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VOL. 10 | NO. 38 | Saturday, September 16, 2017

Skipping School

The leap to college and career in K-12 education

By Bill Dries

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The farm field at East Shelby Drive and Sycamore Road is “growing” steel beams, classroom walls and concrete floors. Nearby, the athletic fields of the new $90 million Collierville High School are being traced and laid out at summer’s end next to the framework of the large school.


“It’s kind of daunting right now,” Collierville superintendent John Aitken told the Collierville Chamber of Commerce last month.

He wasn’t referring to school construction surprises.


Aitken and leaders of the county’s six other public school systems are preparing for another change. All are preparing for an important shift in what it means to be a graduate from high school.

“We have a very high graduation rate as a state,” Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said during a visit to the city. “And we were looking toward what does it take, what do we know from data, what do we know from research that it takes to actually be a ready graduate – ready to take on the workforce, ready to take on post-secondary (education).

“This new accountability measure is really pointing to what our research shows, nationally and in the state, that the more early post-secondary opportunities we have – AP (Advanced Placement), dual enrollment, dual credit, international baccalaureate, and the ability to earn industry credentials – the more ready they are when they actually go to post-secondary or they go into the career field,” she said.

The move to earning college credit or some kind of workplace certification in high school is a key part of Tennessee’s Every Student Succeeds Act plan – named for the federal act that provides funding and limited oversight. Federal education officials approved the state’s plan this month.

Tennessee’s ESSA plan also sets a goal of high school students having an average ACT college entrance exam composite score of 21 or higher by 2020.


Jason Manuel, superintendent of the Germantown Municipal School District, governs a system whose students already score an average composite score of 24.9 on the ACT.

“I think the focus is more what are we doing for those average students, middle-of-the-road students who want to get a trade certification, or maybe a four-year university isn’t their ticket,” Manuel said of Germantown’s focus. “Maybe it’s a two-year university or they want to go straight to the workforce. That’s been our focus.”

Germantown’s focus includes two new courses – mechatronics in conjunction with Southwest Tennessee Community College and a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) course that is also dual enrollment.

There is also an advanced placement research class and an AP seminar class.

“Those students are kind of doing almost a doctorate for the college board,” Manuel said. “The greatest factor that determines student success is having been exposed to that more rigorous curriculum. Even if they are not making straight-A’s and 100 percent successful in that class – just the students who have taken an AP course are more successful when they get to universities and colleges.”


The shift in what defines a high school graduate comes with a wave of capital projects across the county’s seven public school systems. Such construction was largely dormant at the front end of historic changes to public education in Shelby County.

Those changes started in 2010 with the move to a single, merged countywide school system. The state-run Achievement School District made its debut in August 2012, with the state taking over low-performing schools, most of them in Memphis. The merged school system had one school year, 2013-2014, before moving into the demerger of public education when the six suburban school systems were created the following year.

Attendance zone boundaries remained the same in the merged school year, but began to change with the demerger. There was little new school construction and more school closings – more than 20 – all in Memphis.

Meanwhile, at the federal level, Bush-era No Child Left Behind standards gave way to Obama-era Race to the Top funding. State changes to higher academic standards also came, going from Common Core to the current TNReady, with changes in state law that apply student achievement results and growth to the evaluation of teachers and school districts.

By the fourth academic year of the demerger, SCS has built several new, larger schools to replace existing schools and merge into them other schools nearby. Lakeland just opened a new middle school. Bartlett High School is in the planning stage of a Bartlett High School campus reconfiguration that will take place over several school years even as the school remains open. The campus includes a recently overhauled machine shop that is a partnership with the state and the local Medical Device Council. And Collierville’s new comprehensive high school with a capacity of 3,000 students is to open in August 2018.

“We have to do more than just build a new high school,” Aitken told the chamber crowd of 250 at Ridgeway Country Club in Collierville recently. “We have to offer more opportunities for all of our kids. We’re almost becoming a post-secondary institution in some ways.”

In Germantown, Manuel just completed a $9.7 million addition to Riverdale K-8 School, which had 22 portable classrooms added over 17 years. He is using that physical change to set the stage for larger changes, including a new elementary school and life with ESSA.

“We’re talking about identifying our brand, and what does it mean to be a Germantown school, and what are the features we are looking for,” he said.

Features like more natural light and glass walls were added at Riverdale, but it also applies to the ESSA push around college and career preparation.

“The great thing for us is that has always been a focus for us,” Manuel said. “We offer over 23 AP (advanced placement) dual enrollment courses at our schools. We have a wide range, whether we are talking about foreign language or art or music.”

Although it’s not a high school, Riverdale’s expansion reflects a shift that includes “blended learning” – the use of digital devices, laptops and tablets – that are integral to the post-secondary push.

