Ed Chief

Arne Duncan talks turnaround work in the trenches of struggling Memphis schools

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan talks Friday with Lionel Cable, principal of Douglass K-8 Optional School in Memphis and part of the Innovation Zone for Shelby County Schools.

With an audience that included U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Melrose High School Principal Mark Neal described the challenges of school turnaround work in Memphis, where efforts to address the city’s high concentration of struggling schools is attracting the attention of the nation.

One of the challenges, Neal said, is understanding “there are some dynamics bigger than us.”

In Tennessee’s largest city, poverty is pervasive. In Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest public school district with more than 93,000 students, nearly 80 percent are economically disadvantaged. Poor literacy skills, high mobility, gangs and truancy are part of the mix too.

Neal was among educators who spoke with Duncan Friday during a roundtable discussion about how to turn the trajectory of chronically underperforming schools. Serving as the backdrop for the conversation was Douglass K-8 Optional School, a struggling school now achieving student growth under the umbrella of Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, a state-approved district initiative focused on quickly moving schools out of the state’s bottom 5 percent.

Visiting Memphis for the fourth time since he became the nation’s education chief, Duncan commended administrators for their dedication in the trenches of school turnaround work.

“I don’t think there’s any harder work, any more important work, than turning around schools that are historically struggling,” Duncan said.

The outgoing secretary’s return to Memphis in the last months of his tenure was fitting because the city’s changing education landscape reflects part of his legacy as the nation’s education chief. Under the Race to the Top competition announced by Duncan and President Obama in 2009, the administration’s push to improve the nation’s worst schools and close the achievement gap among their students helped to drive local, state, federal and philanthropic efforts to address the city’s woeful K-12 public education system.

The secretary also used Friday’s Memphis trip, including a visit to Southwest Tennessee Community College, as his podium to announce the launch of an experiment that will expand access to college coursework for high school students from low-income backgrounds.

For the first time, those students will be able to access federal Pell grants to take college courses through dual enrollment. Dual enrollment, in which students enroll in postsecondary coursework while also enrolled in high school, is a promising approach to improve academic outcomes for low-income students, Duncan said.

“A postsecondary education is one of the most important investments students can make in their future. Yet the cost of this investment is higher than ever, creating a barrier to access for some students, particularly from low-income families,” Duncan said in a news release. “We look forward to partnering with institutions to help students prepare to succeed in college.”

Getting students to graduate high school ready for college, career or other postsecondary training is the goal of schools in the iZone as well. But first, K-12 schools must raise their yearly achievement level and create a culture of learning that supersedes the challenges faced by students outside of school.

Arne Duncan talks about strategies for chess with a student learning through play at Douglass.
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Arne Duncan talks about strategies for chess with a student learning through play at Douglass K-8 Optional School.

During his school turnaround discussion at Douglass School, principals told Duncan that building relationships with students and their families is key to building a foundation for student learning.

Rodney Rowan, principal of Cherokee Elementary School, said educators are providing “a voice to the children, [but] being a voice to the parents as well.” Many parents know what they want from the school, he said, but struggle to articulate their needs.

“You have to make them comfortable enough to be transparent with you about the things that they need,” Rowan said. “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the district’s 3-year-old iZone is finding success bridging the gaps among students, parents and families. Its intensive turnaround model requires additional funding for interventions such as extended school hours, rewarding effective teachers with bonuses, and giving principals autonomy to hire teachers and rewrite curriculum.

“In particular, our iZone schools have very strong school leaders,” Hopson said.

Duncan said the iZone’s steady gains in student scores demonstrate that “the progress is very real.”

“I have a pretty good sense of the challenges you face … single-parent homes and sometimes no-parent homes, kids in school when they’re hungry or can’t see the blackboard or whatever it might be. But great principals and great teachers make a huge difference in students’ lives,” he said.

The secretary said he would like to see more school districts emulate the approach that Shelby County Schools has taken with its iZone.

“There’s something pretty special happening in Memphis,” Duncan said. “You guys are ahead of many districts in challenging status quo and putting together a plan, putting together a team and putting together a mini district. I know you have a long way to go, but you’re making faster progress than many school districts and that’s a really, really big deal.”

 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that Douglass School is now a state reward school for student growth.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?

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.