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VOL. 128 | NO. 251 | Friday, December 27, 2013

New Questions

Parents wait for word on school changes

By Bill Dries

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The winter break for students is usually when parents look for word of what changes are ahead in the next school year.

Shelby County Schools board meetings have been the center of much of the change to which parents have grown accustomed, but now the municipal boards are where much of the change is occurring. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

Changes in attendance zones, school closings, new programs, existing programs that might be moving or discontinued – those are the details for the school year to come in August that parents are looking for at the halfway point in the current school year.

This holiday season, there are more details to come with the six suburban school systems, which are now all past the process of selecting superintendents.

Despite earlier talk that they might have a common superintendent, the school boards for the Arlington and Lakeland systems each selected different leaders Monday, Dec. 23.

Arlington High School principal Tammy Mason was the choice of the Arlington Schools board, and Germantown High School principal Ted Horrell was the choice of the Lakeland Schools board.

Early in the new year, they and the four other suburban superintendents selected just before Christmas should begin assembling their staffs and making recommendations to the school boards on how the school systems should be structured. Final contract terms are still to come for some of those selected.

The first policies are expected to be rudimentary, meant to get the new school systems running on the most basic level.

In November, when negotiations on the suburban settlements were just about done, Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald acknowledged the realistic expectations for whether the Bartlett Schools system would be running as smoothly as he’d like to see.

“I think the second and third year into it, yes,” he said. “The first year, there’s going to be hiccups. I don’t think anybody’s expecting the first year to be some wonderful ‘look here.’ There’s a huge learning curve. I think second and third year, with the idea of smaller local control, that there will be a better experience for us.”

Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson has told his school board to expect recommendations on school attendance zones in the new calendar year, once the suburban school systems have their plans in place for the new school year. He refers to it as the “de-merger.”

With a starting date certain for the six school systems, Hopson then wants to begin looking at changes.

Certain to be high on the list for consideration are changes in Cordova, where residents have been vocal in their call for more consistency in attendance zones that once marked the boundaries of the old Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools systems. Cordova consists of areas within the city of Memphis and areas in unincorporated Shelby County.

“The first year, there’s going to be hiccups. I don’t think anybody’s expecting the first year to be some wonderful ‘look here.’ There’s a huge learning curve.”

–Keith McDonald
Bartlett mayor

Hopson already has staff members looking at possibilities.

First up, however, Hopson could give the Shelby County Schools board his final recommendations on 2014-2015 school closings for the board to vote on in February.

The list of 13 schools up for consideration changed from the first list of possibilities he took to the board in April.

“This is not a done deal,” he told the school board in December, saying public reaction and especially alternative scenarios from those in the affected communities could affect the plans again.

Achievement School District superintendent Chris Barbic made the same point about changes as he announced in December the Memphis schools that next year will become part of the state-run district for Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools. The list was different than the one that kicked off a series of public meetings in the affected communities.

“This could have been a nice, neat, tidy package, and the nice, neat, tidy package looks like a bunch of suits walking into a room and telling people what’s going to happen. That’s not who we are,” Barbic said. “When we took South Side off the list and when we took Denver off the list and when we didn’t match exactly every school that was recommended – that’s all part of the process.”

Among the changes now under review in Shelby County Schools’ latest tentative plan is the expansion of two high schools – Carver and Booker T. Washington – to grades 6 to 12, incorporating middle schools.

It’s no accident that Hopson’s new school-closing recommendations and the two school expansions were rolled out at the same time the third-year schools for the Achievement School District were announced.

The two school systems work closely and what one does affects the other. There is action and reaction, and there are compromises as well as competition.

Hopson doesn’t believe the co-location phased-in takeovers of conventional schools by the ASD are the best transition, so he plans to move Shelby County Schools operations out of the schools taken by the ASD even on a partial basis. The students in higher grades not affected in the opening year would be moved to nearby county schools, with the option of staying at their new assignments or transferring to the Achievement School District.

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