Parent welcome center officially opens for Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Surrounding by supporters, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson cuts the ribbon officially opening Shelby County Schools' new parent welcome center in Memphis.

Seeking to provide a one-stop shop for parents with questions about Shelby County Schools, district leaders officially opened a parent welcome center on Wednesday and heralded the resource as another tool to address longstanding challenges with community engagement.

Located behind the school board headquarters in Memphis, the center is open on weekdays between 7:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. and staffed with 14 employees, including two bilingual staff members. It also features 10 computers to assist with online registration and other online processes in a city where more than 32 percent of residents do not have Internet access at home.

“Having one receptionist try and connect the dots to all the different departments gets challenging,” said Superintendent Dorsey Hopson. “What this essentially is is a one-stop shop for our parents.”

The welcome center opened informally in August to provide parents with an efficient way to get accurate information about district services, transportation, school transfer options, registration and other topics.

To date, the new operation has logged more than 2,600 visits and 64,000 phone calls. During the first week of the new school year in August, the center fielded more than 6,000 phone calls and helped more than 23,000 parents with online registration, officials said.

Reaching parents and engaging the community has been a chronic challenge for Memphis schools, burdened by high rates of poverty and mobility. But as the cash-strapped district is asked to do more with less, leaders say that efficiency is critical. Numerous other school districts, including Metro Nashville Public Schools, operate similar parent welcome centers.

“Parents are asked to be involved and engaged, and sometimes it can be discouraging if you call and there’s only one person to assist you with a phone call and they have to direct you away for periods of time,” said Sonia Worsham, president of the parent-teacher organization at Snowden School, where her son is a student.

District and school leaders also hope the center will provide another avenue to increase parental involvement in their children’s education.

“I think with the new parent center and having 10 people to answer your calls, having computers available for the parents to sign up to volunteer for organizations or to tutor and do all those different things, it will help parents be more mindful of it and more willing to do something,” Worsham said.

Chris Caldwell, a school board member, agreed. “I think engaging parents and the community has been a piece the district has to work on, and I think this is the next step,” he said.

The center’s employees are trained to answer general questions, and four serve exclusively as “parent liasions” to work with parents and school administrators to find common ground when challenges arise, said Joris Ray, assistant superintendent of academic operations.

The center is located at 2687 Avery Ave. Parents with questions are also encouraged to call the center at (901) 416-5300.

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

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.