Turnaround work

Latest iZone expansion will leave few Memphis priority schools to improve on their own

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Sharon Griffin kicked off her tenure as the Achievement School District’s chief on June 1.

When the Tennessee Department of Education issued its list of lowest-performing schools in 2012, Memphis was a glaring hotspot, the home of 69 “priority” schools scoring in the state’s bottom 5 percent, paving the way for intervention at multiple levels.

This year, all but 15 of those schools have either been shuttered or are under the oversight of intense turnaround initiatives implemented by Shelby County Schools or the state’s Achievement School District (ASD).

And next school year, that number will dwindle to eight following decisions this month on more interventions.

Shelby County Schools announced Wednesday that its Innovation Zone will absorb three additional high schools — Douglass, Mitchell and Westwood — bringing to 21 the number of priority schools that will be part of the local iZone in 2016-17.

“The current academic status of these schools illustrates the fact that we have not been effective enough in supporting students,” said Shelby County Superintendent Dorsey Hopson in a statement. “We have a responsibility to do things differently in order to improve achievement at a more aggressive pace.”

Historically, all three high schools have struggled academically. While their state achievement test scores were on the rise last year, most students failed their end-of-course exams for 2014-15. They also scored four or more points below the state’s ACT average of 19 — and six points or more below a score of 21, which is considered college-ready.

The latest priority schools being taken over by the ASD also have had chronic challenges. Last week, the state-run district announced it would add four other Shelby County schools to the 27 it’s already overseeing in Memphis.

“To ensure that these students and schools are getting what they need, it couldn’t be a solo act by the ASD, it couldn’t be a solo act by the iZone. This is what we’re working on together,” said incoming ASD superintendent Malika Anderson.

The ASD has been the primary driver of massive turnaround work in Memphis, either through schools under its own oversight or through the takeover process that has cost Shelby County Schools enrollment and funding and prodded the local district to more aggressive action.

But while ASD officials often paint a picture of cooperation and collaboration, local district leaders have been more vocal in venting their frustration with each ASD takeover. Last week, their concerns were validated independently when researchers at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College released a report calling the state-run district’s academic impacts marginal thus far and suggesting that priority schools in Memphis would be better off in the iZone.

That report prompted Shelby County’s school board to unanimously pass a resolution this week placing a moratorium on the ASD taking over more schools “until they show consistent progress in improving student academic achievement.”

The iZone has been one of Shelby County Schools’ most successful initiatives since being launched in 2012 under a new state law giving flexibilities and federal money to traditional public school districts to improve chronically underperforming schools. In four years, 11 of its schools have boasted double-digit test score gains, and seven have moved off the state’s priority list. Additionally, the program and its leader, Sharon Griffin, have garnered numerous accolades, including praise from U.S. education chief Arne Duncan during a visit to Memphis in October.

Unlike with the ASD model, which depends primarily on nonprofit charter networks to manage schools, iZone schools remain in the local district. However, like charters, its leaders are given flexibility to hire and fire staff, overhaul their curriculums, give their teachers bonuses, and add time to the school day, among other things.

The iZone model is expensive to operate, mainly because of costs related to adding an hour onto every school day — the equivalent of 23 more school days in a year.

In September, the district received a three-year, $10 million philanthropic grant for the iZone from Teacher Town Memphis, a coalition of national and local funders who wish to remain anonymous. School leaders said that the grant would ensure the iZone’s expansion next year.

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 cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

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