Building on Innovation Zone successes, Shelby County Schools to launch separate ‘Empowerment Zone’

The prized school turnaround initiative of Shelby County Schools is getting a little sister.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson announced Tuesday that the district will launch a pilot “Empowerment Zone” next school year with five struggling schools that feed into Whitehaven High School in Memphis. All five schools rank academically in the bottom 10 percent of Tennessee schools, putting them at risk of state intervention if they make next year’s state priority list of the bottom 5 percent of schools in Tennessee.

Hopson described the pilot program as a “proactive strategy,” designed not only to improve the feeder schools but to help fend off state intervention in those schools. It would feature some of the same practices that the district’s 4-year-old Innovation Zone is known for, including more leadership autonomy related to teacher pay and education programming.

The five schools moving to the Empowerment Zone are:

  • Havenview Middle School
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle School
  • Holmes Road Elementary School
  • Manor Lake Elementary School
  • Robert R. Church Elementary School

A. Maceo Walker Middle and Holmes Road Elementary both appeared on the state’s 2014 list of priority schools.

The initiative will be led by Vincent Hunter, principal of Whitehaven High School, which recently honored 51 seniors receiving more than $1 million each in scholarships.

“The Empowerment Zone is about concentrating efforts and talent into one system. It’s about leveraging talent, such as the abilities Dr. Hunter has shown at Whitehaven,” said Heidi Ramirez, the district’s chief academic officer.

Hunter said many students arrive at Whitehaven unprepared for high school after attending low-performing schools surrounded by impoverished neighborhoods. “We know those principals have done the very best they can do,” he said.

Schools in the Empowerment Zone will collaborate on academic strategies, particularly on the core subjects of math, language arts and science.

"The Empowerment Zone is about concentrating efforts and talent into one system. It's about leveraging talent ..."

Heidi Ramirez, chief academic officer

IZone leaders say collaboration has been a key factor in the iZone’s success, as teachers and administrators at its 18 schools communicate daily about best practices in their turnaround work. Launched in 2012, the iZone has produced statistically significant, positive impacts on student achievement across all subjects, according to researchers.

However, the iZone initiative is expensive to operate, particularly the cost of extending the school day by an extra hour. The Empowerment Zone plan would not extend the school day. However, on the same night that district administrators grappled to address a projected $86 million projected budget deficit for next year, they were not able to say how much the new initiative would cost.