Tardy start

Memphis educators: First days of school matter

PHOTO: Daarel Burnette II
Alissiya, 6, and Tynesha, 13, wait with their mother to be registered for the first day of school.

Clutching immunization records in one arm and her infant son in the other, Stephanie Smith shrugged when asked why she was registering her two daughters for school on Tuesday at Riverview, a K-8 school in Memphis.

It was 9:30 a.m., two hours after the day’s first school bell rang and a full six days since the school year began. Tynesha, 13, and Alissiya, 6, waited alongside their mother to complete the registration process.

Teachers at Riverview School aren’t shrugging. This year, the staff must aggressively raise test scores that have languished among the worst in the state for decades. They are using the first days of school to explain rules and expectations and roll out an aggressive curriculum. For every three dozen or so children who wait past Labor Day to show up to class, the school loses a staff member. And for every day a child misses school, that’s eight fewer hours a teacher has with the student.

“If they miss the first day, they’ve already missed valuable instruction time,” said Riverview principal LaTasha Harris.

By the end of the first week of school, an estimated 9,000 students across Shelby County were still not registered, a chronic problem of late registration that has stumped Memphis educators for decades.

To address to issue, Riverview administrators dispatched staff members to call parents’ phones and knock on relatives’ doors before the first school bell even sounded.

Likewise, the district made an unprecedented push to get kids registered early. It extended the registration period, placed the process online, and organized special events to help families without computers or Internet service — all in an effort to widen access.

Next month, the district will celebrate National Attendance Month in grand fashion, complete with appearances by NBA players from the Memphis Grizzlies, billboards and public service announcements.

“I think that some parents just don’t understand that the first day of school is an important day,” said Angela Hargrave, the district’s director of attendance and discipline. “They think that if their students miss the first couple of days, they’re really not missing that much. What we plan to do is continue getting the message out to the community that school starts on the first day, and it’s critical for them to be there. When your child misses the first day, … they’re like the new kid on the block.”

Tracking students

District administrators were not able to provide attendance numbers from this time last year, despite repeated requests by Chalkbeat. The numbers would show whether the shift to an online registration process has helped.

Hargrave said this week district staff are working to track thousands of missing students who may have begun attending several new charter schools or ventured to the outskirts of the county where six municipal districts have begun their second year of operations. With each student who leaves or moves, the Memphis-based district loses accompanying education funds.

“We don’t have clean numbers to tell us how many students have gone somewhere else,” Hargrave said.

Administrators are working diligently to check surrounding districts’ enrollment records to see if missing students are registered elsewhere or if, as many teachers think, the students are still on summer vacation.

School leaders who have worked in high-poverty schools with transient populations offer a long list of reasons for why parents wait so long to send their child back to school.

In the last few decades, service-industry jobs have become more temporary, lasting just a handful of months and prompting parents to move to look for work. Instead of owning homes as many families did decades ago, the vast majority of Memphians, many with bad credit, rent or use housing vouchers, signing leases that last six months to a year.

The district has closed several dozen under-enrolled schools in the last five years in an attempt to right-size the district, and several new charter schools have opened in their place, some serving different grades and starting at different times of the school year.

By August, many parents simply don’t know what school their family is zoned for.

There are other reasons, too. In order to register, parents have to show two forms of identification and proof of residency. But many Memphians either don’t have two forms of identification or have recently had their drivers’ license suspended. Many live with family or friends, so proving residency requires a notary public.

Others want to miss the large crowds and long lines associated with the first day of school.

Reaching out

At Riverview, the staff started the registration process early in the wake of the recent closure of crosstown rival South Side Middle School. Those students are now zoned for Riverview, a move that sparked loud protests and even a lawsuit from one group of South Side parents and teachers. Riverview, they argued, is located in a gang-ridden neighborhood also besieged by prostitution and shooting.

As school principal, Harris knew it would be challenging to convince parents otherwise and launched a campaign to absorb South Side students and convince their families not to transfer them to charter schools.

During the summer, the staff broke up into teams of five and canvassed the surrounding neighborhoods, urging parents in person to register their child. They held a series of open houses and gave out free uniforms, hotdogs and haircuts.

“Many say they don’t have uniforms or school supplies,” Harris said. “We want to get rid of every excuse possible.”

For parents without the necessary proofs of residence or immunization shots, administrators sent the students to class anyway and sent a letter home to parents warning about suspension if they didn’t bring in the necessary forms by the next week.

By Tuesday, the school had 516 students registered, just one shy of its projected number. And in this era of accountability, where standardized tests matter more than ever, teachers aren’t wasting time.

