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.

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.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.