‘Wheel’ Now in Motion for New School System

By Bill Dries

Those on the schools transition planning commission called it “the wheel.” Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald called it “the wheel of education.”

The wheel is a set of principles for the coming consolidated countywide school system. And it was approved by the planning commission last week as a prelude to this week’s anticipated vote on a structure for the new countywide school system.

The seven principles arranged in a wheel in the PowerPoint presentation surround the central goal of applying them to every student.

They are: engaged parents; a culture and climate of high expectations; effective instructional leaders; effective teachers; rigorous implementation of standards; tailored interventions and support; and quality and accessible educational choices.

The concepts of every child being ready for school and every student ready for success in college and/or a career are on either side of the wheel.

The concept of general terms with specific meanings was debated and nearly sidetracked by a survey of planning commission members that was informal and reflected some priorities that not all on the commission could agree to, at least initially.

Like the committee that drafted recommendations on the school system’s structure, the educational services committee was twice as big as the 21-member planning commission itself.

Daniel Kiel, professor at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, chaired the committee, which included education experts from both of the local school systems as well as other experts who were consulted.

The goals are an important first step to set the purpose for the school system’s structure.

“There is work to do for every school in Shelby County,” Kiel said.

He went through a checklist of combined school system statistics showing an enrollment decline of an average of 1 percent for each of the past five school years.

The survey list of priorities, he emphasized, were meant to trigger a discussion.

Intervention with students was fifth in a list of the top five priorities in the survey. Early childhood education was at the top. But Kiel acknowledged there are some real funding limitations to expanding that for now.

Planning commissioner Katie Stanton, a former president of the Shelby County Education Association, said the idea of intervening with students during a school year before they fail or fall too far behind is an important priority with teachers. She emphasized behavioral intervention.

Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken told the group last year that intervention is a strategy that has changed education practice across the country and is a reality in both of the county’s public school systems because of new state standards and federal Race to the Top standards.

“Both districts have good interventions in place,” said planning commission chairwoman Barbara Prescott.

Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald had concerns about several of the principles if they were to be undertaken by the school system and no one else.

“I’ve got a problem with three or four of these being the responsibility of the school system,” he said. “I don’t believe we’ve seen an example of a school system that’s been able to get all of these things within a system.”

That included the goal of engaged parents.

“Whatever limited resources we have in education, I don’t think we have enough resources to do all of those things nor can we force parents to be engaged,” McDonald said.

“The school system can do some things with engaging parents,” Kiel said. “But a school system can also be intentional about working with other groups that might do an even better job of engaging parents.”

Shelby County Schools leaders have long touted the school system’s requirement of PTA chapters at every school in the county system.

But planning commissioner Joyce Avery called for the involvement of churches and retired teachers as mentors.

“In a Norman Rockwell world all parents are involved,” she said before contrasting that with “the real world.” “Many of the parents are not capable of helping their children. Are we going to look toward the churches and retired teachers to be mentors of those children? The parents are not always capable of helping.”

Planning commissioner Tommy Hart also urged the group to be cautious about “the prism” through which it looks at the reformation of Shelby County Schools and that reformation’s point of contact with parents and the community. Hart saying different generations with different levels of education should be able to understand the goals.

“If we could outlaw one thing, it would be acronyms,” Hart said. “I hear now from my children who are college graduates – they struggle with what the school system is trying to say with acronyms.”