Those devices are a challenge for school leaders somewhere between instruction and bricks and mortar.

Riverdale’s addition was designed for the reality of every student having a device for instruction supported by wireless systems and screens that replace the classroom traditions of a chalkboard or whiteboard to work out problems. That’s now an Apple TV hook-up that allows a teacher to put a student’s calculation or answer from his or her tablet on the classroom screen.

“We are always having to look at the amount of bandwidth that we are using,” Manuel said. “We actually have a program that is like a heat map so they can monitor what areas of the school are using the most bandwidth. We can throttle up and down the amount of bandwidth that we have throughout the school. But also, having a very detailed filter system that monitors where students are going once they have internet access.”

There is also significant training for teachers and staff on how to use as well as monitor what is happening on the school network.

“You have to have a specific purpose when they are using devices,” Manuel said. “It’s a culture change.”

Aitken and his staff are currently managing more than 8,000 student devices that will go to “well over” 10,000 with the opening of Collierville High School next August. That’s when every Germantown Municipal School District student in grades 3-8 will have an iPad and every high school student will have a laptop.

“What they know is this,” Aitken said, holding out his iPhone. “They know technology. … A lot of these opportunities are sitting in front of computers for modular learning and then taking it into a shop or work experience and doing the hands-on piece of it.”



The direction isn’t as clear, but is equally challenging in a different way for Shelby County Schools where the focus is on CTE – Career Technical Education.

In SCS, a large number of students don’t want to go to college, a reality that SCS superintendent Dorsey Hopson faces.

“We’ve got to make sure we support them so when they get out we can address this huge poverty albatross we have around our necks,” he said.

Hopson hopes to roll out an overhaul of CTE by year’s end pointed toward those post-secondary school years, one that will be based on challenges the state’s largest school system already has experienced.

“We spend a lot of money on CTE programs and not many of them lead to work certification,” Hopson said. “A lot of stuff is misaligned. So the vision is to identify four or five areas where the jobs are, where the good jobs are likely to be.”

At the outset, technology, construction and the service industry come to Hopson’s mind, with a start on those paths in the 7th and 8th grades.

Combining workforce certification or training with a move to college credit before high school graduation could mean larger high schools – probably not as big as Collierville High, but using its “comprehensive” philosophy. Big enough to offer more advanced placement courses and CTE.

Or it could mean several CTE centers dispersed geographically.

It is early, but Hopson says a significant reconfiguration of high schools is possible, with some closing as others grow.

“The challenge is going to be some of our preliminary work has been around the four (CTE) centers we have,” Hopson said. “Ideally you would have comprehensive high schools… schools that have got a thousand kids. But because our enrollment in our schools is all over the place, we’ve got to figure out exactly the right strategy. Some of the schools, kids spend so much time getting from there to the center, it cuts down on their instruction time.”

SCS has about $3 million in its current budget to start on the examination. Hopson will push for a CTE coordinator or “strategic thought partner” to focus on numerous fronts, with a goal of having a plan by year’s end to unfold over two years.

“Should it be these centers, should it be comprehensive high schools again or should it be some combination of both?” he said. “I think the data has to show the number of kids likely to take advantage of this opportunity.”

Not everyone is a fan of the emphasis on obtaining college credit or career certification including Chris Terrill, executive director of Crosstown High School – the charter school at Crosstown Concourse that is to open in August with an emphasis on project-based learning.

“I think in many cases there are certainly some benefits to students getting college credit while in high school,” he said. “I think in many ways, though, we are racing to nowhere.”

Terrill sees the scenario of an 18-year-old getting to college and taking third-year advanced courses the first academic year and struggling with them. This adds to already difficult life and career decisions that young adults must make.

“We certainly will have some dual enrollment opportunities for our students and our kids will be able to earn some college credit. But that isn’t our focus,” Terrill said. “Our focus is really working with students to teach students how to learn, making students responsible for their own education, making things relevant and preparing them so they can be successful at the college level.”

Former Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash often defended the school’s branding of “Every Child College Bound” by saying many students may not be destined for college, but that the decision was one they and their parents should make and have as an option before pursuit of a four-year degree and beyond was ruled out.

But the move toward post-secondary credit before high school graduation is also reflected on the college side of a student’s transition.

Rhodes College president Marjorie Hass says “state-of-the-art pedagogy” in the sciences is “interdisciplinary” and students are engaged in research much earlier than they once were.

“Teaching and learning in the sciences is now very experiential,” she said last month at the formal opening of Rhodes’ new $34 million Robertson Hall science building and the conversion of Briggs Hall from student center to a computer sciences center. “Students begin by engaging in research from the very beginning.”

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