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

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

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.”