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VOL. 132 | NO. 57 | Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Hopson, Caldwell Plan for SCS Long-Term

By Bill Dries

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Five years into historic changes in public education locally, the rapid pace of change is starting to give way to longer-term views and plans.


“This has been the first year since the merger that we actually are in a position to do some strategic investments in our schools,” Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson said on the WKNO/Channel 10 program “Behind The Headlines.”

Shelby County Schools board chairman Chris Caldwell agreed. He was elected to the transitional 23-member school board the year that the state-run Achievement School District debuted, kicking off a cycle that was followed by a local public schools merger and then demerger.

“I think we have finally stabilized the situation, but we are woefully underfunded,” Caldwell said. “Now we are getting to the point where we can actually replace some things that got taken out of the system because of the merger and demerger. We still have a long way to go until the students have all of the resources they really need.”

SCS added 1,000 students in the current school year even as it lost other students. And it expects to lose about 900 in the new school year that begins in August.

“The main driving force in the loss of enrollment was the proliferation of charter schools and the formation of the ASD,” Caldwell said. The debut of the ASD wasn’t like similar turnaround efforts in other states that guarantee the conventional local school district won’t lose state funding in the process.

“That made everything worse,” Caldwell said.

But the federal Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA) signed into law last year with heavy backing from U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee is changing both the ASD and the Innovation Zone school turnaround models.

The I-Zone is the SCS version of a turnaround model. Like the ASD, I-Zone schools get more funding for longer school days and rapid intervention by teachers and teaching assistants if students fall behind. Both models are for the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state in terms of student achievement. Unlike the ASD, I-Zone schools remain part of the local school district and do not contract with charter school operators. So far, studies show the I-Zone schools are outperforming ASD schools.

ASD has halted at least temporarily the takeover of new schools in the bottom 5 percent, and ESSA should slow the pace of takeovers beyond that.

And the state version of ESSA will guarantee some funding to all failing schools, even if they aren’t ASD or I-Zone schools.

“It basically says if you are a school and you are on the list for the very first time, then Shelby County Schools will get the first crack at it,” Hopson said. “They will only intervene if the school has been on the list twice. We think that certainly helps us plan better.”

He also acknowledged some longer-term thoughts about I-Zone schools.

“Some of the schools that we have in the I-Zone that have been there five years would be fine without the additional support,” Hopson said. “But what we don’t want to do is have a school that has been neglected and struggling for a long time finally get on the right path. And you start to lift yourself out of the bottom and then you pull the rug out from under them.”

Behind The Headlines, hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.

Hopson and Caldwell were in Nashville recently to talk with state legislators about the needs of the school system, and to relay academic achievement gains and growth SCS is experiencing. Both said legislators who in the past have shown some antipathy toward the school system seemed more receptive.

“It’s very interesting how Nashville works,” Caldwell said. “What we found is a lot of the legislators were sort of caught in a time warp. They were still thinking, when they thought about Shelby County Schools, they were just thinking it was still Memphis City Schools. What we were trying to do is give the accurate, up-to-date information that we are not in any way the same school district when all of this started.”

Hopson has presented a $945.2 million budget proposal to the school board, with $47 million of spending directed at schools in the bottom 10 percent in terms of student achievement, including 19 “critical focus” schools that are on the cusp of either being closed or improving with the investments.

“Our No. 1 priority has to be student achievement,” Hopson said when asked if the school system bears responsibility for preserving communities that would be further devastated by a school closing. “I think that there are several factors that directly impact student achievement. … Having said that, we do realize that there are some unintended consequences for closing schools. … It does affect student achievement.”

Caldwell said the school system can’t make its financial bottom line by just closing schools.

“I don’t know that’s always the best way to save money by closing the school, especially if you leave a gap in those neighborhoods,” he said. “It’s not the closing of the school that is the canary in the coal mine, it’s the last miner out. But most communities have already been abandoned by the state, the county and the city. Then you have a natural migration. … the people that can move do move.”

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