Big investment

Philanthropic grant for $10 million ensures Memphis iZone expansion

PHOTO: Daarel Burnette II
A student prepares for an exam at Treadwell Middle School in Memphis.

A $10 million philanthropic grant for school turnaround work by Shelby County Schools ensures expansion of the one of the embattled district’s most successful initiatives, district leaders said Wednesday.

The three-year grant to the Innovation Zone comes from Teacher Town Memphis, a coalition of national and local funders who wish to remain anonymous.

It is the largest donation made to the district’s iZone, a cluster of 17 low-performing schools receiving flexibility to implement intensive operational and academic changes to improve student achievement.

It also represents a vote of confidence in the district’s school turnaround work from the city’s philanthropic community, which in recent years has invested heavily in charter schools overseen by the state-run Achievement School District.

“This is recognition that what we’re doing is working,” Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told the Shelby County Board of Education Tuesday evening in announcing the grant.

The money provides additional resources to the iZone beyond federal funding, which has paid for the lion’s share of the district’s school turnaround work.

Currently, 10,000 of the district’s 109,000 students are part of the iZone. The Teacher Town grant is contingent upon growing that number to 11,000 students in the 2016-17 school year and 12,000 in 2017-18. The money will be distributed in increments of $3 million this year, $3 million next year and $4 million the following year.

“This is going to be a real boon to our expansion,” chief innovation officer Brad Leon said Wednesday.

The district is exploring expansions that might include Westwood, Mitchell and Douglass high schools next school year.

However, operating an iZone school is expensive — mainly because of costs related to adding an hour onto every school day — the equivalent of 23 more school days in a year. “It’s a significant investment, but we believe that kids who are this far behind need additional class time to catch up,” Leon said.

Other expenses include signing and retention bonuses to attract and keep the best educators and providing iZone staff to support teachers and principals. In all, it takes an additional $250,000 to $475,000 to place a school in the iZone, which this year has a total budget of $7 million in a district adjusting to shrinking enrollment and funding.

Teacher Town Memphis supports the work of entities that provide students with high-quality options, focusing primarily on transforming the bottom 5 percent of Memphis schools, said Tosha Downey, the organization’s advocacy director.

“People consistently say that the iZone is expensive, but it’s also impactful,” Downey said.

Shelby County Schools launched its iZone in 2012 under a 2010 state law giving special flexibilities and federal money to traditional public school districts to improve chronically underperforming schools at risk of state intervention.

The Teacher Town grant is one of a series of recent philanthropic investments this year in the iZone, which also received $1 million from the Assisi Foundation and $2.6 million from the Plough Foundation.

As regional superintendent of the Innovation Zone, Sharon Griffin oversees one of the district's most successful initiatives.
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
As regional superintendent of the Innovation Zone, Sharon Griffin oversees one of the district’s most successful initiatives.

Hopson cited the initiative’s successes for generating new support from within the Memphis community.

“There’s been a big focus on priority schools in Memphis, and Shelby County philanthropy has raised a considerable amount of money to support charter schools,” he said. “But if you look at all the priority schools, … we are the (charter management organization) with the best results so far.”

Last year, most iZone schools saw their math scores rise, and many raised the proportion of students meeting the state’s standards in reading, bucking a statewide trend. (See our six charts showing this year’s test scores in the iZone, Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District in Memphis, the hub of Tennessee’s school turnaround work.)

Leon praised backers of Teacher Town Memphis for recognizing the iZone’s results and allowing the district to build on its success.

“It inspires me that this money is going to support students in some of our lowest-performing schools to create a different reality for them,” he said, “and to support educators who are signing up to work with those students.”


Editor’s note: This story corrects an earlier version to show that most iZone funding comes from federal School Improvement Grants, not the federal Race to the Top grant.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede