Tennessee

Memphis leaders tell students to ‘be present!’ while launching school attendance campaign

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
From left: Cherokee Elementary School principal Rodney Rowan, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson speak Wednesday at a press conference in Memphis about initiatives designed to increase student attendance in Shelby County Schools.

Addressing a chronic problem that drains both critical learning time and valuable state funding from schools, community leaders in Memphis launched a campaign Wednesday targeting student absenteeism.

The campaign, titled “Represent Everyday,” coincides with national Attendance Awareness Month and is being conducted by Shelby County Schools in partnership with local officials, the nonprofit Seeding Success organization, and the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies.

“Nothing good comes from absenteeism,” Shelby County Mayor Mark Lutrell said at a joint news conference at Cherokee Elementary School. “If we don’t start focusing on the essentials and basics at this age, then we’ve missed the opportunity and that will have ramifications throughout life.”

Last year, 22,000 K-12 students missed at least 10 percent of their classes, or roughly 18 days of school, according to Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich. In Shelby County Schools, a student is considered truant if he or she misses five or more days of class.

“If everyone in this room leaves here today and spreads the word that for the month of September, everyone is going to do everything they can to make sure our children go to school every day ready to learn, there will be no need for the (district attorney’s) office to prosecute any truancy cases,” Weirich said. “The absolute last thing our office wants to do is prosecute parents because their kids aren’t going to school.”

The campaign encourages the Memphis community to work together to get kids in their classrooms, particularly in early grades when children are gaining the skills that build their foundation for learning.

Research shows that students who arrive at school academically ready to learn — but then miss 10 percent of their kindergarten and first-grade years — score an average of 60 points below similar students with good attendance on third-grade reading tests.

Shelby County Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said many students in Memphis miss class because of barriers stemming from “suffocating poverty.” Some miss because they lack reliable transportation or have health issues like asthma but lack the proper health care, he said.

Hopson said the campaign is designed to provide incentives, not punishment. He encouraged schools to host pizza parties for good attendance or similar periodic rewards.

Diane Terrell, executive director of the Memphis Grizzlies Foundation, announced the NBA team will provide prizes for good attendance throughout the year. At the end of the first nine weeks of classes, students with 95 percent attendance or better are eligible for a drawing for tickets to a basketball game. The school with the highest attendance rate will receive a similar reward — dinner and tickets to a game. NBA players also will periodically visit schools with high levels of attendance.

Seven Cherokee Elementary School students are honored for perfect attendance during the 2014-15 school year.
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Seven Cherokee Elementary School students are honored for perfect attendance during the 2014-15 school year.

Cherokee Elementary School, which has an average daily attendance rate of more than 95 percent, served as the backdrop for Wednesday’s launch and honored seven students for perfect attendance last year.

Principal Rodney Rowan said good attendance has been vital to strong academic gains in 2014-15 at his school, where he posts the school’s attendance number in the hallways every day and students are rewarded with a “jeans day” if they achieve perfect attendance for 20 days. Students also are invited to parties every two weeks for perfect attendance and good conduct. In addition, Cherokee keeps a clothes closet stocked with gently worn items, including winter coats, so that inadequate clothing can never be a reason why a student misses class.

Before classes began on Aug. 10, Shelby County Schools also struggled to get its students registered, despite an unprecedented push that included a new online registration system, a longer registration period, and even neighborhood canvassing around some schools. By the end of the first week of school, an estimated 9,000 students still were not registered — a chronic issue that has perplexed education leaders for decades.

As of Wednesday, about 102,000 students were registered with the district, and officials were trying to track down about 1,900 students they anticipated would return to Shelby County Schools, according to district spokeswoman Kristin Tallent.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

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