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.

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

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.”