Tardy start

Memphis educators: First days of school matter

PHOTO: Daarel Burnette II
Alissiya, 6, and Tynesha, 13, wait with their mother to be registered for the first day of school.

Clutching immunization records in one arm and her infant son in the other, Stephanie Smith shrugged when asked why she was registering her two daughters for school on Tuesday at Riverview, a K-8 school in Memphis.

It was 9:30 a.m., two hours after the day’s first school bell rang and a full six days since the school year began. Tynesha, 13, and Alissiya, 6, waited alongside their mother to complete the registration process.

Teachers at Riverview School aren’t shrugging. This year, the staff must aggressively raise test scores that have languished among the worst in the state for decades. They are using the first days of school to explain rules and expectations and roll out an aggressive curriculum. For every three dozen or so children who wait past Labor Day to show up to class, the school loses a staff member. And for every day a child misses school, that’s eight fewer hours a teacher has with the student.

“If they miss the first day, they’ve already missed valuable instruction time,” said Riverview principal LaTasha Harris.

By the end of the first week of school, an estimated 9,000 students across Shelby County were still not registered, a chronic problem of late registration that has stumped Memphis educators for decades.

To address to issue, Riverview administrators dispatched staff members to call parents’ phones and knock on relatives’ doors before the first school bell even sounded.

Likewise, the district made an unprecedented push to get kids registered early. It extended the registration period, placed the process online, and organized special events to help families without computers or Internet service — all in an effort to widen access.

Next month, the district will celebrate National Attendance Month in grand fashion, complete with appearances by NBA players from the Memphis Grizzlies, billboards and public service announcements.

“I think that some parents just don’t understand that the first day of school is an important day,” said Angela Hargrave, the district’s director of attendance and discipline. “They think that if their students miss the first couple of days, they’re really not missing that much. What we plan to do is continue getting the message out to the community that school starts on the first day, and it’s critical for them to be there. When your child misses the first day, … they’re like the new kid on the block.”

Tracking students

District administrators were not able to provide attendance numbers from this time last year, despite repeated requests by Chalkbeat. The numbers would show whether the shift to an online registration process has helped.

Hargrave said this week district staff are working to track thousands of missing students who may have begun attending several new charter schools or ventured to the outskirts of the county where six municipal districts have begun their second year of operations. With each student who leaves or moves, the Memphis-based district loses accompanying education funds.

“We don’t have clean numbers to tell us how many students have gone somewhere else,” Hargrave said.

Administrators are working diligently to check surrounding districts’ enrollment records to see if missing students are registered elsewhere or if, as many teachers think, the students are still on summer vacation.

School leaders who have worked in high-poverty schools with transient populations offer a long list of reasons for why parents wait so long to send their child back to school.

In the last few decades, service-industry jobs have become more temporary, lasting just a handful of months and prompting parents to move to look for work. Instead of owning homes as many families did decades ago, the vast majority of Memphians, many with bad credit, rent or use housing vouchers, signing leases that last six months to a year.

The district has closed several dozen under-enrolled schools in the last five years in an attempt to right-size the district, and several new charter schools have opened in their place, some serving different grades and starting at different times of the school year.

By August, many parents simply don’t know what school their family is zoned for.

There are other reasons, too. In order to register, parents have to show two forms of identification and proof of residency. But many Memphians either don’t have two forms of identification or have recently had their drivers’ license suspended. Many live with family or friends, so proving residency requires a notary public.

Others want to miss the large crowds and long lines associated with the first day of school.

Reaching out

At Riverview, the staff started the registration process early in the wake of the recent closure of crosstown rival South Side Middle School. Those students are now zoned for Riverview, a move that sparked loud protests and even a lawsuit from one group of South Side parents and teachers. Riverview, they argued, is located in a gang-ridden neighborhood also besieged by prostitution and shooting.

As school principal, Harris knew it would be challenging to convince parents otherwise and launched a campaign to absorb South Side students and convince their families not to transfer them to charter schools.

During the summer, the staff broke up into teams of five and canvassed the surrounding neighborhoods, urging parents in person to register their child. They held a series of open houses and gave out free uniforms, hotdogs and haircuts.

“Many say they don’t have uniforms or school supplies,” Harris said. “We want to get rid of every excuse possible.”

For parents without the necessary proofs of residence or immunization shots, administrators sent the students to class anyway and sent a letter home to parents warning about suspension if they didn’t bring in the necessary forms by the next week.

By Tuesday, the school had 516 students registered, just one shy of its projected number. And in this era of accountability, where standardized tests matter more than ever, teachers aren’t wasting time.

"I think that some parents just don’t understand that the first day of school is an important day."Angela Hargrave, director of attendance and discipline

Having covered classroom rules including how to walk in the hallway — hands by your side and no talking — third-grade math and science teacher Jerreca Saulsberry was distributing notebooks on Tuesday for holding worksheets and tests. Soon, she’ll be administering assessments to determine academic levels and begin teaching to the state’s standards.

“Those first few days, we’re setting the culture of the school,” Saulsberry said. “If you’re not here, you’re missing out.”

Last year, Saulsberry had just five out of her 20 students show up on the first day of school, a jarring experience. She since has created a system to accommodate the steady stream of new students who show up in her class. She’s designated two “student ambassadors” who orient new students on classroom rules, and she created a folder of important forms and worksheets to send home with them.

