Student Voice

Memphis school leaders have extra money to invest for first time in years. Here’s how one student thinks they should spend it.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Amal Altareb, 16, is a student leader at Central High School.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson unveiled a $945 million spending plan this week that focuses largely on boosting teacher pay, classroom supports and struggling schools.

It’s a big deal, as the proposal marks the first time since the 2013 merger of city and county schools that Shelby County Schools hasn’t faced major cuts to balance its budget. Hopson’s administration projects having enough money to strategically invest in schools by adding counselors, assistant principals, instructional coaches and interventionists for literacy and math.

Chalkbeat spoke recently about the proposed investments with Amal Altareb, 16, a junior at Central High School and student leader with Facing History and Ourselves. In preparation, Amal polled about 30 classmates about what they would do if they held the district’s purse strings.

Here are the highlights of our Q&A:

What are the biggest needs at your school?

Central is an old school, and you can really tell sometimes. I know there are a lot of older schools in Memphis. How a school looks may not seem like a big deal, but we’re in the buildings all day. If the bathrooms don’t work or a school looks really rundown, that matters to the students who spend so many hours there.

Many students (that I polled) also talked about restorative justice. (Disciplinary) options shouldn’t be just (in-school suspension), suspension or even expulsion if a student acts out. It should be about why the student acted out. There needs to be more help and support for teachers and principals, so they’re not responsible for handling discipline. Or everyone needs training in what restorative justice means.

What do you want district leaders to know about your school?

There are so many great things going on at Central. We have a group that meets every week called Warriors Unite. Here, we talk about what’s going on at our school and in our community, and what we can do about it. Students are actively thinking about a lot of the problems that people in charge of our schools are thinking about, and we should all be around the same table much more often.

I also want district leaders to talk more about why students have to spend so much time testing. Teachers shouldn’t have to teach students to a test, but I think that’s often what teachers have to do. One student told me that tests take away from instructional time and falsely represent the work of teachers, which I really agree with. I’m definitely for holding students accountable for our work and making sure that we’re learning what we need to be successful. But it seems like there’s much more emphasis on “how can students do better on this test so our schools rank better?” rather than “are students learning what they need to be successful after high school?”

What do you think about the district’s proposed spending priorities for next school year?

I think raises for teachers is really amazing. They work hard and deserve to be rewarded for that. I was also really excited to hear about the increases in counselors and behavior specialists. That goes back to what I was saying earlier with restorative justice — teachers can’t be expected to do it all. They need more help.


You can read more details about the spending plan here.

Incentives

Westminster district will give bonuses if state ratings rise, teachers wonder whether performance pay system is coming

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students work on an English assignment at M. Scott Carpenter Middle School in Westminster.

Teachers and employees in Westminster Public Schools will be able to earn a bonus if they help the struggling district improve its state ratings next year.

The district’s school board on Tuesday unanimously approved the $1.7 million plan for the one-year performance stipends, the district’s latest attempt to lift the quality of its schools.

School employees can earn $1,000 if their school meets a district-set score, or up to $2,000 if they reach a more ambitious goal the school sets. District employees, including the superintendent, can earn $1,000 if the district as a whole jumps up a rating next year.

“We recognize that everyone plays a critical role in increasing student achievement and we decided that if a particular school or the district as a whole can reach that next academic accreditation level, the employees directly responsible should be rewarded,” board president Dino Valente said in a statement.

The district is one of five that was flagged by the state for chronic low performance and was put on a state-ordered improvement plan this spring.

District officials have disputed state ratings, claiming the state’s system is not fairly assessing the performance of Westminster schools. Middle school teacher Melissa Duran, who also used to be president of the teacher’s union, drew a connection between that stance and the new stipends, saying any extra pay she gets would be based on one score.

“The district has gone to the state saying, ‘Why are you rating us on these tests, look at all the other things we’re doing’” Duran said. “Well, it’s the same thing for teachers. They’re still basing our effectiveness on a test score.”

Teachers interviewed Thursday said their first thoughts upon learning of the plan was that it sounded like the beginnings of performance pay.

“I already get the point that we are in need of having our test scores come up,” said math teacher Andy Hartman, who is also head of negotiations for the teacher’s union. “Putting this little carrot out there isn’t going to change anything. I personally do not like performance pay. It’s a very slippery slope.”

District leaders say they talked to all district principals after the announcement Wednesday, and heard positive feedback.

“A lot of the teachers think this is a good thing,” said Steve Saunders, the district’s spokesman.

National studies on the effectiveness of performance pay stipends and merit pay have shown mixed results. One recent study from Vanderbilt University concluded that they can be effective, but that the design of the systems makes a difference.

In Denver Public Schools, the district has a performance-pay system to give raises and bonuses to teachers in various situations. Studies of that model have found that some teachers don’t completely understand the system and that it’s not always tied to better student outcomes.

Westminster officials said they have never formally discussed performance pay, and said that these stipends are being funded for one year with an unanticipated IRS refund.

Westminster teachers said they have ideas for other strategies that could make a quick impact, such as higher pay for substitutes so teachers aren’t losing their planning periods filling in for each other when subs are difficult to find.

Waiting on a bonus that might come next year is not providing any new motivation, teachers said.

“It’s a slap in the face,” Duran said. “It’s not like we are not already working hard enough. Personally, I already give 110 percent. I’ve always given 110 percent.”

Last month, the school board also approved a new contract for teachers and staff. Under the new agreement, teachers and staff got a raise of at least 1 percent. They received a similar raise last year.

Human Resources

Leanne Emm, Colorado education department’s chief financial officer, to retire

Leanne Emm, the state education department's retiring chief financial officer. (Photo courtesy Colorado Department of Education)

A long-running joke among Colorado education officials, policymakers and activists is that only a handful of people really know how Colorado’s complex school funding system works.

One of those people — Leanne Emm, the state’s education department’s deputy commissioner — is retiring later this month after nearly 30 years in public service.

Emm announced her retirement in an email to other school finance officers late last month. Her last day at the department is Sept. 22.

“Each of you helps your students, communities, stakeholders and decision makers with a huge array of issues,” she said in her email. “I can only hope that I will have helped contribute to an understanding of budgetary pressures that we have within the state.”

Emm was appointed to her position in 2011 — about the same time the state’s schools were grappling with deep budget cuts due to Great Recession. She worked at Jeffco Public Schools for 14 years before joining the education department.

Katy Anthes, the state’s education commissioner, said Emm’s exit will be felt at both the state and local school district level.

“Leanne’s leadership and her deep knowledge of the school finance system will be sorely missed by all of us at CDE and by the districts she has supported over the years.” Anthes said in a statement. “I will be forever grateful for her support as I transitioned to this role. I’m sad to see her leave CDE, but I suspect that her love for the state of Colorado and passion for improving education will cause our paths to cross again.”