Memphis students are back in school. Here are seven things to know about the upcoming year.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Shelby County teacher Lisa Butler volunteers at the Tennessee Education Association's school supplies store for new teachers in Memphis in preparation of the start of school last school year.

Students likely saw some new faces as they returned to Memphis schools this week. But their families should be aware that many other changes are at play across Shelby County Schools, Tennessee’s largest district.

Here are just a few:

1. Schools are working toward a new approach to discipline.

Restorative justice techniques are being ushered in to encourage “talking it out” and addressing the root causes of disciplinary problems — rather than defaulting to exclusionary practices such as expulsions and suspensions. The latter approach steals valuable instructional time and also disproportionately skews against boys of color. With some of the highest suspension rates in Tennessee, Shelby County Schools has been training teachers on the disciplinary shift and hired more behavior specialists and school counselors for the new school year.

2. Teachers are moving to a new pay structure that rewards performance.

If your child has an effective teacher, the district is working to retain and reward that teacher through a new system of merit pay. Teachers will receive raises if they earn top evaluation scores, which usually are tied both to student test scores and classroom evaluations. (The new system also will address some inequities in a pay structure that has given higher salaries to newly hired teachers than to existing teachers with the same experience.)

3. With more new charter schools opening, the sector is a growing force in Memphis education.

Six charter schools opened Monday under Shelby County Schools, whose charter sector now comprises a fourth of the district’s 192 schools. New to the scene are Gateway University Schools of Applied Sciences Inc., Legacy Leadership Academy, Kaleidoscope Schools, Southwest Early College High School, and new campuses for Freedom Preparatory Academy and Memphis School of Excellence. Memphis is also getting its first charter school under the Tennessee State Board of Education, which last year sided with Green Dot Public Schools in its appeal to open Bluff City High School.

4. More than a dozen existing traditional schools are getting a shot in the arm, too.

Instead of just closing the district’s chronically struggling schools, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson this year budgeted an extra $300,000 per school for strategic investments. The “critical focus schools” are in danger of closing because of some combination of low test scores, low enrollment and high maintenance costs. But now they’re launching improvement plans crafted by principals, teachers and communities with the district’s help. Hopson said the schools have about three years to prove themselves. (Here’s how one Memphis school in Frayser plans to catch up.)

5. High school students who are new to the U.S. will have an intense new program to help them learn English.

In a school-within-a-school at Wooddale High School, newcomers will build their language skills as part of core classes in math, science, history and language arts and join the rest of the school for elective classes. The two-year program is in response to a fast-growing segment of English language learners that now makes up 8 percent of the district’s student population.

6. One of Memphis’ most iconic schools is being overhauled.

East High School is transitioning to an all-optional school focusing on on transportation careers and science-related job fields, or T-STEM for short. Neighborhood students entering the Midtown school have been zoned elsewhere, while returning East students will get to finish out their high school years there. As of Friday, some parents in the East neighborhood were still figuring out exactly where their students will attend.

7. Everyone is waiting anxiously for last year’s state test scores.

District and school-level high school scores are expected to be released this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, following the release of statewide scores in July. Results for students in grades 3-8 are due out this fall. Under Tennessee’s new TNReady test, the scores are important because they are used to judge the effectiveness of Tennessee teachers and schools.

test scores

New York City’s math and English test scores increased slightly. Here’s the breakdown.

Students take an exam at Bronx Science.

The proportion of New York City students who passed state exams in math and English this past school year ticked up slightly, according to statewide test scores released Tuesday.

The latest results show the share of city students who passed the English exams jumped by 2.6 percentage points to 40.6 percent, higher than the state average of 39.8 percent. The share of New York City students who passed math exams increased by 1.4 percentage points to 37.8 percent, lower than the state average of 40.2 percent.

New York City’s growth on English scores was higher than the state’s increase of 1.9 percentage points. In math, New York City also rose more than the state, which saw an increase of 1.1 percentage points.

The bump in grades 3-8 test scores is far less dramatic than last year’s, but is more likely to be an accurate barometer of student achievement.

Unlike last year, when state officials said changes to the tests made year-over-year comparisons unreliable, top education officials said this year’s gains show improvements in learning. “The test scores we’re announcing today are a positive sign that we continue to steadily head in the right direction,” said the state’s education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia.

Observers have been eager to see whether more or fewer students opted out of the state exams. Statewide, 19 percent of students refused to take the tests, down two percentage points from 2016. In New York City, 3 percent of students opted out of English exams and 3.5 percent opted out of math. A total of 17,234 students, or 4.0 percent, out of either exam. That’s higher than last year, when 2.4 percent of city students sat out the English exams and 2.76 percent opted out of math.

All racial groups made progress on English and math tests, and the so-called achievement gap between white students and those of color did not narrow significantly. On English tests, for instance, black and Hispanic students’ pass rates increased by 2.3 and 2.5 percentage points, respectively, while white students increased by 2.1 points. In math, white students posted slightly larger gains than their black and Hispanic peers.

