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VOL. 127 | NO. 154 | Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Opening Bell

Last year of separate school systems begins with host of changes

By Bill Dries

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By bricks and mortar, the last school year of separate Memphis City and Shelby County schools that began Monday, Aug. 6, looked about like most school years.

Students return to school at Colonial Middle School, a level 5 optional school that focuses on the creative and performing arts. This marks the final year before the merger of city and county schools.  

(Photos: Lance Murphey)

But before the two school systems merge there will be plenty of evidence of larger changes that would be happening even with no merger a year from now.

This is the second year of “common core” standards in Tennessee, a set of student achievement standards adopted by the state and 45 other states across the country.

“It’s not just higher standards,” said David Mansouri of the education reform group Tennessee SCORE (State Collaborative on Reforming Education). “It’s in many ways changing the way teaching and learning is done – moving to much more critical thinking, much more problem solving, much more team work.”

In the 2011-2012 school year, the common core math standards debuted in kindergarten through the second grade. This school year, the math standards move into the third through eighth grades. And the 2013-2014 school year will see the new common core standards for math and English language arts in grades k-12.

“One thing that may be apparent early is students are going to be asked to solve problems in different ways,” Mansouri said. “There may not be one exact way to get an answer as we may have seen previously, but instead encouraging students to figure out different ways of getting the right answer. Parents may feel like we are clearly raising the rigor of what’s taught in the classroom. They may notice things seem harder.”

Meanwhile, students at three Frayser schools went to the same school buildings Monday that have been in their neighborhoods since before they were born.

But Corning and Frayser elementary, as well as Westside Middle School, began the school year as part of the state-run Achievement School District. Each school had lots of new faculty members after a process in which every one working at each school had to reapply for their jobs.

And the schools now include the word Achievement in their names to distinguish them from other schools -- charter and conventional -- in a school system that now has more than two kinds of schools.

Outside Frayser, the Achievement School District opened two state-authorized charter schools at Gordon and Lester elementary.

The Gordon charter school is a middle school within the elementary school and is operated by Gestalt Community Schools. Gestalt is the operator of Power Center Academy in Hickory Hill.

Principal Marty Pettigrew directs students as they return to school Monday at Colonial Middle School. This marks the final year before the merger of schools.

The Lester Charter school is a pre-k through third grade school operated by Cornerstone Prep.

The Lester, Corning and Frayser schools also expand access to pre-kindergarten classes for Memphis City Schools students, a goal of the 2013-2014 schools merger as outlined by the consolidation planning commission.

The Lester and Gordon state-run charters are different than other more numerous charter schools that operate under agreement with MCS. The numbers of those charter schools increases in the current school year and beyond.

At the last countywide school board meeting before the start of the school year, former Memphis Mayor and former MCS superintendent Willie Herenton signaled a third phase of his public life as president and CEO of the W.E.B. Dubois Consortium of Charter Schools.

Herenton is working with Memphis-Shelby County Juvenile Court officials on a charter school for juvenile offenders to begin with the 2013-2014 school year.

He was one of several charter applicants rejected by the school board last year because the board concluded that many new charter schools would be a financial hardship on both school systems. Tennessee Treasurer David Lillard rejected the reasoning and all 17 proposals were approved by the board later because of the state action.

“I will always be a staunch supporter of public schools,” Herenton said to a board with some members who consider charter schools to be a drain on funding for conventional public schools in the system. “I consider charter schools to be public schools.”

In the board’s shorthand, the conventional schools are called “Memphis City Schools” and the charter schools are “charter schools.”

“I do not believe that charter schools represent the panacea for all of the problems we see,” Herenton said. “There are some traditional schools in your system that outperform charter schools. … Our consortium will have effective teachers. We will have effective school leaders.”

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