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University of Memphis, Shelby County Schools forge new partnership to address teacher shortage

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
The University of Memphis is creating an urban teacher training track in its College of Education in partnership with Shelby County Schools.

The University of Memphis and Shelby County Schools are creating a partnership aimed at training the next generation of teachers to work in the city’s classrooms.

PHOTO: University of Memphis
Kandi Hill-Clarke is the new dean of the College of Education.

The college announced plans on Thursday to launch its Urban Education Teacher Prep program by fall of 2019 under new dean Kandi Hill-Clarke, a Memphis native recruited home this year from Indiana State University, where she was also dean.

Hill-Clarke is designing the track as part of the university’s new River City Partnership with Shelby County Schools. The goal is to work together to strengthen the pipeline of skilled new teachers who are culturally aware of the needs of urban students. As part of the program, teacher candidates will receive classroom experience and mentoring in some of the district’s highest-needs schools.

“The University of Memphis recognizes the challenges facing the Shelby County region can be addressed through a stronger education system and that must be cultivated from the ground up,” said M. David Rudd, the university’s president. “By collaborating with the Shelby County public school system, we can work together to better train and prepare future educators who are eager to continue to invest in the Memphis community and teach the next generation of students.”

With the partnership, the university is stepping up to the plate to fill the chronic need for more teachers in Memphis. At the start of this school year, for instance, Shelby County Schools was short of at least 175 new teachers, especially in subjects like math, science, and special education.

But it also has the potential to energize the university’s College of Education where, mirroring a national trend, the number of graduates has decreased by about half since 2013.

Source: University of Memphis

This isn’t the first time the university has tried to create an urban teaching track. Three years ago, university leaders attempted to partner with New York-based Relay Graduate School of Education to offer an alternative licensure program that would send its candidates into some of the city’s most challenging classrooms. But the deal fell apart when faculty protested that its own College of Education wasn’t part of those negotiations.

Hill-Clarke says the River City Partnership turns the page on that chapter.

“This initiative is personal and professional for me,” said Hill-Clarke, an alumna of the University of Memphis. “I need and want to see the district, community, and university succeed and do well. … We asked the school district what they needed, and this program is an answer. But it’s also a win for us.”

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he hopes the retooled program can produce and equip educators to handle the challenges of a district in which 60 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged.

“When speaking with the new dean, we talked about how the university was not producing a high number of teachers who were going into our high-needs schools,” Hopson said. “We got to a point where we figured out, what if we reorient the training and the experience and cultural competencies necessary for them to be successful?”

University officials said they need $7.5 million more to launch the program and sustain it for five years. Chief development officer Bobby Prince has been in talks with private funders, and he is optimistic the program could launch with at least 25 students.

In the meantime, the partnership includes several other components that will roll out in 2018. This summer, the university will host a week-long Summer Bridge Program for Shelby County high schoolers interested in learning about urban teaching.

And this fall, a recruitment program called High School Teacher Cadets will begin in three Memphis high schools, which are yet to be selected. Hill-Clarke said Teacher Cadets will mirror Future Teachers of America, a national program that mentors high school students interested in the teaching profession.

“We see this as mutually beneficial,” she said. “The hope is to instill an early love and interest in Memphis high schoolers for teaching, and then connect them to us as a place to further their education after they graduate.”

Another goal is to attract students of color to train in the city’s under-resourced high schools in the hopes that they will return to teach in those same schools.

The River City Partnership is launching during a season of increased scrutiny of the performance of teacher training programs in Tennessee. Not a single public university in the state scored in the top fifth of teacher training programs under a state report card issued in 2016. The University of Memphis scored a 3 on a scale of 1 to 5. The state is to release new report cards in mid-February.

In recent years, Memphis has seen the birth of several non-traditional teacher prep programs such as Memphis Teacher Residency and Relay, which launched in 2015 without the University of Memphis. But Rudd says only the University of Memphis, with a student body of 22,000, has the resources and scale to make a dent in the local teacher shortage.

“I see this as a recognition of the role that an urban public research university should play in this city,” Rudd said. “Undeniably, education is one of the top challenges …  in Memphis. I don’t think we can address the problem without the university’s involvement.”

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.