The uptick in New York City’s charter school test scores was once again higher than that of district schools. Charter schools’ pass rate on English rose 5.2 percentage points to 48.2 percent. Their pass rate on math increased 3 percentage points to 51.7 percent. Success Academy, the city’s largest charter network, far surpassed those averages with 84 percent of students passing English and 95 percent of students passing math.

Big gains

No. 1: This Denver turnaround school had the highest math growth in Colorado

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
University Prep Steele Street students at a celebration of their test scores Friday.

Denver’s University Prep faced a gargantuan task last year: Turn around a school where the previous year just 7 percent of third- through fifth-graders were on grade level in math and 6 percent were on grade level in English.

On Friday morning, dozens of those students — dressed in khaki pants and button-up sweaters — clustered on the lawn to listen to officials celebrate their charter school, University Prep Steele Street, for showing the most academic growth in Colorado on last spring’s state standardized math tests.

The high-poverty school also had the eighth-highest growth on state English tests. Another Denver charter, KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy high school, had the first-highest.

“I want to say clearly to all of you that no one is ever going to tell you what you can and can’t do — ever,” University Prep founder and executive director David Singer told his students. “You’re going to remind them what you did in a single year.”

By the end of last year, 43 percent of University Prep Steele Street third- through fifth-graders were at grade level in math and 37 percent were at grade level in English, according to state tests results released Thursday.

University Prep Steele Street students scored better, on average, than 91 percent of Colorado students who had similar test scores the year before in math and better than 84 percent of students who had similar scores in English.

As Singer noted Friday, that type of skyrocketing improvement is rare among turnaround schools in Denver and nationwide.

“This might be one of the biggest wins we’ve ever seen in our city, our state, and our country of what it truly means to transform a school,” he said.

Many of the kids were previously students at Pioneer Charter School, one of the city’s first-ever charters. Founded in 1997 in northeast Denver, Pioneer had struggled academically in recent years, posting some of the lowest test scores in all of Denver Public Schools.

In 2015, Pioneer’s board of directors decided to close the school, which served students in preschool through eighth grade. University Prep, an elementary charter school a couple miles away, applied to take it over. But unlike many school turnarounds, it wouldn’t be a gradual, one-grade-at-a-time, phase-in, phase-out transition. Instead, University Prep would be responsible for teaching students in kindergarten through fifth grade on day one.

“When Pioneer Charter School became an option and we looked at our results up to that point of time and what we believed to be our capacity … we saw an opportunity,” Singer said.

A former math teacher at nearby Manual High School, which has itself been subject to several turnaround efforts, Singer started University Prep after becoming frustrated with the reality faced by many of his teenage students, who often showed up with gaps in their knowledge.

“When you walk into school at 14 or 15 and have a huge gap, the likelihood you get to be whatever you want to be is diminished,” he said.

The key to changing that, Singer realized, would be to start students on a path to success earlier. That’s why University Prep’s tagline is, “College starts in kindergarten.”

“It’s a significantly better pathway than the one of intense catch-up on the backend,” Singer said.

University Prep Arapahoe Street opened as a standalone charter school in 2010. Last year, its fourth- and fifth-graders outperformed district averages on both the English and math tests.

Several teachers and staff members from the original campus helped open Steele Street in 2016. The school started with 226 students, 89 percent of whom qualified for subsidized lunches. Ninety-seven percent were students of color and 71 percent were English language learners, more than twice the percentage in the district as a whole.

The biggest difference from the year before, Singer said, were the expectations. The work was more rigorous and there was more of it: three hours of literacy and more than 100 minutes of math each day as part of a schedule that stretched from 7:15 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Lauren Argue was one of the teachers that moved from the original campus to Steele Street. She and Singer said the other big difference was the honest feedback students received from their teachers. That included sharing with students the fact that they were several grade levels behind, and starting the year by re-teaching second-grade math to fourth-graders.

“We had conversations of, ‘Here is where you’re at,’ but also expressing our unwavering belief that, ‘By the end of the year, you will grow a tremendous amount,’” Argue said.

While those hard conversations may have been uncomfortable at first for students and their families, Argue said they embraced them once they saw the progress students were making — progress that teachers made sure to celebrate at every opportunity.

“Kids learned the joy of what it means to do hard academic work and get through to the other side,” Singer said. “That became a source of pride.”

Ten-year-old Abril Sierra attended Pioneer since preschool. This year, she’s a fifth-grader at University Prep. On Friday, she said that while at times she thought her brain might explode, it felt good to tackle harder work. She credited her teachers with helping her achieve.

“The things that changed were definitely the perspective of how the teachers see you and believe in you,” Sierra said. “…They make you feel at home. You can trust them.”