Tennessee

More than 200 teachers complain about pay, evaluation at board meeting

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
In 2014, Shelby County School teachers protest a bonus pay plan similar to the one Knox County teachers sued the state over.

More than 200 teachers protested changes to the evaluation process and stagnated salaries at the Shelby County Schools board meeting Tuesday.

Keith Williams, the president of the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association, has spent the last several weeks rallying teachers to protest what they say are unfair policies and budget cuts that have hurt morale for the district’s 8,000 teachers.

Over the summer, the advocacy organization filed several lawsuits to save the jobs of hundreds of laid off and excessed tenured teachers. Earlier this month, they held a press conference in which several of those teachers told their emotional stories – one teacher feared losing her home while another had a friend help her with money for gas.

On Tuesday, teachers packed the board room, some stood against the walls and others spilled out into the hallway to attend the meeting. Sixteen people, mostly educators, addressed the board during public comment.

Their complaints came shortly after district officials lauded schools across the county for dramatic gains in state tests scores they partially attributed to the teachers’ hard work in the classrooms.

Teachers holding signs told board members Tuesday they were concerned about the fairness of the district’s updated evaluation system, TEM (Teacher Effectiveness Measure) 4; that some tenured teachers whose positions were cut last spring were still waiting to be hired by the district and that the performance bonuses the district doled out last year were not a substitute for an anticipated salary increase.

Teachers currently working in the district will receive a bonus based on their overall evaluation score from 2013-14 starting at $250 for Level I and Level II teachers, $650 for Level III, $800 for Level IV and $1,250 for Level V.  Teachers have said they prefer an annual salary increase that would impact their lifetime earnings; a one-time bonus, they said, does not. Retired educators will not receive the bonus, which is another issue the association believes is unfair.

Educators grumbled in disagreement Tuesday night as Superintendent Dorsey Hopson II argued that the bonuses gave teachers more income than if they were given incremental raises.

In addition to disagreement over the bonus pay plan, teachers complained that the newly adjusted evaluations, which will go into effect this year, made it impossible to receive the highest score.

Williams said there are now 69 objectives that a teacher must demonstrate during an observation period.

“No observer could document that many objectives that would allow a teacher a teacher to earn a 5,” he said. “We want the board to remove the requirement for teachers to meet ‘all’ objectives.”

Margaret Box, a kindergarten teacher who had been on a team that drafted the evaluation plan in 2011 said that the updated evaluation had not been created with teachers’ assistance and made it very difficult to earn a top score.

“You said TEM 4 is a leap forward,” said Box. “It’s a step forward to a checklist, and to fewer level 5 teachers. I wanted to plant the seed that we can fix this.”

Hopson told the crowd that some of teachers’ complaints apply to only a small number of staff. “There’s a lot of discussion of evaluations being unfair. But as far as the performance-based bonuses, when we do the calculation, 80 percent of teachers are level 4 and 5, and 95 percent are 3, 4, and 5.” Teachers with higher evaluation scores received larger bonuses last school year.

“In many cases, bonuses are larger than step increases would have been,” Hopson said. Several teachers audibly disagreed.

But he said that other concerns, including the high cost of health insurance and lack of salary increases, would be taken up by the board and district later this year.

Board member Teresa Jones wasn’t worried that the decisions would impact the district’s ability to keep or attract teachers.

“I value them and the work they do,” said Jones, adding that she’s heard teachers’ complaints about the revised evaluation system multiple times. “They don’t like it, they’ve said it’s a moving target in terms of what’s expected.  I would’ve felt more comfortable if we’d had a test run with the evaluation model, but we didn’t.”

Earlier in the meeting close to 50 principals in the district were honored at a short ceremony for schools that had earned earned their way on to the state’s “Reward” list, for high-achieving or fast-improving schools; or for earning their way off of the list of lowest-scoring schools. The district has set a goal of improving academics and graduation rate districtwide.

“I wish we could have had every teacher from the Reward Schools here, but that wasn’t feasible…but I always try to recognize and thank our great teachers for the tremendous results we received this year and over the years,” Hopson said.

Hopson said he will meet with teachers on Sept. 4.

 

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Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.