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VOL. 7 | NO. 35 | Saturday, August 23, 2014

Class is In

Shelby County begins new era in education

By Bill Dries

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For Collierville Schools superintendent John Aitken, the demerger of public schools in Shelby County didn’t become “real” until teachers reported the week before the Aug. 4 first day of classes.

Bailey Station Elementary first-grader Anya Chauhaush exits a school bus during the first week of classes.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

The weekend before public school students started the school year across the county and the buses began to roll, there was a little more reality to come for all seven of Shelby County’s public schools systems.

Union drivers for Durham School Services, the school bus company that has contracts with all of the districts, voted down a contract with Durham.

For Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson and the six new suburban superintendents, all with plenty of experience before this with bus problems, the momentary uncertainty about bus service came with the already certain knowledge that any opening day of classes includes bus glitches no matter how much planning there is to avoid them.

Both sides in the labor dispute quickly agreed drivers would report for work on the first day of school and continue contract talks for another month. They reached a five-year contract agreement two weeks into the school year.

The first day of the school year came with a bus glitch unique to the historic school year. With bus routes making their way to students across the boundaries of the seven school systems, at least one student got on the wrong bus for the wrong school system at the wrong stop and wound up at the wrong school. The correct bus stop was on the same street.

A year ago, the emphasis at the outset of the one and only year of the public schools merger in Shelby County was on changing as little of the school experience as possible. At least the part of the school experience that had to do with the merger.

There were significant changes last school year beyond the merger with Common Core standards, a continuing emphasis on immediate intervention with students who fall behind and the choices for parents and teachers with charter schools, the state-run Achievement School District and private schools.

This school year, those changes continue on their courses and the competition for students and teachers has accelerated with somewhat porous borders among the newly formed suburban school districts and with Shelby County Schools.

“It’s been a daunting task,” Aitken said of the formation of the suburban school systems over an eight-month period.

Aitken believes he had an advantage from his experience as Shelby County Schools superintendent until just a few months before the merger when he retired.

Collierville Schools Superintendent John Aitken cites his experience as Shelby County Schools superintendent in his ability to create the new Collierville system, which included hiring and retaining most of the teachers who taught in the same schools when they were part of the merged countywide system.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

“It probably let me get a head start on some of the rest,” Aitken said.

Bartlett City Schools superintendent David Stephens had a different kind of head start in that respect.

A year ago he was with Hopson as Hopson made a tour of numerous schools and kept tabs on more than a hundred other schools as the merger moved into the classrooms.

“I made all 11 Bartlett schools in one day and I did it before 11:30,” Stephens said at the end of the first school day of the Bartlett City Schools system. “It’s manageable.”

Stephens was Hopson’s deputy superintendent during last year’s merger and had been Aitken’s deputy superintendent at the legacy Shelby County Schools system before that.

So, it isn’t surprising that Aitken and Stephens got together in short order and drafted what would become a common plan for such services as school lunch programs, transportation, human resources, and similar business and central office functions across all six suburban school systems.

“Sitting down and hiring some of those same people that used to do those core business operations in legacy Shelby County (Schools) probably was one of the best business decisions we made to let each district concentrate on the important things – hiring, students, staffing,” Aitken said. “It’s been a little tug of war here every now and then. But nobody’s ever done this. I liken it to a relationship or a marriage. You sit down and you work things out and we do that.”

The tug of war over shared services was primarily a difference between the Germantown Municipal Schools district school board and the other five suburban school systems.

Germantown’s school board wanted to make its own separate deals for some services with the view that eventually that would be the case and the school system should do it and take on the expense sooner rather than later.

“I think as the school systems go on, the different municipalities will want to go in different directions and that’s a good thing too,” said Germantown school board member Mark Dely. “You will probably see an expansion of local control. … We as a community have much more ability to impact things because it’s a smaller school district.”

But at least for the first school year, the other suburban school system leaders emphasized the shared services weren’t a menu to pick from but an all or nothing package.

Germantown superintendent Jason Manuel was the go-between and when it was resolved he was the diplomat as well.

“The time frame was the biggest challenge,” he said of the formation of the school system. “We had six months to build a school system, develop all the policies, hire all the people. That was the challenge for us and now we are there.”