When 15 students were in her classroom on the first day of school this year, the improved showing elicited cheers in the faculty lounge.

As for Tynesha and Alissiya, both said they were excited about their first day of class, albeit more than a week late. And their mom was happy too about the registration process.

“It was much easier than I thought it’d be,” she said.

In the money

Here’s how Colorado schools would spend an extra $100 million from the state

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Hannah Moore, 8, shows off her moves during practice for an after school talent show that is part of the Scholars Unlimited After School program at Ashley Elementary school on March 10, 2017 in Denver, Colorado. Scholars Unlimited is an after school and summer program funded by the 21st Century Community Learning Center Grant, which is threatened to be cut entirely under the White House's budget cuts. The 21st Century Community Learning Center Grant served almost 20,000 students in Colorado between 2015 and 2016 and 76 percent of students showed academic improvement. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Legislators on the Joint Budget Committee unanimously decided this week to set aside $100 million to “buy down” the budget stabilization factor.

This number – $822 million in 2017-18 – is the amount by which Colorado underfunds its schools when compared to the constitutional requirement that spending on education increase every year based on student count and inflation. It’s more commonly known as the negative factor, though lawmakers are trying to get away from that term.

For several years now, lawmakers have held the negative factor steady, but this year, as Colorado has more money to spend than it has had in a long time, Gov. John Hickenlooper wanted to make a dent in it and requested the $100 million reduction. To be clear, a $100 million reduction in the negative factor is $100 million more that the state would send to districts. Technically, this number will be finalized in a separate piece of legislation, the School Finance Bill, which is coming any day now.

But state Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee, wanted to give some reassurance to educators that the money will be there in the budget. 

“It would send a message to our K-12 community that we are not spending that money and have set it aside,” she said.

And educators have been clamoring to hear that message. The Colorado School Finance Project has been running a social media campaign for the $100 million buydown using the hashtags #k12needsco and #kidsmattertoo.

The non-profit asked school superintendents around the state to say what they would do with the extra money, which translates to an additional $114 on average for each enrolled student, compared to holding the budget stabilization factor steady. The answers are identified by region, but not by district.

Here’s a small sample of the responses:

You can read all of them here.

The Joint Budget Committee has set total program spending on education at $7.75 billion before the negative factor is applied, up from $7.45 billion this year, a 4 percent increase. Of total program spending, the state will pay $4.4 billion, with the rest coming from local property taxes. This doesn’t include voter-approved tax increases known as mill levy overrides.

That translates to average per-pupil spending of $7,959, compared to $7,662 this year. A budget stabilization factor of $722 million would yield an average per-pupil amount closer to $8,074. 

The smaller budget stabilization factor is significant beyond just one budget year because state law says that this number shouldn’t get larger from one year to the next. However, Colorado superintendents are also pushing for a tax increase and change to the distribution of school money. It will take more than an additional $100 million spread among 870,000 students to address all the needs they identify in their responses to the Colorado School Finance Project.

Hickenlooper had also requested an additional $200 million for the state education fund, with the intention that that money be used to offset costs to districts from proposed changes to the public pension system and expected reductions in property tax revenue in rural communities.

The Joint Budget Committee instead voted to set aside $225 million to deal with costs associated with fixing the Public Employees Retirement Association’s unfunded liability – but in the general fund rather than the state education fund and not specifically to help schools, where retirement costs account for a big chunk of the personnel budget.

The committee also agreed to set aside $30 million to help small rural districts with low tax bases and was supportive of setting aside $10 million to address rural teacher shortages, though some of the details are still being worked out.

March for Our Lives

Memphis students say Saturday protest is not just about school shootings. It’s about all gun violence.

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
A student at Columbine High School holds a sign during a protest of gun violence, on March 14, 2018 in Littleton, Colorado.

Students marching Saturday in Memphis against gun violence say they are not only protesting the shootings that killed 17 people last month at a Florida high school. They also are speaking out against shootings that happen daily in their own city.

Seventeen-year-old John Chatman says he fears school shootings, but he especially fears the common gun violence in his neighborhood of South Memphis. He has lost close friends to shootings.

“It can happen anywhere, anytime,” Chatman said. “I think [this march] is a great stand. We should protest against school shootings. But we have to talk about what kids like me are seeing in Memphis on the daily.”

Memphis had 200 homicides in 2017, down from 228 the previous year, the deadliest year recorded in the city in two decades.

Chatman is one of hundreds of Memphians expected to participate in this weekend’s March for Our Lives event as part of a nationwide protest sparked by the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The largest march will be in Washington, D.C., where up to a half million protesters are expected, but smaller demonstrations are planned in cities and towns across the nation. In Tennessee, other marches are slated for Jackson, Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, Clarksville, Cookeville, and Johnson City.

The Memphis march will start at 10 a.m. at Claiborne Temple, and Savanah Thompson will be there. One of more than a dozen student organizers, she worries that news about people getting shot has become commonplace.

“Being in Memphis, you get used to hearing about gun violence,” said Thompson, a freshman at White Station High School. “This affects the youth in our city. … We never want a school shooting to happen in Memphis or anywhere ever again.”

Alyssa Kieren, a student leader at Collierville High School, hopes the march fosters a sense of unity.

“We’re trying to stress that this isn’t a partisan issue,” Kieren said. “We have to acknowledge there is a problem and we have to come up with solutions. … The thing we’re upset about is that children are dying in our schools, and they’re dying in our city.”