Student Voice

Memphis school leaders have extra money to invest for first time in years. Here’s how one student thinks they should spend it.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Amal Altareb, 16, is a student leader at Central High School.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson unveiled a $945 million spending plan this week that focuses largely on boosting teacher pay, classroom supports and struggling schools.

It’s a big deal, as the proposal marks the first time since the 2013 merger of city and county schools that Shelby County Schools hasn’t faced major cuts to balance its budget. Hopson’s administration projects having enough money to strategically invest in schools by adding counselors, assistant principals, instructional coaches and interventionists for literacy and math.

Chalkbeat spoke recently about the proposed investments with Amal Altareb, 16, a junior at Central High School and student leader with Facing History and Ourselves. In preparation, Amal polled about 30 classmates about what they would do if they held the district’s purse strings.

Here are the highlights of our Q&A:

What are the biggest needs at your school?

Central is an old school, and you can really tell sometimes. I know there are a lot of older schools in Memphis. How a school looks may not seem like a big deal, but we’re in the buildings all day. If the bathrooms don’t work or a school looks really rundown, that matters to the students who spend so many hours there.

Many students (that I polled) also talked about restorative justice. (Disciplinary) options shouldn’t be just (in-school suspension), suspension or even expulsion if a student acts out. It should be about why the student acted out. There needs to be more help and support for teachers and principals, so they’re not responsible for handling discipline. Or everyone needs training in what restorative justice means.

What do you want district leaders to know about your school?

There are so many great things going on at Central. We have a group that meets every week called Warriors Unite. Here, we talk about what’s going on at our school and in our community, and what we can do about it. Students are actively thinking about a lot of the problems that people in charge of our schools are thinking about, and we should all be around the same table much more often.

I also want district leaders to talk more about why students have to spend so much time testing. Teachers shouldn’t have to teach students to a test, but I think that’s often what teachers have to do. One student told me that tests take away from instructional time and falsely represent the work of teachers, which I really agree with. I’m definitely for holding students accountable for our work and making sure that we’re learning what we need to be successful. But it seems like there’s much more emphasis on “how can students do better on this test so our schools rank better?” rather than “are students learning what they need to be successful after high school?”

What do you think about the district’s proposed spending priorities for next school year?

I think raises for teachers is really amazing. They work hard and deserve to be rewarded for that. I was also really excited to hear about the increases in counselors and behavior specialists. That goes back to what I was saying earlier with restorative justice — teachers can’t be expected to do it all. They need more help.

You can read more details about the spending plan here.

Living wages

More than 1,000 Memphis school employees will get raise to $15 per hour

PHOTO: Katie Kull

About 1,200 Memphis school employees will see their wages increase to $15 per hour under a budget plan announced Tuesday evening.

The raises would would cost about $2.4 million, according to Lin Johnson, the district’s chief of finance.

The plan for Shelby County Schools, the city’s fifth largest employer, comes as the city prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., who had come to Memphis in 1968 to promote living wages.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson read from King’s speech to sanitation workers 50 years and two days ago as they were on strike for fair wages:

“Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day? They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life or our nation. They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation … And it is criminal to have people working on a full time basis and a full time job getting part time income.”

Hopson also cited a “striking” report that showed an increase in the percent of impoverished children in Shelby County. That report from the University of Memphis was commissioned by the National Civil Rights Museum to analyze poverty trends since King’s death.

“We think it’s very important because so many of our employees are actually parents of students in our district,” Hopson said.

The superintendent of Tennessee’s largest district frequently cites what he calls “suffocating poverty” for many of the students in Memphis public schools as a barrier to academic success.

Most of the employees currently making below $15 per hour are warehouse workers, teaching assistants, office assistants, and cafeteria workers, said Johnson.

The threshold of $15 per hour is what many advocates have pushed to increase the federal minimum wage. The living wage in Memphis, or amount that would enable families of one adult and one child to support themselves, is $21.90, according to a “living wage calculator” produced by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor.

Board members applauded the move Tuesday but urged Hopson to make sure those the district contracts out services to also pay their workers that same minimum wage.

“This is a bold step for us to move forward as a district,” said board chairwoman Shante Avant.

after parkland

Tennessee governor proposes $30 million for student safety plan

Gov. Bill Haslam is proposing spending an extra $30 million to improve student safety in Tennessee, both in schools and on school buses.

Gov. Bill Haslam on Tuesday proposed spending an extra $30 million to improve student safety in Tennessee, joining the growing list of governors pushing similar actions after last month’s shooting rampage at a Florida high school.

But unlike other states focusing exclusively on safety inside of schools, Haslam wants some money to keep students safe on school buses too — a nod to several fatal accidents in recent years, including a 2016 crash that killed six elementary school students in Chattanooga.

“Our children deserve to learn in a safe and secure environment,” Haslam said in presenting his safety proposal in an amendment to his proposed budget.

The Republican governor only had about $84 million in mostly one-time funding to work with for extra needs this spring, and school safety received top priority. Haslam proposed $27 million for safety in schools and $3 million to help districts purchase new buses equipped with seat belts.

But exactly how the school safety money will be spent depends on recommendations from Haslam’s task force on the issue, which is expected to wind up its work on Thursday after three weeks of meetings. Possibilities include more law enforcement officers and mental health services in schools, as well as extra technology to secure school campuses better.

“We don’t have an exact description of how those dollars are going to be used. We just know it’s going to be a priority,” Haslam told reporters.

The governor acknowledged that $30 million is a modest investment given the scope of the need, and said he is open to a special legislative session on school safety. “I think it’s a critical enough issue,” he said, adding that he did not expect that to happen. (State lawmakers cannot begin campaigning for re-election this fall until completing their legislative work.)

Education spending already is increased in Haslam’s $37.5 billion spending plan unveiled in January, allocating an extra $212 million for K-12 schools and including $55 million for teacher pay raises. But Haslam promised to revisit the numbers — and specifically the issue of school safety — after a shooter killed 14 students and three faculty members on Feb. 14 in Parkland, Florida, triggering protests from students across America and calls for heightened security and stricter gun laws.

Haslam had been expected to roll out a school safety plan this spring, but his inclusion of bus safety was a surprise to many. Following fatal crashes in Hamilton and Knox counties in recent years, proposals to retrofit school buses with seat belts have repeatedly collapsed in the legislature under the weight the financial cost.

The new $3 million investment would help districts begin buying new buses with seat belts but would not address existing fleets.

“Is it the final solution on school bus seat belts? No, but it does [make a start],” Haslam said.

The governor presented his school spending plan on the same day that the House Civil Justice Committee advanced a controversial bill that would give districts the option of arming some trained teachers with handguns. The bill, which Haslam opposes, has amassed at least 45 co-sponsors in the House and now goes to the House Education Administration and Planning Committee.

“I just don’t think most teachers want to be armed,” Haslam told reporters, “and I don’t think most school boards are going to authorize them to be armed, and I don’t think most people are going to want to go through the training.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.