"I think that some parents just don’t understand that the first day of school is an important day."Angela Hargrave, director of attendance and discipline

Having covered classroom rules including how to walk in the hallway — hands by your side and no talking — third-grade math and science teacher Jerreca Saulsberry was distributing notebooks on Tuesday for holding worksheets and tests. Soon, she’ll be administering assessments to determine academic levels and begin teaching to the state’s standards.

“Those first few days, we’re setting the culture of the school,” Saulsberry said. “If you’re not here, you’re missing out.”

Last year, Saulsberry had just five out of her 20 students show up on the first day of school, a jarring experience. She since has created a system to accommodate the steady stream of new students who show up in her class. She’s designated two “student ambassadors” who orient new students on classroom rules, and she created a folder of important forms and worksheets to send home with them.

When 15 students were in her classroom on the first day of school this year, the improved showing elicited cheers in the faculty lounge.

As for Tynesha and Alissiya, both said they were excited about their first day of class, albeit more than a week late. And their mom was happy too about the registration process.

“It was much easier than I thought it’d be,” she said.

Walk it out

NYC mayor encourages school walkouts in wake of Florida shooting: ‘If I was a high school student today, I’d be walking out’

PHOTO: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio

In the wake of a school shooting in Florida that left 17 dead, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said students won’t face serious disciplinary action if they choose to participate in a national school walkout planned for next month to protest gun violence.

“If I was a high school student today, I’d be walking out,” de Blasio said Thursday. “This is too important a moment in history to try to hold back the desire of our young people to see fundamental change and to protect themselves.”

Students across the country are planning to walk out of class at 10 a.m. on March 14 “to protest Congress’ inaction to do more than tweet thoughts and prayers in response to the gun violence plaguing our schools and neighborhoods,” according to a Facebook description of the event.  The protest is scheduled to last 17 minutes, one for each person who died at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

And unlike one Texas school district, which threatened to slap students with suspensions if they walked out, de Blasio said students would not face serious discipline. “There’s no negative, lasting impact if they do this,” the mayor said.

De Blasio’s tacit endorsement of the walkout comes just days after he announced that schools across the city would deploy more “rapid-response lesson plans” about current events. On Friday, de Blasio told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer that the protests are a “teachable moment.”

We are going to do lesson plans around this issue leading up to that day,” de Blasio said. “We are going to make sure that there’s a real educational impact.”

The city also announced this week that every New York City school will hold a lockdown drill by March 15, and every middle and high school will be subject to at least one random screening with metal detectors this year.

Here’s more on what de Blasio told Lehrer this morning:

For high school students – we are going to be very clear, we want parents to weigh in, to let us know if they are comfortable with a young person walking out. It is supposed to be for 17 minutes. We expect the school day before and after to proceed. For younger folks – middle school, elementary school — the model I’m interested in, we are still working on this, is to have it be within the context of the building, you know to gather in the building for the memorial to the 17 young people lost, 17 people lost I should say. And again that may be silent, that may be with young people speaking, that’s all being worked through.

Speaking Out

Students at Denver’s George Washington High say their voices were unheard in principal selection

PHOTO: Denver Post file

When Shahad Mohieldin learned that students, parents, and teachers at George Washington High School in Denver would have a say in who was named the next principal, the high school senior spent days recruiting representatives from all three groups to participate.

Mohieldin, a member of the school’s advisory board, said she and others worked hard to ensure the group vetting the principal candidates would be diverse. It was important to include students of color and white students, parents who speak English and those who don’t, and teachers of both International Baccalaureate and traditional classes, she said, especially since the high school has been working to heal years-long racial and academic divides.

The students particularly liked one candidate who they said seemed to understand the school’s struggles. He would have also been a leader of color at a school where 70 percent are students of color. Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg ultimately chose a different candidate, a more experienced principal with whom he’d worked closely before.

It was a whirlwind process that took just seven weeks from when the current principal announced his retirement. In the end, Mohieldin and other students said they were left feeling like their voices were ignored.

“We were often told that, ‘Hey, your voice really matters in this. Please, we want your input,’” Mohieldin said. “It really hurts. Now we don’t trust the district as much, which is really sad.”

District leaders said the process was quick but thorough. Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova said that while it was clear the students preferred one candidate, the input collected from parents, teachers, and community members was more mixed. The slate of three finalists was unusually strong, she said, and it was not an easy decision.

Kristin Waters, the candidate who was hired, is a former district administrator with years of experience leading a comprehensive Denver high school similar in size to George Washington. The students’ top choice was an assistant principal at East High School named Jason Maclin.

Cordova said she wants to assure students that although district leaders didn’t choose students’ favored candidate, they did consider their opinions.

