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VOL. 129 | NO. 150 | Monday, August 4, 2014

School’s In

Monday marks start of new era for Shelby County education

By Bill Dries

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When public schools open Monday, Aug. 4, for the academic year across Shelby County, the merger of public education into one school system will give way to the demerger into seven separate public systems.

Six-year-old Rashawn Woods smiles with his parents Raven and Shannon Woods, left, at Peabody Elementary in preperation for the start of school this week. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

Shelby County Schools becomes smaller to take in Memphis and unincorporated Shelby County, while six suburban school systems – one for each of the county’s six suburban towns and cities –have been created from the ground up.

“The time frame was the biggest challenge,” said Germantown Municipal Schools superintendent Jason Manuel. “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.”

Manuel and the five other superintendents started their task the first full week in January with each having offices provided by their respective city governments. In each of them were a desk, a telephone, a computer and themselves as the only employee of the school system they were to build.

Manuel spoke at a rally in Germantown Municipal Park for the new school system a week before the first day of classes. Several thousand people gathered for a ceremonial ribbon cutting by Manuel, his staff, city leaders and members of the Germantown Schools board.

For those running a school district, the opening of the school year is about remaining months ahead, though they brace for the inevitable opening day problems with bus trips that are a common experience for school administrators no matter how much preparation there is.

As teachers reported a week ago to prepare for the first day of classes, superintendents and their staffs were getting a first look at achievement test scores from the 2013-2014 school year. With some limited peeks at the data from the state earlier, they had a good enough idea of where the scores would be to plot what may be the most important transition.

It is the transition of students to new school systems that continues the academic rigor and expectations they pursued last year.

While the seven school systems across Shelby County are different in some respects, they all remain about the philosophy of continually monitoring where students are and, for those who are behind, intervening immediately to help them catch up during the school year.

So for many students and their teachers, the first day of class will be about getting to know each other as well as teachers figuring out where students – even the ones they know – are academically at the end of the summer.

“We don’t teach widgets,” Karen Vogelsang, a fourth grade teacher at Keystone Elementary School, said last month. “We are functioning with these unique creative human beings. … They come with different learning backgrounds.”

A year ago at this time, the emphasis was on assuring children that their day-to-day classroom experience would be the same for the vast majority of them, at least as far as changes wrought by the schools merger in its one and only school year of existence.

But even then there was the certainty that there would be changes even without the expected demerger.

Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson and some of those on the then 23-member countywide school board toured several schools on opening day, including an un-air-conditioned Frayser High School, whose challenges beyond that were readily apparent. A bustling Germantown High School at lunch was the other end of the spectrum on the opening day tour.

This school year, the demerger has affected more attendance zones as a new set of boundaries takes effect. And the boundaries are a bit more complex than where the city limits are.

Lucy Elementary School in Millington, for instance, remains in Shelby County Schools, as do Germantown Elementary, Middle and High schools – all under terms of the settlement agreements reached among the school systems.

Frayser High School begins the school year Monday as part of the state-run Achievement School District. It is operated as Martin Luther King Jr. Prep School by Bobby White, a 1990 alumni of the school who worked with the ASD after serving as principal of Westside Middle School. White started his own charter organization and competed for the Frayser High assignment.

This is the third school year for the Achievement School District, which focuses on the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state based on student achievement test scores.

Within the seven school systems, parents also have more choices about attendance depending on how many open seats a given school district has once it has places for all of the students living within its borders.

And there are the agreements among the school systems that included keeping a place for Collierville high school students at Houston High School in Germantown for now.

The three Germantown schools that remain in Shelby County Schools offer parents who live in Germantown the option of continuing to attend those schools or attending schools within the Germantown Municipal Schools district.

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