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.

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

More in What's Your Education Story?

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.