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.

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 [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