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.
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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.