Going deeper

School operations, enrichment cut ‘to the bone,’ says Shelby County’s state funding lawsuit

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Riverview School, near downtown Memphis, includes elementary-age children, as well as middle school students who live in a mostly low-income community. Shelby County leaders chose Riverview as the site to announce the district's funding lawsuit against the state.

Riverview School is tucked in a hilly neighborhood that hugs the Mississippi River just south of downtown Memphis. Its twisting roads are marked with potholes, littered with trash and lined with liquor stores, makeshift churches and burned or abandoned homes. Recently, the local district attorney declared the neighborhood a nuisance zone for roving street gangs that regularly exchange gunfire. With the average family bringing in less than $10,000 a year, it is one of the poorest census tracts in America.

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Some Riverview students walk home after finishing classes.

Against this backdrop, Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson opted to announce on Monday that the district’s school board has filed a lawsuit against the state of Tennessee for failing to live up to its constitutional obligation to provide its students an adequate education.

The state’s unwillingness to adequately fund its schools disproportionately impacts Memphis’ poor, black and disabled children, the lawsuit said.

“When you have some of the suffocating poverty that we have, to get to the results we’re trying to get to, it takes resources,” Hopson said in a news conference held in Riverview’s media center.

The 38-page lawsuit may provide the most detailed narrative yet of how five years of cutting close to $575 million from Memphis schools has impacted its neediest children.

Riverview, which serves 516 students in kindergarten through the eighth grade, could serve as the poster child for the district’s case against the state, say administrators. In the last five years, more than eight schools have been closed in bordering neighborhoods, sending a large portion of those students to Riverview and causing annual social and academic upheaval for the community.

Under annual budget cuts, the school axed its foreign language program and reduced its gifted program to just one hour a week. There are no sports fields for its middle schoolers to host home games. Band was almost cut this year, but the principal pulled funds from another account to keep the program alive.

“Because of the lack of funding,” the lawsuit contends, “the district is unable to provide many of these impoverished, mainly-minority students with an education that would allow them to achieve the outcomes mandated by the Tennessee Constitution, given the high-density urban setting in which the district operates, nor an education that is substantially equal to the education received by other students in the state.”

In descriptive, bulleted detail, the suit details dilapidated facilities, annual staff layoffs, and federally mandated course offerings and services axed. The district, under pressure by the state to boost its lagging test scores but without the money needed to do so, struggles to adequately evaluate its teachers or properly prepare students for tests, the lawsuit says.

The brief, filed by a law firm in Wichita, Kan., was based on hours of testimony from administrators, teachers and parents across Tennessee’s largest district, serving 109,000 students. Some administrators broke down in tears while describing the conditions in which students were coming to school, and their own inability to meet the students’ needs.

Shelby County Superintendent Dorsey Hopson speaks Monday about the district's funding lawsuit against the state as school board member Chris Caldwell looks on.
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Shelby County Superintendent Dorsey Hopson speaks about the district’s funding lawsuit against the state as school board member Chris Caldwell looks on.

“The suggestion that Shelby County Schools or any school district in Tennessee should accept this and should sacrifice a generation of students because the state of Tennessee has failed to fulfill its constitutional responsibility is unacceptable,” board member Chris Caldwell said during Monday’s news conference. “Our students don’t get these years back and their future opportunity to lead a successful life is harder to achieve because of it. All Tennessee children and their families deserve better than this.”

Shelby County is 82 percent black and its students speak more than 50 languages. Its test scores rank amongst the lowest in the state, with just 30 percent of its elementary students reading at grade level.

District budget cuts are due to a host of factors. Sales and property tax revenue decreased during the recession and, in recent years, the district has lost thousands of students — and the federal, state and local tax dollars that come with them — to surrounding districts and a growing crop of charter schools.

Exacerbating the challenges, the lawsuit contends, has been the state’s inability to properly fund its Basic Education Program, or BEP, a complex formula for distributing education funding across the state. The lawsuit charges that the BEP grossly miscalculates the costs of education and demands that the state invest millions of more dollars into public K-12 education, as well as vastly expand its pre-kindergarten offerings. A victory could bring at least $100 million more a year to Shelby County Schools alone, administrators say.

Gov. Bill Haslam and other state education leaders have declined to comment on the pending litigation involving Shelby County or another funding-related lawsuit filed last March by seven southeastern Tennessee districts led by Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga. The Shelby County suit’s focus is education funding for the district’s mostly minority, mostly poor population, which is why Memphis leaders chose to file a separate suit rather than join the Hamilton County litigation.

Robert Gowan, a lobbyist for the Coalition of Large Area School Systems, said the current litigation will be different from the 1988 lawsuit by 77 small school systems that claimed that the state’s education funding formula was inequitable and forced the creation of the BEP.

“It’s not going to be a case where you had with small schools a zero-sum game and small schools benefitted at the expense of large districts,” Gowan said. “These lawsuits are about adequacy and not equity. They’re not talking about how the pie is distributed. This is about trying to make the pie bigger.”

Hopson has said his administration has tried to protect the classroom when making budget cuts. But the lawsuit makes clear that those cuts have not only hit the classroom; they have hit every aspect of the school day.

The district transports students to school at 7 o’clock in the morning because “the operations side of the district is often cannibalized in a way that cuts services ‘to the bone,'” according to the lawsuit. Schools sometimes go weeks without heat in the winters and air conditioning in the spring and summer. Roofs are in disrepair, pipes leak, and staff have to close portions of buildings due to mold. While the state forbids districts from charging poor students to participate in extracurricular activities, Shelby County Schools charges them anyways to keep the activities alive.

“Somebody has to pay for them,” said Valerie Speakman, the district’s lawyer.

This past summer, the district cut 367 staff positions, including 41 central office jobs. That includes virtually all of its family specialists, the majority of its social workers, guidance counselors, reading intervention specialists and tutors.

School enhancements such as home economics, art, music and drama classes no longer exist at many Memphis high schools. And seniors are regularly pulled from foreign language classes — a course required to graduate — to make room for younger students.

Last year, Treadwell Elementary School couldn’t provide its staff with the training or resources to adequately respond to a surge of immigrants from Yemen and Honduras, according to the lawsuit.

Classes at the district’s four alternative schools for some of the city’s hardest-to-reach students are overcrowded and lack adequate security. If the student is in middle or high school, they have to find their own modes of transportation. Many don’t.

In addition, the district is unprepared for the state’s new TNReady achievement test to be administered online. During a pilot test run last school year, many schools experienced school-wide computer crashes because of outdated wiring and low-capacity technical infrastructures. Some schools don’t have enough computers.

Despite the cuts, the district has managed to boost test scores, a point Hopson attributed to innovative tactics and his hard-working staff. But it also may show that the state’s heavy focus on test score growth hides the lack of enrichment that occurs in schools.

Riverside teachers and staff get students on the right buses.
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Riverside teachers and staff help students find the right buses at the start of the school year.

At Riverview, which made a big push to get students to show up to school on time this year, principal LaTasha Harris said she and her staff have doubled as social workers, providing students with toothpaste, deodorant and free haircuts. 

The task can be overwhelming at times. On a recent day as the last school bell rang at 4:15 p.m. and children exited the building, many teachers also emerged, holding students’ hands as they directed them to the right school buses.

“We’re everything to these kids,” Harris said.

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Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.