Shelby County Schools is partnering with a teacher training program to transform a low-performing elementary school into one that specializes in raising the literacy skills of students.

The Memphis Teacher Residency, a teacher training program, would be responsible for staffing the classrooms. Each classroom would have a resident from the program training under a more experienced lead teacher. The residents, who are recent college graduates, are paid during their three years of training, and earn a graduate degree through the program. Shelby County Schools would retain administrative control over the school, and staff from other elementary schools would visit as a “lab school.”

The partnership, announced Tuesday during a school board committee meeting, would cost the district about $250,000 for the first year, which is tentatively set for fall 2019. That money would go toward professional development and instructional costs.

The district plans to select a low-performing school this fall. Angela Whitelaw, the district’s interim chief of schools, said the school will be one that is in danger of appearing on the state’s list of lowest performing schools. The Tennessee Department of Education published such a list in 2012 and 2014, and the next is scheduled for this fall.

“A lot of time, the schools on the cusp, we don’t intervene early enough,” Whitelaw said, adding the effort was born out of listening tours last year. “What we heard from our parents was we want you to intervene sooner.“

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Angela Whitelaw, interim chief of schools for Shelby County Schools.

Whitelaw said the district chose Memphis Teacher Residency to partner in transforming a school because it was highly rated by the state and 91 percent of teacher residents complete their three-year commitment while completing their master’s degree. A district analysis of test scores for the 2016-17 school year showed that Memphis Teacher Residency teachers outperformed teachers with the same years of experience who didn’t train through the program.

The program has been in the works for months, stemming back to when Sharon Griffin, now the superintendent of the state-run Achievement School District, was the Shelby County district’s chief of schools. Griffin has said the most important way to improve reading skills for the district’s youngest students is by strengthening teachers to become “early learning experts.”

“They never ever catch up because three years with an ineffective teacher is hard for you to catch up; research supports that,” she told board members last year.

The Memphis district needs to increase the number of students reading on grade level if it is going to meet state expectations for student learning. Last year, only 21 percent of third-grade students were considered to be reading on grade level. That increased to about 26 percent this year, but is still far from the district’s goal of 90 percent by 2025.

State and local education leaders have noted that principals often are tempted to place their best teachers in third grade and beyond, where state testing plays a role in teacher evaluations and school improvement plans. That drains kindergarten through second grades of more effective teachers. Memphis school leaders are hoping to turn their attention back to those younger students, so they are prepared to enter third grade.

Memphis Teacher Residency graduated its first class in 2010 and serves almost 40 schools in six Memphis neighborhoods.

A contract outlining responsibilities of the district and Memphis Teacher Residency is scheduled to be presented for school board approval in September.

Clarification, Aug. 8, 2018: This story has been updated to include what the first-year costs would go toward and the type of school that would be selected.