With an audience that included U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Melrose High School Principal Mark Neal described the challenges of school turnaround work in Memphis, where efforts to address the city’s high concentration of struggling schools is attracting the attention of the nation.

One of the challenges, Neal said, is understanding “there are some dynamics bigger than us.”

In Tennessee’s largest city, poverty is pervasive. In Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest public school district with more than 93,000 students, nearly 80 percent are economically disadvantaged. Poor literacy skills, high mobility, gangs and truancy are part of the mix too.

Neal was among educators who spoke with Duncan Friday during a roundtable discussion about how to turn the trajectory of chronically underperforming schools. Serving as the backdrop for the conversation was Douglass K-8 Optional School, a struggling school now achieving student growth under the umbrella of Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, a state-approved district initiative focused on quickly moving schools out of the state’s bottom 5 percent.

Visiting Memphis for the fourth time since he became the nation’s education chief, Duncan commended administrators for their dedication in the trenches of school turnaround work.

“I don’t think there’s any harder work, any more important work, than turning around schools that are historically struggling,” Duncan said.

The outgoing secretary’s return to Memphis in the last months of his tenure was fitting because the city’s changing education landscape reflects part of his legacy as the nation’s education chief. Under the Race to the Top competition announced by Duncan and President Obama in 2009, the administration’s push to improve the nation’s worst schools and close the achievement gap among their students helped to drive local, state, federal and philanthropic efforts to address the city’s woeful K-12 public education system.

The secretary also used Friday’s Memphis trip, including a visit to Southwest Tennessee Community College, as his podium to announce the launch of an experiment that will expand access to college coursework for high school students from low-income backgrounds.

For the first time, those students will be able to access federal Pell grants to take college courses through dual enrollment. Dual enrollment, in which students enroll in postsecondary coursework while also enrolled in high school, is a promising approach to improve academic outcomes for low-income students, Duncan said.

“A postsecondary education is one of the most important investments students can make in their future. Yet the cost of this investment is higher than ever, creating a barrier to access for some students, particularly from low-income families,” Duncan said in a news release. “We look forward to partnering with institutions to help students prepare to succeed in college.”

Getting students to graduate high school ready for college, career or other postsecondary training is the goal of schools in the iZone as well. But first, K-12 schools must raise their yearly achievement level and create a culture of learning that supersedes the challenges faced by students outside of school.

Arne Duncan talks about strategies for chess with a student learning through play at Douglass.
Arne Duncan talks about strategies for chess with a student learning through play at Douglass K-8 Optional School.
PHOTO CREDIT: Kayleigh Skinner

During his school turnaround discussion at Douglass School, principals told Duncan that building relationships with students and their families is key to building a foundation for student learning.

Rodney Rowan, principal of Cherokee Elementary School, said educators are providing “a voice to the children, [but] being a voice to the parents as well.” Many parents know what they want from the school, he said, but struggle to articulate their needs.

“You have to make them comfortable enough to be transparent with you about the things that they need,” Rowan said. “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the district’s 3-year-old iZone is finding success bridging the gaps among students, parents and families. Its intensive turnaround model requires additional funding for interventions such as extended school hours, rewarding effective teachers with bonuses, and giving principals autonomy to hire teachers and rewrite curriculum.

“In particular, our iZone schools have very strong school leaders,” Hopson said.

Duncan said the iZone’s steady gains in student scores demonstrate that “the progress is very real.”

“I have a pretty good sense of the challenges you face … single-parent homes and sometimes no-parent homes, kids in school when they’re hungry or can’t see the blackboard or whatever it might be. But great principals and great teachers make a huge difference in students’ lives,” he said.

The secretary said he would like to see more school districts emulate the approach that Shelby County Schools has taken with its iZone.

“There’s something pretty special happening in Memphis,” Duncan said. “You guys are ahead of many districts in challenging status quo and putting together a plan, putting together a team and putting together a mini district. I know you have a long way to go, but you’re making faster progress than many school districts and that’s a really, really big deal.”

 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that Douglass School is now a state reward school for student growth.