Meanwhile, Collierville school leaders are already looking into a new high school and Lakeland school leaders, who have a single elementary school in their system, are exploring a grades 8-12 school in the future. Collierville has an agreement with Germantown schools for high school students in Collierville to continue attending Houston High in Germantown. And Lakeland has a similar agreement with Bartlett and Arlington for its middle school- and high school-aged students.

With the new school year, Hopson also has a claim on the “smaller is better” mantra, if not the “local control” claim. He too oversees a smaller school system that has gone from taking in the entire county to now taking in the city of Memphis and unincorporated Shelby County.

“The operational issues that are associated with the merger are not like this year. That’s refreshing,” he said on the first day of classes. “It’s not easier. It’s just different.”

To Hopson the difference lies in his aggressive moves to improve student performance, particularly pursuing a goal of all third graders reading at their grade level. Currently, only about 25 percent read at their grade level.

Running parallel with the downsizing of Shelby County Schools because of the merger was Hopson’s adamant belief that some inner-city schools far from the suburban boundaries would have to close because of a population shift coupled with their continued poor student achievement performance.

Ultimately 10 were closed, which was two fewer than he has proposed.

What had been Riverview Middle School last school year debuted as Riverview K-8 school this month as neighboring Riverview Elementary School closed.

Carver High School, which is also nearby, had been proposed for closing but Hopson backed off the proposal after community leaders suggested the shift in the two Riverviews that feed into Carver.

Before going inside Riverview to take a look around on opening day, Hopson took in the boarded-up houses riddled with gang graffiti around the school. Before coming to Riverview, he and his staff walked around another South Memphis neighborhood surrounding A.B. Hill Elementary School as well, with one eye out for school-aged children not in school – the other on an environment Hopson said can’t be ignored with all of the changes in local education.

“What we have to figure out how to do is to drastically improve student achievement so that our poor and impoverished students can change their circumstance in life.”

–Dorsey Hopson, Shelby County Schools superintendent

“Often times when you see test scores, particularly if it may evidence low achievement, you don’t really get into what goes on with a kid before they get to school or when they get home. … This is one of the poorest ZIP codes in the country,” Hopson said. “You go by house after house boarded up, burnt out and all of the symptoms that come along with poverty. … I really believe that education is the great equalizer. What we have to figure out how to do is to drastically improve student achievement so that our poor and impoverished students can change their circumstance in life.”

Inside Riverview, Hopson was greeted by principal Rosalind Martin dressed in military fatigues and groups of students in very straight lines marching behind teachers wearing fatigue T-shirts and other similar military gear.

“We hit literacy hard. We are all in camouflage and boot camp,” Martin said of the approach to improving reading achievement. “Our children understand that the military style really means something about authoritative figures.”

And the intervention on reading achievement was underway the first day for many students even as others observed the long-held practice of registering for school on the first day of school in Riverview’s auditorium.

Riverview is one of the schools Hopson has selected for the “blended learning” trial program in which every student gets a digital laptop/tablet loaded with a curriculum tied to the school work that allows them to continue the school’s focus at home.

Part of the opening day preparation was to ready the students for the arrival of the Lenovo Yoga laptops that was soon to come.

Students are certain to notice those changes and others in all seven school systems this school year. And it is a shift Hopson welcomes away from the political issues of the merger that began to give way to some appreciable degree a year ago on opening day and resumed at a lower volume level during the suburban referendums and school board elections that kicked off the demerger process.

Karen Vogelsang, a fourth grade teacher at Keystone Elementary School, said for students anywhere, the changes and expectations are on a more basic level that cross any boundaries that might come or go on the first day of classes.

“Until they know that you care about them, they don’t really care what we know,” she said during a break in Shelby County Schools’ teacher orientation last month at Bellevue Baptist Church in Cordova. “That whole relationship building has got to occur in those first few weeks so that you can get to the instructional piece, so that you can get to that point where the kids are interested in learning from you and with you.”

In the opening days, Vogelsang said it’s not only important to meet students but “to meet them where they are.”

It’s a one-on-one relationship even if Shelby County has more public school systems than it ever has.

“We don’t teach widgets,” Vogelsang said. “We are functioning with these unique creative human beings.”

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