On a recent Wednesday, Chalkbeat Memphis reporter Laura Faith Kebede was immersed in a biology class at White Station High School, using her camera to capture what lab day looks like under an award-winning science teacher.

Meanwhile, community editor Caroline Bauman was typing up her notes from an emotional gathering of Latino and school leaders the previous evening in the city’s Binghampton community, where Chalkbeat was the only news organization in the room. President Donald Trump’s administration had just announced a wind-down of protections for the nation’s young undocumented immigrants, and folks were trying to get their heads around what the change will mean for some Memphis students.

In many ways, it was a typical day for Chalkbeat Tennessee, especially at midday when we learned that the superintendent of Tennessee’s school turnaround district was stepping down. Our team dropped everything to break the news.

These are the stories that make up our mission: to cover the effort to improve schools for all children, especially those who have historically lacked access to a quality education. We’re convinced that Tennessee’s is one of the most fascinating education stories in America, and Memphis is at the epicenter.

Why Memphis? It’s home to Tennessee’s largest district and most of the state’s charter schools. It’s also the hub of the state-run district’s school turnaround work. As such, it’s a battleground city for education reform and influential in ways that even many Tennesseans don’t realize. Memphis schools serve mostly students of color who come from low-income families, allowing us to chronicle efforts to ensure that every student gets a great education, not just a privileged few.

As the new school year gets underway in earnest, we’re asking you to join us in our mission. Below you’ll hear from Chalkbeat Tennessee reporters about the stories they’re focusing on this year, but as you read, know that we can’t tell them without you. So please — reach out! Introduce yourself, submit a story tip, give us feedback or propose a First Person essay by emailing us at tn.tips@chalkbeat.org.

All this work demands time and talent — neither of which are free. If every Tennessee reader gave $10 right now, we could raise $460,000 to support our mission this year. That’d be enough for all these stories and more. We hope those who can will consider making a $10 tax-deductible donation here.

Caroline Bauman: Early childhood education and Tennessee’s Achievement School District

Earlier this year, I toured a new state-of-the-art pre-K center designed to change the face of early education in Memphis. It’s serving some 220 kids now, but its mission is really to train educators across the city to up the quality of pre-K instruction. Backed by $9 million in private funding, the center symbolizes shifting investments as local, state, and philanthropic forces coalesce around early childhood education as the way to get kids reading-ready. Chalkbeat will be at the forefront of covering the changes, exploring what quality pre-K looks like and what barriers exist for poor families.

I’ll also be chronicling school turnaround work as the state’s Achievement School District enters a new era with an overhauled structure, a new leadership team and a new superintendent. What are the lessons learned from the past five years, and how is the state adjusting its charter-reliant model of school improvement? What does successful turnaround look like? Who is missing out? What work is happening to close gaps and fix problems? I’m curious to hear what questions you have too. Find me at cbauman@chalkbeat.org, (901) 443-8995 or follow me on Twitter.

 

Laura Faith Kebede: Shelby County Schools, with a focus on discipline, secession effects and district debt

Five years after the historic merger of city and county schools, Tennessee’s largest district faces some serious challenges.

The quest to improve academics in Memphis schools can’t happen if students are at home instead of in the classroom. That’s the heartbeat behind Shelby County Schools’ ongoing disciplinary shift to restorative justice to reduce suspensions. State data clearly shows that black boys in Memphis are more likely to be suspended than elsewhere in the state, but educators are working to change that. I’ll be following the transition to see what’s working and what’s not, how teachers, parents and students are responding, and if inequities are actually reduced.

I’ll also be looking into the continuing effects of the 2014 exodus of six municipalities from the urban Memphis district. As school districts with more white affluent students continue to explore separating from mostly black cities in Tennessee and across the country, our coverage of the Memphis story will inform a national dialogue about the true cost of secession and its disproportionate impact on children of color.

Finally, one elephant in the room continues to be the ballooning debt for Shelby County Schools. Will Memphis avoid the big financial hurdles that tripped up cities like Detroit? I’ll be looking into the extent of the debt, who’s responsible, and what could happen if it’s not paid down—and I hope our readers can help me find answers to all these questions. You can reach me at Lkebede@chalkbeat.org, (901) 213-8656 or follow me on Twitter.