“It is important to use your voice,” Cordova said. “Sometimes your voice isn’t the only piece of information we look at, but in no way does that mean to stop speaking out.”

Not listening to community feedback is a perennial criticism of Denver Public Schools, and one district leaders are continually trying to address. Recently, several major decisions have been based on recommendations from committees of parents and community members. While the process hasn’t always gone smoothly, the district has followed the community’s advice.

In the case of the George Washington principal selection, the process worked like this: Current principal Scott Lessard announced in mid-December that he’d be retiring at the end of the school year. Lessard has helmed the school for two years, and students and teachers credit him with fostering a sense of unity and a culture of openness to new ideas.

But he said the daily challenges of being a school principal led to his decision.

“I was going to retire at some point,” he said. “It may not have been at the end of this year, but it was going to be soon. The school in such a good place, I thought it was a unique opportunity now to find somebody who would be a good principal.”

The district has a pool of pre-screened principal candidates who are invited to apply for openings as they come up, Cordova said. With every vacancy, the district convenes a committee of parents, teachers, and community members to interview the candidates. In the case of high school principal jobs, the district also asks students to participate.

For George Washington, the district assembled the committee and three separate focus groups, which Mohieldin helped organize: one of parents, one of teachers, and one of students. The groups and the committee interviewed five candidates selected by the district, and based partly on their feedback, district leaders whittled the field to three finalists, Cordova said.

The three finalists then participated in a community forum. Forum attendees were asked to submit written comments on candidates’ strengths and weaknesses, and Cordova said she personally read every single one. She said district leaders also read emails students sent afterward urging the district to pick Maclin. Students said they never received responses to those emails – one reason they felt unheard.

A week after the forum, on Feb. 6, the district announced its decision to hire Waters.

Cordova said she has every confidence that Waters will be “an amazing school leader.” Waters has been principal of three Denver schools: Morey Middle School; Bruce Randolph School, which serves grades six through 12; and South High School, whose demographics are similar to George Washington. More than 300 of the 1,239 students at George Washington are black and more than 400 are Hispanic.

“She has a strong track record working in similar communities,” Cordova said.

Students had some concerns about Waters’ approachability and her seemingly close ties with district leadership; Boasberg was listed as the first reference on her resumé. They said they liked Maclin’s presence, and that he seemed knowledgeable about the school’s past struggles and had concrete ideas for its future. Maclin submitted a proposed plan for his first 100 days as principal that included conducting a listening tour of the school community.

But students said their main complaint is not the outcome but the way the process unfolded.

“The district goes through this whole act of putting on these focus groups and interviews at the school and it’s like, ‘What really came out of that?’” said sophomore Andrew Schwartz. “At this point, it seems like the answer to that question is very little. I think that’s upsetting.”

Schwartz was part of the student focus group that interviewed all five candidates. So was junior Henry Waldstreicher, who noted that students missed an entire day of school to participate.

Waldstreicher said he was also left feeling disillusioned. “Why should we even try to talk to the district if they’re not going to listen to what we’re going to say?” he said.

The perception that the selection process was top-down wasn’t just among the students. Some teachers and community members said they felt the same way.

“We were given the opportunity to give our feedback and then it went into a black box and a decision was made,” said Vincent Bowen, a community member who participates in a student mentoring program at George Washington and was on the selection committee.

Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver teachers union, shared those concerns, adding that what happened at George Washington has happened at other schools, too: Candidates, she said, “go through this process, this rigamarole, but the district already knows who they’re going to pick.”

Parent Elizabeth Sopher said she feels district leaders weren’t as transparent as they could have been about what they wanted in a new principal, which she suspects contributed to the disconnect between the students’ top pick and the district’s ultimate decision.

“When you say to a group, ‘You tell us what the most important thing about this new principal is to you,’” she said, but then don’t make a decision based on that, “that’s a mistake.”

For her part, Waters said she’s excited to step into her new role at George Washington. She’s slated to start March 1 and finish out the school year alongside Lessard, a transition plan Cordova said was important to the district and the school community.

Waters said she wants to build a strong relationship with students. To that end, she has already met with a group of them to talk about their concerns.

“Once I get on board, they will see me out and about and hopefully feel comfortable coming up to me and letting me know what they’re thinking,” Waters said. “I want their input.”

Junior Cora Galpern said rebuilding that trust will be crucial. In the future, Galpern said the district should give students and others more of a say in principal selection by seeking a consensus on a candidate rather than simply soliciting feedback.

“Because at the end of the day,” she said, “our next principal has a huge effect on our day-to-day lives.”