Academic overhaul is paying off, say Shelby County leaders of newest district scores

During all of Memphis’ political upheaval over school funding, control and leadership during the last five years, administrators have quietly reconstructed its academic model. Fueled by a $90 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, administrators have delegated hiring power to principals, revamped how the district evaluates and trains its 7,000 teachers, and aggressively pushed out those who couldn’t shape up.

That work seems to be paying off, top leaders said Wednesday. For the fourth consecutive year, Shelby County Schools was labeled a Level 5 district for academic growth, the highest level possible. The school system scored academic growth in nine of the 10 tested subject areas. For seven of those subjects, gains outpaced the state average.

For a district that just chopped $125 million from its budget and where a third of its schools rank academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent, the latest test scores are a welcome sign that leaders are investing in the right programs and the right people, says Superintendent Dorsey Hopson.

“We need more than a level 3 to catch up, and the teachers have hit this out of the park,” Hopson said at a news conference at Raleigh-Egypt High School, an East Memphis school that once was at risk of being taken over by the state.

“But despite the progress, we have a long way to go,” he said.

The district’s literacy scores dipped slightly, a crucial subject area for an impoverished corner of the state that historically has struggled with high unemployment and imprisonment rates. Barely a third of the district’s third-graders read on grade level, an early indicator that they are more likely to drop out of school eventually.

When school starts in two weeks, the district will roll out a new literacy improvement plan that dispatches 35 coaches across the city to work closely with teachers and students on reading and writing skills. All of its teachers now will be tasked with incorporating phonics and vocabulary skills into their lesson plans, a focus traditionally left to English teachers.

Since receiving money from the Gates Foundation, the district has reshaped the way it recruits, retains and improves its teachers and principals. The system hires earlier in the year, gives bonuses to teachers showing the biggest gains, and provides more tailored professional development.

The number of teachers who have received a level 4 or 5 on their evaluations, the highest scores possible, has doubled in the last four years. And twice as many teachers attended professional development sessions this summer as last.

The changes haven’t come without controversy, however. Leaders of the local teachers union have complained that Hopson’s administration has cut teachers out of the decision-making process, contributing to low morale in the trenches. Hopson still wants to tie teacher pay to test scores, an effort that hasn’t gone over well.

In the last two years, the district has cut $285 million from its budget. The school system, which was created in 2013 with the consolidation of Memphis City Schools and Legacy Shelby County Schools, also has weathered a significant loss in student enrollment and funding to a growing crop of charter schools and the creation of six municipal school districts following the merger. Recently, about 500 teachers and administrators were laid off, which will result in fewer support staff and some larger classes.

Despite the tumultuous changes, two-thirds of the district boosted test scores and 12 schools made enough gains so that they’re no longer at risk of state intervention, according to data released Wednesday.

With less money to go around, school leaders have worked to identify what exactly is making its top schools so successful. Chief academic officer Heidi Ramirez has toured schools and talked with principals achieving double-digit gains and touted their strategies.

" The teachers have hit this out of the park. "

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson

Some efforts are costly and time-consuming. Using color-coded spread sheets, teachers at Cherokee Elementary School spent hours studying test assessments to figure out where students struggled. The principal then rewrote the school’s entire curriculum based on the data.

At Raleigh-Egypt High School, which has struggled with a high truancy rate and gang violence, the principal cruised the neighborhood in his white Silverado and urged dawdling teens to return to class.

But challenges continue to pop up as resources continue to dwindle. Almost drained of funds from the Gates grant, most of the district’s investments in developing its teacher workforce will be discontinued unless local philanthropists pick up the costs.

“What we’ve done is we’ve shifted it from being an initiative to being the fabric of our work,” Hopson explained of the district’s strategy for now. “In order to continue this work, it can’t just be the district’s work. It has to be the community’s work. I can’t think of a more worthwhile body of work than this that produces results for kids.”

Correction: This version corrects an earlier version to show that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant was for $90 million.