Engage me

Shelby County Schools goes from defense to offense with community engagement initiative

PHOTO: Daarel Burnette
An engagement team member for Shelby County Schools hands out packets filled with reading books and district paraphernalia to children during a summer school program at Winridge Elementary School in Memphis.

It may be the middle of summer break from school, but it’s the perfect time to “talk up” Shelby County Schools and build bridges with the community, says Cynthia Alexander-Mitchell, a former principal and the district’s new director of community engagement.

Wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with the words “ENGAGE ME” and carrying bright red bags filled with information about the school system, Alexander-Mitchell has led her “engagement team” of interns and staff members to reach out this summer to parents, students and community members in the neighborhoods where they live.

Cynthia Alexander-Mitchell
Cynthia Alexander-Mitchell

“It’s what happens after school that matters,” she said during recent stops at Wal-Mart stores and summer school programs on the north and south ends of the city. “When they see that you care deeply, they come.”

Improved community engagement is critical to the future of the beleaguered school district, which has suffered a significant drop in enrollment following the 2013 merger of Memphis City Schools with the former suburban county district. Administrators predict they will lose another 2,000 students during the upcoming school year to charter schools and surrounding municipal school systems, and a third of the district’s schools are at risk of being taken over by the state because of low test scores. Meanwhile, some school PTAs are struggling to engage parents, and teachers regularly complain of low morale.

Alexander-Mitchell, who started her new job in March, is tasked with helping to stop the hemorrhaging. Her department aims to bring parents and their children back to Shelby County Schools, which ultimately seeks to boost student test scores.

To get started, Alexander-Mitchell facilitated focus group sessions with parents, business leaders, clergy and community activists to get to the root of why so many people are frustrated and disengaged with the school system.

“People here actively want to participate. But the system isn’t clarifying where they fit in,” said Alexander-Mitchell, a former principal at Evans Elementary, assistant principal at Central High schools and the district’s former associate superintendent of academics.

The department has created an engagement kit complete with a parent resource guide, children’s books and school paraphernalia — which staff members hand out in red bags.

The appearance of 20 district representatives passing out school supplies in public places surprises most of the people they meet, including Jazzmyn Davenport, who graduated from Ridgeway High School in 2014.

“It’s perfect timing,” said Davenport, who spoke with team members at a southeast Memphis Wal-Mart. “This school district has been so divided in recent years. It’s good that they’re reaching out to us and saying, ‘We still care about you.'”

The district is also seeking to engage people through the Internet. The school system has unveiled a redesigned website that includes a section designed to help parents stay engaged with what their children’s schools are doing. It’s also launched a free app called mySCS that provides parent alerts, contact information and school lunch menus.

In addition, district employee John Best has spearheaded an online #ibelieveinscs campaign, complete with video interviews with students and employees about why they believe in Shelby County Schools.

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