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VOL. 132 | NO. 156 | Tuesday, August 8, 2017

First Day of School Begins With Greetings, Hopes

By Bill Dries

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Dimante Powell, a member of the Grizz Line, leads the drum line as they play for students of Dunbar Elementary on the first day of school.  (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

The school year began Monday, Aug. 7, with some parents registering children on the first day, other children finding their way back into academic routines on their own and Shelby County Schools leaders awaiting the release of achievement test scores from the state that will set a new baseline for where students are academically.

“We know we have a long way to go,” SCS superintendent Dorsey Hopson said Monday of an expected drop in test scores with new, higher standards reflected in the TNReady test results. “But we think that given the stable nature of our district now and some of the investments we’ve made, we expect student achievement to continue to be on the rise.”

The school system is now three years past the demerger of public education in Shelby County into seven school systems from a single school system that was in place for a year four years ago.

The further SCS has gotten away from those two historic changes, the more the focus has been on what happens in classrooms.

At some schools Monday, groups of people held signs in English and Spanish welcoming students back. The effort by Latino Memphis was a way of easing concerns of immigrant parents and children that they might be at risk of detention following a week of raids by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in the Memphis region.

Parents, teachers and members of the Grizz Line greet students at Dunbar Elementary on the first day of school. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)


SCS officials will be watching attendance numbers closely to see if the ICE raids have had any impact on enrollment. The school system is expected to tally around 96,000 students this year. More than half of students had been registered before classes began – weekend block parties for registration were well attended.

Students arriving at Dunbar Elementary School in Orange Mound were greeted by the Memphis Grizz Drum Line – most walking to school with parents.

One of the smaller students with a Super Mario Brothers lunch box held his ears as the staccato beat echoed off the brick exterior of the school and a row of boarded-up rental houses on the other side of Select Street.

Other children stopped briefly to take in the beat, only to be greeted by a group of men led by CME Church Bishop Henry Williamson.

“You are special,” Williamson told the students individually and often had them repeat, “I am great.”

“Dunbar could have been a memory,” Williamson said later, referring to the school system’s consideration earlier this year of closing Dunbar.

Hopson reversed the decision citing vocal support in Orange Mound and a pledge by parents and neighborhood groups to work toward raising student achievement.

Over the summer, Dunbar had a summer learning academy – certified teachers with a specific curriculum for students attending. And there was additional funding to hire teacher assistants as well as new teachers.

“I want to make sure we are utilizing that support in the classroom for our students, not just academically but socially as well,” said Dunbar principal Anniece Gentry.

Former Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton shows his support of Dunbar Elementary on the first day of school. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

Dunbar also hosts classes for parents and provides other updates to keep them aware of what is happening, all to “help them to help their child.”

An older boy who arrived by himself in his uniform was taken aback by the sidewalk greetings. He tried to rush past the adults to get inside the school and avoided eye contact at all costs. Three times he paused, reluctantly, pulling away from an adult who had placed a hand on his arm.

Inside the school, a teacher approached the boy who, with his head down, wiped away tears as they walked to the back of the front entrance. The teacher talked as the boy listened by a back door. After a while, the boy wiped his eyes, checked his uniform and walked alone down a hall into a classroom.

Just behind him, a group of five girls, all wearing plaid uniform skirts and white blouses, smiled broadly as they took in the adults welcoming them. Four of the five were wearing purple ribbons in their hair – one of the colors of Dunbar Elementary – the fifth and smallest wearing a white ribbon.

The back door of Dunbar is just a few feet from the end zone of Melrose Stadium, the end zone freshly painted with the colors of the Golden Wildcats of Melrose High School.

The tentative plan for Dunbar, if it had been closed, was to demolish the school and make the site a tailgating area for the stadium.

Football and basketball games at Melrose High School are a big community event in Orange Mound. Hopson said the reprieve for Dunbar is an attempt to draw that kind of support for the elementary school.

Parents, teachers and members of the Grizz Line greet students at Dunbar Elementary on the first day of school. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

“I think the key thing to me is that we want our communities to be supportive of our schools,” he said. “The Orange Mound community is historic and they came together so aggressively not just with words but with actions. It just seems as though all the ingredients are here to do well.”

Inside the school it was pin-drop quiet – signs every few feet in the hallways declared them “Zone Zero,” with an image of former President Barack Obama holding a finger to his lips.

Tamara McCraw was connecting immediately with a fifth-grade math class of a dozen students.

“Let’s open up that beautiful notebook,” she began as Hopson walked in to the room.

“We are going to do a little writing,” she continued. “Writing is not just for one class.”

McCraw noticed a student up front who was just a bit slower in his enthusiasm.

Without pointing him out, she urged the class to “shine,” which prompted her and the students to wave their arms in the direction of their classmates. The student immediately straightened up as his classmates waved their arms at him.

McCraw gave him credit for picking up on the hint.

On his way out of the classroom, Hopson and SCS chief of staff Brian Stockton gave McCraw and the students a “shine” wave.

McCraw is new not only to Dunbar but to Shelby County Schools and her aggressive engagement with the students is part of a technique called “Teach Like a Champion.”

“They were on point and follow her directions explicitly,” Gentry said.

“Most of them have been here since they were in kindergarten,” Gentry said of the fifth graders. “So they know the routines and the procedures. They know the expectations. They know we have higher expectations. So when that teacher comes into the classroom, they can almost tell her what to do. But they are just waiting to see if she knows what to do.”

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