Game on

Local district goes on offense in Memphis priority school discussion

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson, flanked by school board members Stephanie Love and Teresa Jones, speaks at a priority school community meeting in Memphis.

For the first time ever, Shelby County School leaders met Wednesday evening with a school community to talk about what it means to be on the Tennessee Department of Education’s school priority list.

What it means is that the school falls in the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools for student achievement. It also means that the school is eligible for state intervention, allowing the state-run Achievement School District (ASD) to take away control — and students — from the local district and to assign the school to a charter operator in an effort to turn it around.

“We’ve done a bad job — we meaning myself and the administration of Shelby County Schools — over the past few years of keeping our communities informed,” Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told about 100 people at Hawkins Mill Elementary School, one of 11 priority schools eligible for ASD takeover in Memphis. (See our list of the schools here.)

“What we wanted to do this year was make sure that we came out, talked to schools that were on the priority list, and provide some feedback as to what that means, what the options are, and kind of the path moving forward,” Hopson said.

The gathering was the first of five community meetings being hosted by the district during the next two weeks at eligible priority schools — and the first time that district leaders have chosen to go on the offense in the dialogue over state intervention. In the past, district leaders tried to stay out of the process and left interactions between the school communities and ASD leaders.

“What we’ve learned in the past few years is, when a school is on the priority list and the ASD comes in and decides to operate at a school, it causes a lot of concern and questions in the community and it also raises a lot of questions,” Hopson said. “We want to be much more proactive this year in terms of answering those questions on the front end and then supporting schools and being with schools every step of the way.”

In the gathering before parents, faculty and other neighborhood stakeholders, district leaders explained that the state Department of Education issues its priority school list every three years, most recently in 2014.

“If you’re on the state’s priority list — and Hawkins Mill is on the priority list — or your (TVAAS) growth levels are 1, 2, or 3 (out of a possible 5), you are eligible for the ASD,” Assistant Superintendent Angela Whitelaw told the crowd.

She explained the ASD’s new matching process, which includes a neighborhood advisory council comprised of parents, educators and community members who review potential charter operators who have applied for a match.

“We’re asking parents and the community to be involved in this process,” Whitelaw told the gathering. “This is the process where you get to participate in what’s happening at your school, what’s happening in this community.”

ASD officials say the new process, which will unfold in the next four months, is designed for greater community engagement and that advisory council members will vote on their school’s future.

Hawkins Mill, a school of about 350 students in the city’s Frayser community, has struggled to boost student scores on its own. On last spring’s TCAP exams, only 16 percent of students scored proficient or advanced in reading/language arts, while almost 37 percent were proficient or advanced in math.

Principal Antonio Harvey described his administration’s plans to increase those scores going forward. Last year, teachers received additional professional development and offered student tutoring before and after school and on some Saturdays. This year, the school has added a literacy coach, math coach and literacy support teacher to help students prepare for the state’s new TNReady assessment, which will be administered next spring.

Rather than ask questions, most parents who came to the podium Wednesday lamented the sparse parental attendance at the district-sponsored gathering.

Hawkins Mill parent Alicia Tomlinson speaks to the gathering of some parents but mostly teachers.
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Hawkins Mill parent Alicia Tomlinson speaks to the gathering of some parents but mostly teachers.

“I think it was awesome for you to go over what your plan is for my child and the rest of the children here,” Alicia Tomlinson told Harvey. “I just wish there were more parents. There are more teachers and staff here than parents. You can’t do it by yourself.”

Stephanie Love, a member of the Shelby County Board of Education, said the district needs to encourage more parental involvement. She said many parents don’t trust the district because they were misinformed during the ASD’s takeover process in previous years.

“Parents don’t trust us and that’s the truth,” Love said. “We’re trying to make a difference by being involved to show our parents, ‘Hey! We’re here, we’re going to support you!'”

Harvey called on parents to work with their children to help the school get off the state’s priority list.

“As you go home this evening, think about this,” he implored. “What is your investment? What are you going to put in to keep Hawkins Mill from being taken over by the ASD?”

The remaining gatherings are scheduled for 6:30 p.m.:

  • Thursday, Aug. 20 – Caldwell Guthrie Elementary School
  • Monday, Aug. 24 – Sheffield Elementary School
  • Wednesday, Aug. 26 – Raleigh Egypt Middle School
  • Monday, Aug. 31 – Kirby Middle School

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?

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.