Shelby County Schools

SCS Board questions new role for charter schools in district

PHOTO: Jacklyn Zubrzycki
Ford Road Elementary is among schools in Shelby County's Innovation Zone, a program that stands to benefit from money headed to the district as part of a settlement with the city of Memphis.

A district plan to work more closely with charter schools to improve some of Shelby County Schools’ struggling schools raised eyebrows among board members at last week’s work session.

Shelby County Schools is considering asking charter schools to run schools in its 17-school Innovation Zone, which is tasked with improving schools ranked in the bottom 5 percent in the state.

But board members last week questioned whether charter schools have the track record in Memphis—as part of the district or in the state-run Achievement School District—to justify expanding their role in the district.

“Why do we have to hire whole charter schools?” asked Chris Caldwell, after the district presented its strategy.

Results from the 2013-14 and 2012-13 Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) showed that schools run by the district’s Innovation Zone, which are not charter schools, had stronger scores as a group than schools run by charter schools and directly as part of the ASD. Both the Innovation Zone and ASD focus on schools ranked in the bottom 5 percent in the state and receive extra funds, flexibility and new staff in an effort to improve academic performance.

The district’s chief innovation officer, Bradley Leon, said that bringing charters in was a way for the district to increase the talent pool from which it is drawing. Earlier this year, he said there have been concerns in the current model that schools that lose staff to Innovation Zone school struggle.

“What we’ve done in the I-Zone is remarkable,” Leon said. “Our internal staff know this work. They do it better than anybody else in the city of Memphis.  But, knowing there’s this talent deficit, if we’re going to have treatment for every one of these schools, we’re going to need some help.”

Several national charter management organizations, such as Yes Prep, Green Dot, and Aspire, have recently come to Memphis to open schools as part of the ASD. The schools often bring staff from their previous locations (California, in the case of Aspire and Green Dot; Houston, in the case of Yes Prep) and recruit nationally for teachers.

According to the plan laid out by the district, charters who run Innovation Zone schools would have to accept students zoned to the school, adopt Shelby County’s expulsion policy, and pay for maintenance and utilities in the building.

But Caldwell questioned whether bringing in new organizations is the most beneficial approach. “If we’re saying the only way to continue on that upward trend is to bring in outsiders, the argument doesn’t resonate that well. If we’re saying we’ve done well with I-Zone schools, how do we leverage resources? If it takes an effective leader, we need to really focus on our bench,” Caldwell said.

Caldwell noted that some schools within the Innovation Zone and the Achievement School District had done better than others. “Analysis from you about what were the common threads [in successful schools] would be helpful. If we’re not using that model in leveraging it district-wide, then that’s not a good use of our resources.”

The district also plans to focus on creating a performance framework for all schools, traditional and charter; closing low-performing charters; and creating a compact that delineates how charters will share services and gain access to district resources and buildings. The plan also said that the district would be collaborating more closely with the state-run Achievement School District.

One school in the Innovation Zone, Hamilton High School, is run by a former charter school founder, Curtis Weathers. District officials said earlier this year that Weathers had already broached the idea of charter conversion with the Hamilton community.

Caldwell suggested that the board discuss this plan in more depth in future board work sessions.

The next meeting of the Shelby County board is tonight at 5:30, in the Frances Coe Auditorium at 160 S. Hollywood St in Memphis.

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 [email protected]

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.”