Game on

Local district goes on offense in Memphis priority school discussion

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson, flanked by school board members Stephanie Love and Teresa Jones, speaks at a priority school community meeting in Memphis.

For the first time ever, Shelby County School leaders met Wednesday evening with a school community to talk about what it means to be on the Tennessee Department of Education’s school priority list.

What it means is that the school falls in the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools for student achievement. It also means that the school is eligible for state intervention, allowing the state-run Achievement School District (ASD) to take away control — and students — from the local district and to assign the school to a charter operator in an effort to turn it around.

“We’ve done a bad job — we meaning myself and the administration of Shelby County Schools — over the past few years of keeping our communities informed,” Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told about 100 people at Hawkins Mill Elementary School, one of 11 priority schools eligible for ASD takeover in Memphis. (See our list of the schools here.)

“What we wanted to do this year was make sure that we came out, talked to schools that were on the priority list, and provide some feedback as to what that means, what the options are, and kind of the path moving forward,” Hopson said.

The gathering was the first of five community meetings being hosted by the district during the next two weeks at eligible priority schools — and the first time that district leaders have chosen to go on the offense in the dialogue over state intervention. In the past, district leaders tried to stay out of the process and left interactions between the school communities and ASD leaders.

“What we’ve learned in the past few years is, when a school is on the priority list and the ASD comes in and decides to operate at a school, it causes a lot of concern and questions in the community and it also raises a lot of questions,” Hopson said. “We want to be much more proactive this year in terms of answering those questions on the front end and then supporting schools and being with schools every step of the way.”

In the gathering before parents, faculty and other neighborhood stakeholders, district leaders explained that the state Department of Education issues its priority school list every three years, most recently in 2014.

“If you’re on the state’s priority list — and Hawkins Mill is on the priority list — or your (TVAAS) growth levels are 1, 2, or 3 (out of a possible 5), you are eligible for the ASD,” Assistant Superintendent Angela Whitelaw told the crowd.

She explained the ASD’s new matching process, which includes a neighborhood advisory council comprised of parents, educators and community members who review potential charter operators who have applied for a match.

“We’re asking parents and the community to be involved in this process,” Whitelaw told the gathering. “This is the process where you get to participate in what’s happening at your school, what’s happening in this community.”

ASD officials say the new process, which will unfold in the next four months, is designed for greater community engagement and that advisory council members will vote on their school’s future.

Hawkins Mill, a school of about 350 students in the city’s Frayser community, has struggled to boost student scores on its own. On last spring’s TCAP exams, only 16 percent of students scored proficient or advanced in reading/language arts, while almost 37 percent were proficient or advanced in math.

Principal Antonio Harvey described his administration’s plans to increase those scores going forward. Last year, teachers received additional professional development and offered student tutoring before and after school and on some Saturdays. This year, the school has added a literacy coach, math coach and literacy support teacher to help students prepare for the state’s new TNReady assessment, which will be administered next spring.

Rather than ask questions, most parents who came to the podium Wednesday lamented the sparse parental attendance at the district-sponsored gathering.

Hawkins Mill parent Alicia Tomlinson speaks to the gathering of some parents but mostly teachers.
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Hawkins Mill parent Alicia Tomlinson speaks to the gathering of some parents but mostly teachers.

“I think it was awesome for you to go over what your plan is for my child and the rest of the children here,” Alicia Tomlinson told Harvey. “I just wish there were more parents. There are more teachers and staff here than parents. You can’t do it by yourself.”

Stephanie Love, a member of the Shelby County Board of Education, said the district needs to encourage more parental involvement. She said many parents don’t trust the district because they were misinformed during the ASD’s takeover process in previous years.

“Parents don’t trust us and that’s the truth,” Love said. “We’re trying to make a difference by being involved to show our parents, ‘Hey! We’re here, we’re going to support you!'”

Harvey called on parents to work with their children to help the school get off the state’s priority list.

“As you go home this evening, think about this,” he implored. “What is your investment? What are you going to put in to keep Hawkins Mill from being taken over by the ASD?”

The remaining gatherings are scheduled for 6:30 p.m.:

  • Thursday, Aug. 20 – Caldwell Guthrie Elementary School
  • Monday, Aug. 24 – Sheffield Elementary School
  • Wednesday, Aug. 26 – Raleigh Egypt Middle School
  • Monday, Aug. 31 – Kirby Middle School

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.