school are crucial, Hopson said. Rules are explained, relationships between teachers and students are established, and curriculum is rolled out.

“If they’re not there the first day of school, they’re already behind the eight ball,” Hopson said.

Over the summer, administrators aggressively pushed to get as many students registered as possible. Instead of everyone registering the Tuesday before school starts as the district has done in prior years, administrators extended the registration period to almost a month and launched an online registration process, including access to computers and the Internet at schools and special events. Except for a few glitches involving access to login information for some parents, the process generally went smoothly.

“Anytime you’re rolling out a new system like that, you’re going to have hiccups,” Hopson said.

Administrators could not readily disclose school registration numbers on Monday for prior years. However, they cited special attention given to 1,100 students who have been chronically absent in previous years. They managed to get 750 of them registered by calling 900 of their families’ homes and knocking on about 100 doors.

Hopson, who is entering his third year as superintendent of the city-county district consolidated in 2013, said he was pleased overall with this year’s launch.

After laying off about 500 teachers and administrators to budget cuts and losing several hundred more to attrition, administrators made 1,400 hires over the summer, managing to fully staff about 99 percent of the district’s classrooms by opening day. Only four out of the district’s more than 300 schools had two or more vacancies, the result of teachers quitting at the last minute, Hopson said.

At East High School, a historic institution that’s experienced tremendous demographic changes in recent years, principal Marilyn Hilliard promoted the new school year on the school’s red marquee, which is visible from Poplar Avenue, a main thoroughfare in Memphis. She extended the school’s summer hours to give students more time to register and, as students walked in the door on Monday, staff distributed printed copies of their schedules. By Monday afternoon, the hallways were cleared of lost students.

“The only way we can have instructional impact,” Hilliard said, “is if the students are in class in their desks.”

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.”