Leadership shift

Six things to know about Memphis’ new mayor on education

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Known as the Bluff City, Memphis is Tennessee's most populated city.

Jim Strickland defeated incumbent Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Thursday on the promise of change. But little was said during the race about what kind of change Memphians could expect of its beleaguered system of K-12 education. As Strickland prepares to take office on Jan. 1, here are six things to know about the mayor-elect, the mayor’s authority and about Memphis schools.

1. The city mayor’s legal authority over public schools is limited.

The city school board’s vote in 2010 to surrender its charter led to a countywide referendum vote to merge the city and county school systems. The historic change shifted responsibilities for funding K-12 education completely to the Shelby County Commission, working with a county mayor. While acknowledging that the city mayor has no direct power over public schools, Strickland has said he wants to be involved in the conversation. “We no longer fund the city schools, but that doesn’t mean we’re out of the education business,” he said during an August debate at the National Civil Rights Museum.

2. As mayor, Strickland can use his office as a bully pulpit to prioritize and champion issues that are critical to the city, including education.

Strickland’s seven-year track record as a city council member is highlighted by public safety, budget issues and cleaning up blight. As mayor, he can choose to put a spotlight on education, which directly impacts the city’s quality of life, quality of the local workforce, and potential for economic growth. Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has identified support of early childhood education programs and policies aimed toward the eradication of poverty as two areas where the mayor’s leadership could lead to improved student achievement.

3. Strickland supports universal pre-kindergarten.

The importance of early learning programs is one of the few education issues he has spoken about publicly. “When only 28 percent of third-graders in (Shelby County) public schools read at third-grade level, we must all take action,” Strickland has said. “We are failing our children.”

4. He will take the helm of the city at a time when its public schools face daunting challenges.

Since the 2013 merger, the consolidated district has undergone $275 million in budget cuts while dealing with shrinking student enrollment. Rather than the merger unifying school services, the city’s educational landscape has splintered to include a growing charter sector, the introduction of the state-run Achievement School District, and the creation of six suburban school districts. The city has the highest concentration of low-performing schools in the state, and there are major state, county and philanthropic efforts under way to turn them around.

Jim Strickland
Jim Strickland

5. Strickland must build trust with the black community that comprises the majority of its public education system.

In a city that is 63 percent black, he will be Memphis’ first white mayor in 24 years, having outdistanced 10 candidates, including three top challengers who are black. The student population of Shelby County Schools, meanwhile, is 67.6 percent black, 20.2 percent white, 9.2 percent Hispanic and 2.7 percent Asian, according to the most recent data from the state Department of Education. The district is Tennessee’s largest public school system.

6. The mayor-elect did not graduate from K-12 public schools.

Strickland graduated in 1982 from Christian Brothers High School, a Catholic, all-male college prep school in Memphis. He went on to get his bachelor’s and law degrees at the University of Memphis, where he also served as student body president. He and his wife, Melyne, have two school-age children.

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.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.