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VOL. 9 | NO. 23 | Saturday, June 4, 2016

‘Critical Mass’

Shelby County Schools leaders rolling out Whitehaven ‘empowerment zone’ while rebuilding enrollment

By Bill Dries

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Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson calls it “a brave new world” after four years of unprecedented changes: the merger and demerger of the county’s public schools systems, the rise of charter schools, the formation of both the state-run Achievement School District and locally run Innovation Zone model, and declining SCS enrollment.

And Hopson believes that new world starts in Whitehaven, where the school system is set to launch an “empowerment zone” this August.

It will be built around Whitehaven High School and take in five struggling elementary and middle schools in the area. Some are in the high school’s feeder pattern, but others aren’t.

Under the plan, Whitehaven High principal Vincent Hunter will lead not only his school but the five others as well, although they will retain individual principals.

“It’s really taking a page out of the charter school book,” Hopson said, referring to a leadership structure that often goes above the level of principal.

“They leverage a good leader,” Hopson continued. “We said, ‘Here is a leader who is very well-regarded. He leads Whitehaven in the community as well as the school. He has tremendous community buy-in.’”

Hunter also knows about running a large school that includes some 1,800 students from different backgrounds and at different levels of learning. Each of Whitehaven High’s four grade levels has its own assistant principal and guidance counselor. In addition, the school has an advisory council that amounts to a parent-teacher organization on steroids, with parents staying involved after their children graduate. Many are alumni of “The Haven.” So is Hunter.

“The empowerment zone is an aggressive approach of collaboration … where we can offer children a diverse curriculum,” Hunter told a group of parents and community leaders at a May 17 town hall meeting at the high school. “Not saying it wasn’t offered before. But I think we can do some things operationally that will change the lives and trajectories of our children.”

Hunter is akin to a field general and strategist for how the zone works.

“In our area there will be basically one math department,” he said as an example. “It just makes common sense that a third-grade math teacher should know what’s going on in seventh-grade math. … It cuts down on redundancy. Teachers in that feeder pattern say, ‘I know you had Ms. Jones, and I know you covered this.’”

The empowerment zone is about more than trying to rescue five schools before they land on the state’s priority list, which includes the bottom 5 percent statewide in terms of student achievement.

The schools are part of the heart of the city’s middle class.

“Those are homeowners out there,” Shelby County Commissioner Eddie Jones, who is the parent of a Whitehaven High student, said last month. “They are locked in.”


With an emphasis on sustained student improvement, the empowerment zone goes a step beyond turnaround schools like those taken over by the ASD or added to SCS’ Innovation Zone.

The cluster of schools in a centralized area is also likely less expensive than the turnaround models where rapid intervention to help struggling students can be labor-intensive.

While the ASD and I-Zone models differ on the use of charter operators, both are aimed at schools on the state’s priority list. Each gets extra funding for longer school days and teacher assistants to help with the intervention.

“Given the current financial situation and the political climate, we know that I-Zone has a huge price tag,” said SCS board president Teresa Jones. “How do we begin to replicate those gains, those best practices, without the price tag? Ultimately, that money may go away or may be shifted someplace else.”

The five schools in the Whitehaven empowerment zone are Holmes Road, Robert R. Church and Manor Lake elementary schools, as well as Havenview and A. Maceo Walker middle schools.

Of the five, Havenview is the only one in the bottom 5 percent statewide. It is where the zone starts its phase-in this August.

While the other schools aren’t on the priority list, they’re all just above the 5 percent threshold: Robert R. Church and A. Maceo Walker are between 5 percent and 6 percent; Holmes Road is in the bottom 6.5 percent; and Manor Lake is in the bottom 7.6 percent.

Over three school years, each of the five schools has seen its overall student proficiency ratings rise and fall and rise again. During that time, the percentage of students in each school that are considered proficient – at or above grade level – has ranged between the mid-20s and the mid-30s.

Their growth levels, which measure student improvement based on Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) data, have seen a wider swing – from level 1 to level 5. Those levels are a standard used to evaluate students and teachers, as well as entire schools and the system as a whole.

“We have some work to do,” SCS assistant superintendent Joris Ray told parents at the town hall meeting after reviewing the TVAAS data.

The struggle is different from schools that have been entrenched in the bottom 5 percent for years. Those above 5 percent may be improving, worsening, or a little of both, depending on what part of the data you look at.

“What happens to those I-Zone schools that are no longer in the bottom 5 percent?” asks SCS board member Chris Caldwell. “Their needs are different at that point.”

