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VOL. 6 | NO. 33 | Saturday, August 10, 2013

Learning Curve

Shelby County Schools begins new era as unified district

By Bill Dries

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When the first day of the first school year of the unified county school system opened Monday, Aug. 5, a group of school board members, staff and interim superintendent Dorsey Hopson stopped at Millington Middle School.

Third graders Emmit Beasley and Zamiriana Barber enjoy the first day of school at Southwind Elementary.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

It was one of eight schools the group visited over seven hours by way of a school bus. Some of the schools had warnings on the doors about “no gun zones” and metal detectors to reinforce the policy. Millington Middle had signs reading “no gum zone.”

“Guys, I need your focus on me,” math teacher Robert Davis told a group of sixth graders in his classroom as Hopson, the adults and several photographers filed into the room.

“You should have had bell work or seat work when you were in elementary school, right?” he said as the children took a few more glances at the cameras. “When you see that, you need to get started on that bell work as soon as it’s posted.”

Before the group came to Davis’ room, they filed into another classroom with no students in it. It is what principal Amie Marsh calls the “data room,” a converted classroom with charts and graphs measuring each student’s progress in a detailed way as well as intervention plans to immediately begin to bring up the performance of those students who fall behind.

“That’s the only way to address it,” Marsh said. “I had this in my head years before I got here.”

Hopson wanted school board members and his cabinet to take in the color-coded charts and bar graphs, and the centralized approach, all meticulously designed.

“We actually used that model to secure some additional (Bill and Melinda) Gates (Foundation) funding. They focus on the data,” Hopson said at the end of the tour. “They focus on strategically knowing as much data about every student in that school as possible so they can develop programs for those students. … I think you see that we have someone who uses those people the way they need to be used.”

The data room in what was once a part of the legacy Shelby County Schools system is also an indication of how public education is changing on numerous fronts, some of them having little to do with the schools merger.

It was during the transition planning commission meetings of 2011 that then-county schools superintendent John Aitken began to peel back the public image of a county school system that stuck to basic fundamental education concepts that had changed very little over decades.

Aitken told the group that made the recommendations on the structure of the new unified school system to the school board that all school systems, including the one for the county outside Memphis, were in the “business of intervention.”

“No matter where or what level that child is on, we’re going to assess that child,” Aitken said in November 2011. “We’re going to see what interventions are necessary to make that child succeed and stay at grade level. We’re going to catch them. … I think that can be replicated at any school and no matter what sized district.”

County school leaders prior to that had not denied that was part of their mission. But they had been content to watch as then-Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash touted the Teacher Effectiveness Initiative effort to measure teacher performance based, in part, on student performance. And they watched as Cash touted millions in funding from the Gates Foundation and from private nonprofit organizations in a vision he defined in terms of the needs of an urban school system. But the data-based intervention strategy and program that was the example on the opening day of the school year was in a Millington school.

Normal scenes like this one at Idlewild Elementary belied the historic nature of the day.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

Less than a week before the first day of classes, the countywide school board was still approving policies that reconciled different practices between the old city and county school systems. Corporal punishment was an issue that went down to the last board meeting before the school year. Memphis City Schools banned it. Shelby County Schools didn’t. But principals in neither school system had used it in years.

It was a concept that some members of the old Shelby County Schools board defended and another example of where values in the two systems were different – except they weren’t really. Board member David Reaves, who was among those arguing that the concept should remain, changed his opposition to the ban.

“I went out to the schools and I talked to some of my principals and some of my teachers,” he said, adding he asked them if corporal punishment is effective. “One hundred percent said no.”

One principal said he hadn’t used paddling as punishment in a decade.

Reaves said he still believes it is effective but can’t be used uniformly because of differences in children and the possibility of legal action for its use.

“To me, it’s an ineffective policy if that cannot be the case,” Reaves said. “I think we have to settle this new policy now. I don’t want this hanging over our heads.”

Hopson has said he understands the distinction others make between former county schools and former city schools. But he has added that he has little time for the distinction as he runs the consolidated school system.

He also says he has little time to take a victory lap for an opening day that, by and large, achieved his goal of a school experience that was much the same for students as it was the year before in terms of teachers.

“It’s not going to get easier because we still have so much to do in terms of transitioning,” Hopson said as the beginning of the school year approached.

Marsh isn’t the only new principal in this landmark school year, one Hopson and others hope is consistent for students. But the yearly change in principals became a constant during the more than four years that Cash was superintendent of Memphis City Schools.

“We have 250 schools. I’ve replaced about 40 principals this year. I was a little concerned that so many of the principals are new,” Hopson said. “You saw that enthusiasm, that excitement. I think that what our new principals lack in experience they make up for in excitement. They also have mentors.”

Hopson, in the space of three months, became interim Memphis City Schools superintendent with the resignation of Cash and then interim Shelby County Schools superintendent with the resignation of Aitken.

Aitken’s resignation was the more surprising of the two. With it, Hopson, who had been general counsel for Memphis City Schools, became the merger superintendent. It was a scenario that few could have foreseen when the schools merger process began in late 2010.

Hopson claimed the job, saying he had no plans to seek it permanently. When the school board called off its search for a permanent superintendent for now, Hopson had at least a school year to shape the merger. It may be the only school year that there aren’t separate school systems in each of the county’s six suburban towns and cities.

Change has come to Shelby County Schools, but the first day of school looked familiar.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

Hopson has said that at times in the political process he believed there have been those rooting for the merger to fail. He’s also said he has no problem with suburban school districts.

The first-day-of-school tour came with a last look at a landscape that he may change even more in the 2014-2015 school year. The first stop was Carver High School, one of 13 schools the board is holding public hearings on closing after Hopson recommended them for possible closure in the second year of the merger.

There was also a stop at Frayser High School, one of several high schools the state-run Achievement School District is considering for part of its school system for the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state in terms of student achievement.

“There will be a lot of discussion about Carver later this year,” Hopson told board members as he met them at the entrance to the South Memphis high school.

The tour was led by one of the students involved in campus protests last school year over the lack of programs at Carver and then the plans to close it.

Hopson has maintained that the lack of enough students to offer some of those programs shows why Carver is a candidate for possible closing.

Frayser High School isn’t on the list for possible closure. It has an alternative school within the building. But during the opening day look around Frayser, school board members and staff saw some unused classrooms and small classes in an area of town that once had three high schools until Westside High School began Westside Middle School several years ago.

“It’s one of the schools where we see declining enrollment,” Hopson said. “The ASD is interested in Frayser. … The school is so huge, it’s a school within a school,” he added, talking about the alternative school.

Each of the schools visited on opening day were different in so many ways, from the narrow brick hallways of Idlewild that seemed child-sized to the large acoustically sealed music rooms of Southwind.

Even the older high schools from Germantown to Carver to Frayser to Melrose were different from each other.

Across the spectrum, they all face change that promises to be the new normal over a period of years for local public education in whatever form it settles into eventually.

Some of the unified school district’s future moves won’t be based on the suburban split but on competition from the Achievement School District and charter schools. The competition was already being felt by both school systems before the merger.

Hopson’s Innovation Zone is a new part of the school system’s answer with first-year achievement test results that showed double digit percentage growth in the number of students at grade level in reading, math and science.

With the competition parents have options and high performing teachers become more of a commodity. The question remains: Does student achievement grow in the change?

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