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VOL. 128 | NO. 131 | Monday, July 8, 2013

Merger Pace Quickens at School Level

By Bill Dries

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Deputy schools superintendent David Stephens has said it numerous times. “All hands on deck,” was his way of describing the approach to the consolidated school system’s preparations for the Aug. 5 start of classes.


Stephens was talking to Shelby County Commissioners just days before the merger became formal on July 1.

The day after the July 1 milestone, interim superintendent Dorsey Hopson acknowledged it succinctly.

“Yesterday, we made history,” he said. “We are now going to shift with a laser-like focus towards making sure that we have a successful opening of the school year.”

It should be a fast month.

The first new school of the consolidated school district, Belle Forest Community School, 3135 Ridgeway Road, was to have its first open house Saturday, July 6, for parents and the southeast Memphis community.

New teacher induction is July 24-26 with teachers reporting for their first day at the schools on July 29. Registration is July 30.

And Hopson said he believes the registration process will be a first test of how the opening will go.

“The registration between the two legacy districts was different,” Hopson said. “MCS did online registration. SCS didn’t necessarily.”

In his nearly five years as superintendent of Memphis City Schools, Kriner Cash struggled with the long-held notion, even by administrators, that registration and even the first week of classes were a point at which some students and their parents learned the school year had begun.

By the time Cash left seven months ago, the school system was aligned with a goal of stressing the importance of registration and showing up for the first day of classes.

The statewide results of the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) released in late June showed more than half of the state’s students tested in third through eighth grades were on grade level in every subject tested. Overall scores increased, and economically disadvantaged students showed faster growth than students from more affluent homes.

The results by school district are released by the state the week of July 22 and school by school on Aug. 12.

Hopson wouldn’t talk specific percentages but said both school systems in their last year of existence showed gains in student achievement with rising state standards.

“We’re going to be very excited to share that data,” he said.

School bus drivers in the consolidated school district’s hybrid model of a transportation system that is part private contractor and part school system owned fleet and drivers are already testing new bus routes. The school system’s switch to three “bell times,” or starting times for schools, drew an immediate reaction from critical parents.

And no matter how much planning and test runs there are, children always get missed or picked up late at bus stops on the first day of classes.

“We designed a lot of bus routes. We also redesigned those routes to increase the load that we operate to handle,” Hopson said. “Until we actually get in there and run the routes, we are not going to know whether the timing is off two minutes or four minutes.”

But Hopson is sweating the details on the bus routes in the same way he tended to the details of the central office interviews that led to the layoff of an estimated 300 top school system officials at the end of June.

In that case, Hopson knew the schedule for the interviews and helped set up the system of interviews down to the interviewers themselves being interviewed. And he specifically set himself up as a “gatekeeper” to guard against bias as leaders of one school system evaluated those of the other school system.

The other major exception to the move toward what Hopson and other school system leaders refer to as “harmonization” – a single method or system for a particular school system function – is athletics.

There remain two school systems for now in that regard for reasons that Hopson acknowledges have a lot to do with money.

But beyond that, Hopson says he doesn’t have much use for continuing to distinguish between Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools.

“I’m past it,” he said. “We had a good conversation with staff. I think it starts at the top. I think there is some historic value to delineating between the two legacy systems. But we are past that. I cringe when I hear people say the old MCS or the old SCS. They were both very, very significant institutions. But as of July 1, 2013, we are a unified school district and that’s my mindset. That’s the leadership team’s mindset. We are not looking back.”

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