Shelby County Schools board contenders talk pandemic, state testing, and ASD transition

Chalkbeat Tennessee moderates a forum on Zoom with candidates vying for seats in Shelby County districts 5 and 7. (Zoom Screenshot )

The COVID-19 pandemic may be just the thing to break the five Shelby County Schools board contests on the August ballot out of the usual rhetoric that comes with school board races.

At two online candidate forums in the past four days sponsored and hosted by Chalkbeat Tennessee in partnership with the National Civil Rights Museum and MICAH (Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope), what broke through the rhetoric were questions about what public schools will look like in the pandemic, state achievement testing and the coming transition of students out of the state-run Achievement School District.

Watch the conversation with candidates from districts 2, 3, and 4 in full.

“Just sitting through this Zoom call is painful enough,” District 4 school board member Kevin Woods said of the impact of a full online school day for teachers.

“That’s a heavy, heavy lift,” he said. “It’s not a question of ‘if’ on virtual education. It’s how good is it going to be.”

Kristy Sullivan, who is among Woods’ challengers in the District 4 race, said parents should continue to choose virtual or in-person, as they are doing through Friday. But Sullivan said numbers of new cases, positivity rates and hospitalization rates could change the nature of that choice and the question from which one to when.

“If it looks as though we cannot continue to go forward with in-person options … then we should give some consideration to going all virtual for the first month or so,” she said.

District 3 school board member Stephanie Love said the school system’s plans have to include options.

“Regardless of the plans we make, COVID-19 is going to determine what plan we actually follow,” she said. “We are most definitely prepared, whatever happens, to continue.”

One of her two challengers, Aaron Youngblood, said children learn best in person and in a classroom. But he also said a return to classes “is not an option.”

“Until there are two weeks of no new cases and in-person school board meetings, along with more staff input, I don’t think we should allow kids to go back in-person,” he said.

Love’s other challenger, Jesse Jeff, a director of the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association, said there should be a gradual return to in-person classes.

“Maybe for the first semester it should be virtual,” he said. “I don’t think we are down far enough with the positivity rate.”

District 5 board member Scott McCormick said the school system won’t be able to plan ahead for every possibility that could come up.

“What happens if a teacher is diagnosed or tests positive? Does a substitute teacher come in? Does that classroom have to go on lockdown for 14 days?” he asked. “We’re not going to have an answer totally when we are ready to start school. There will be a lot of issues that come up as we go along.” 

One of his three challengers, Sheleah Harris, said the pandemic’s effects are more profound than the immediate questions about the unexpected in a classroom.

“COVID-19 only pulled back what we have not done,” she said. “It only revealed the gaps that were already there.”

District 7 incumbent Miska Clay-Bibbs, who is also chairwoman of the board, said procedure is more important than policy when it comes to schools in a pandemic that neither parents nor grandparents have seen in their lifetimes.

“If something happens in the building, it will affect everyone,” she said of the contact students and teachers may have well beyond a school. “Things are changing daily. We have to be nimble when it comes to this plan.”

At the second Chalkbeat forum for the contenders in the District 5 and 7 races, all five candidates were critical of TNReady testing and said if the state performance tests return, it should be under different conditions and not during the coming school year.

Watch the conversation with candidates from districts 5 and 7 in full.

District 5 candidate April Ghueder, a teacher, said the school system should move to “screening” tests that are used to indicate where a student is as a snapshot instead of as a more substantial judge of achievement.

“When can I teach? When can I really teach the curriculum?” she asked, saying it is a common question among teachers who feel they have to switch near test time to teach the test. “I think we have the data. I think the data is there. We need to use it.”

Clay-Bibbs said because the state tests are used to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers, they are seen as “punitive.”

“We cannot continue to be testing in that same way,” she said. “Whichever way it goes, it will give us an opportunity for us to create something for ourselves as a district.”

McCormick said the school system needs a “different approach” on school resource officers.

“They should be in the school not dressed in an intimidating way,” he said. “They should be in the school as another form of support that we provide the students. There is so much mistrust between students and law enforcement, and I think we need to realize that.”

Paul Evelyn Allen, a retired teacher in the District 5 race, said that should depend on the school, especially middle and high schools.

“The school climate and environment determines the need,” she said, noting that some teachers have retired on disability because of violent encounters with children. “We don’t want students or staff left vulnerable to possibly violent altercations.”

Harris said she has taught literacy to detainees at the Shelby County Jail as well as her past as a teacher in Shelby County Schools.

“It looks the same,” she said by way of comparison. “Our officers should be in school for safety only and not intimidation.”

Asked about the return of SCS students from eight years of the state-run Achievement School District that took over failing schools in the system, retired educator and District 2 board member Althea Greene said there may be changes to the school day for those students.

Greene is the only one of the five incumbents seeking re-election this election year who is running unopposed on the August ballot.

“The children are coming back farther behind than they were when they left,” she said of changes to the ASD by the state.

“We may need extended learning days and school on Saturday and other resources to bridge the gap. … But please send some dollars back with those children.”

Woods was more outspoken about the legacy of the ASD.

“We were sold a bill of goods that someone else could come into our community, educate our children better, displace our teachers. And when you fail at that you say, ‘Here it is. It’s right back in your lap. Now go back and fix it.’ It’s hard to educate poor children.”

Woods said the school system should be prepared to bring some of the ASD teachers “into the fold of our system,” possibly as an extension of the Innovation Zone schools – the school system’s version of the ASD.

Eight years later, the I-Zone schools appear to have boosted student achievement in failing schools better than the ASD model that relied heavily on using charter school organizations.

Sullivan said the transition will take more money.

“We don’t have enough resources to educate those most at risk with the limited resources we have,” she said.

Jeff said all schools should be along the optional school model – another hot button issue with educators and parents for decades.

“Everybody should play by the same rules,” he said.

This story was originally published on The Daily Memphian, a nonprofit news organization. Bill Dries covers city government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.

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