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.”

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