Caldwell said it is difficult to address what an improving school needs, and it’s harder for higher performing schools to continue to get proficiency gains.

Hunter said that is a real challenge in individual classrooms as well, using the example of a class of 25 students where 10 are “ready to roll” academically.

“Does the teacher keep pressing with the 10 because he is trying protect their TVAAS score?” Hunter wondered aloud.

Hunter refers to the TVAAS growth levels and the proficiency percentages as a “two-headed monster.”

“The proficiency monster dictates those numbers,” he said, referring to schools in the bottom 5 percent. “But the TVAAS numbers tell really where the work was done. Our district has done a phenomenal job in growth.”

And that is where Hopson hopes to begin to rebuild student enrollment in what is inevitably a move toward larger individual schools as well as clusters like the Whitehaven empowerment zone.

“We need to get a critical mass of kids in a school,” he told Shelby County commissioners last month in a meeting that was ostensibly about the school system’s budget proposal.

Smaller schools, Hopson said, are a drain on funding and have fewer course offerings and activities for students, including after-school programs and athletics.

Hunter is an advocate of more foreign language courses – Chinese, Russian, Arabic.

“I got a little pushback one time when I was pushing for Chinese,” Hunter said. “My question was, ‘Why not?’ … We are going to have to encourage our children to step out of the box, get out and see some other places, understand that everybody doesn’t walk, talk, eat and do things the same way you do. That’s part of making a new culture.”


The empowerment zone also heightens competition between Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District.

Hopson is spending the education equivalent of political capital – the good results SCS is seeing from its I-Zone schools, which a Vanderbilt study showed outperformed the ASD over the first three school years – to build back and stabilize the enrollment of a Memphis school system that was dropping even before its merger with Shelby County Schools in 2013. The drop became more pronounced when the county’s six suburbs formed their own districts a year later.

SCS now has fewer than 100,000 students, compared with a pre-merger estimate of 110,000 students in Memphis City Schools alone.

Hopson expects to lose another 10,000 students in the next four to five years. But he wants to stop the decline by giving parents an option in areas where the ASD takes over a school.

In the past, those takeovers have left the surrounding community without a conventional school.

That is starting to change. This August, the ASD is set to take over Raleigh-Egypt Middle School through a charter operator. But SCS will expand nearby Raleigh-Egypt High to add middle school grades 6-8.

It’s a competition for parents that could be a prototype for other areas of the city, including Whitehaven. And some ASD and charter critics are quick to reference locality when making their case; in so many words, would you rather your child be taught by Memphis educators or an out-of-town operator?

“Let’s just be honest,” Ray told those at last month’s town hall meeting. “If you look around Whitehaven, in a 9-mile radius all around, there’s not a high school that’s not an ASD or a charter. This is a need. The majority of schools in the Whitehaven area are in, or currently at risk of being placed on a priority list – in the bottom 5 percent.”

The ASD signaled last year that it wanted Hillcrest High, also in Whitehaven, but Hopson resisted and instead floated a plan to turn Hillcrest into a ninth-grade academy.

Over at Whitehaven High, Hunter already had concerns about the readiness of the ninth-graders arriving at his school.

After negotiations, Hopson abandoned the Hillcrest idea. The ASD, through a charter company, will start operations there in August.

When the ASD opened in 2012, its first focus was Frayser, which had the city’s heaviest concentration of schools on the state’s priority list.

“Out of the box, the ASD and charters kind of swooped down and took over Frayser,” Hopson said. “We’ve got to be smarter about making sure that we strengthen our feeders. Not just temporarily, but so people can have a better educational opportunity for kids.”

The Achievement School District made a statement at the outset by running most of its Frayser schools directly in that first year, bringing in charters later. Frayser Achievement Schools, which runs the old Frayser High – now Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. College Preparatory High School – is unlike most of the other ASD charters because of its local roots. Its founder, Bobby White, is the former principal of Westside Middle and a Frayser High alumnus.

Meanwhile, ASD leaders contacted Hopson late last month and offered to call off their plans for Raleigh-Egypt Middle School in favor of collaborating with SCS on an Innovation Zone school, including helping to raise money for the effort.

Ultimately Hopson rejected the idea, saying it was too close to the start of the school year.

Hunter told parents that the empowerment zone won’t have very long to show student improvement in a “results-driven” culture of education reform. And he said teachers will have to balance the art of teaching with a focus on boosting performance numbers.

“Is it guaranteed? No,” Hunter said. “Is it a silver bullet? No. There’s no substitute for hard work.”

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