With lawsuit settlement, Shelby County School officials shift focus toward academic improvements

With the municipality split and a subsequent lawsuit mostly settled, members of the Shelby County School Board and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson are shifting their attention toward improving student achievement by building a strategic plan,  placing technology into students’ hands in preparation for computerized testing and emphasizing student literacy in the classroom.

For the last year, the district has been enmeshed in a legal battle with six municipalities that wanted to form their own districts after legacy Shelby and Memphis City Schools merged last year. The board members have spent the majority of several meetings debating how to amicably split with the districts. Board members now say they want to shift their focus toward improving academic achievement for its students.  A large portion of Shelby County’s schools rank among the lowest-performing in the state.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the superintendent said he will spend the next few months building a strategic plan for the district.

Hopson said the district is looking to set a long-term target that would prepare the class of 2025 to be college or career ready.  Those students are now kindergartners in the district.

“We’re going to engage in an aggressive community engagement process,” Hopson told the board.  “We’re serious about improving student achievement and we want to hear from the board, community, principals, teachers – all of the stakeholders.  It’s a lot, but we have to make sure our direction is clear.”

Hopson said the process begins with evaluating what has and hasn’t worked for the schools and determining next steps.

Following Tuesday’s meeting, school board member Chris Caldwell and board chair Kevin Woods said they plan to advocate for improving student literacy.

At least 61 percent or 7,134 of Shelby County students in the third grade were not proficient in reading last year, according to a recent presentation to the board.  If academic interventions aren’t in place, researchers believe students will continue to struggle and are more likely to drop out of high school.

“Student literacy by the third grade is very important,” Caldwell said  “We also have to have parent engagement and support at home.”

Woods said the administration should make sure all students are ready for kindergarten by putting in place early academic interventions.

“Our focus is definitely on making sure all of our students are reading at grade level by the third grade,” Woods said.

 To address the needs of low-income students and their families, Shelby County School administrators proposed a  pilot “blended-learning” initiative that would give students computers they will eventually be able to take home. 

The district’s executive principal of virtual school, Cleon Franklin, said Tuesday night the blended learning proposal will help students for prepare for computerized testing including the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessment in 2014-15 school year. PARCC is administered on computers and tests Common Core math and reading standards recently adopted by Tennessee and other states.

Sixteen schools will be chosen for the pilot program.  The application for principals to apply is Friday, Franklin said.