Adult Education

State abruptly ends adult education contract with Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Messick Adult Center has been the home of Shelby County Schools' GED program, which will shut down this month as the state ends its adult education contract with the district.

More than 800 adult learners in Memphis are expected to be impacted beginning this week as a result of the state’s decision to cancel its $800,000 adult education contract with Shelby County Schools.

The district was notified of the canceled contract in a Feb. 4 letter from Jason Beard, administrator of adult education programs for the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

Beard’s letter did not identify a reason for the shutdown, but department spokesman Chris Cannon cited the district’s low graduation rate for its program to help adults obtain their high school equivalency diploma. Between July and December of last year, the program graduated only 24 students, he said.

The severed contract also will impact students in the district’s adult classes for English language learners, Cannon said, although he was uncertain about the size of that program.

For at least the last five years, the programs have operated out of Messick Adult Center. Located in Orange Mound, a low-income neighborhood of Memphis, Messick is the only adult education program run by Shelby County Schools.

Shelby County is home to a significant number of residents who are not high school graduates. More than 93,000 people older than 18 do not have a high school diploma, according to U.S. Census data.

As of January, 882 students were participating in the district’s high school equivalency courses, according to Cannon.

The state’s letter said the contract would be terminated effective March 7, but state and district officials later agreed to end classes this Thursday. Last week, state workers began removing interactive whiteboards and other technology from classrooms at Messick.

The current contract was set to end June 30 but, after “an ongoing, year-long dialogue with Shelby County Schools regarding their performance,” the state terminated the contract, Cannon said.

“Each day this decision was prolonged was a day that could have been utilized to improve the program for the citizens of Shelby County,” Cannon said in an email. “After numerous exhaustive efforts to bring about improvement, termination of the contract was the only option left available.”

A statement released Tuesday from Shelby County Schools acknowledged that the state has canceled the district’s contract and noted that the cancellation notice did not cite a cause. “The District is unaware of any further concerns on behalf of the state regarding Messick,” the statement said.

Cannon said the state will find a replacement provider within 30 days. In the meantime, HopeWorks, a nonprofit organization and the state’s only other adult education provider in Memphis, will transition students into its program.

HopeWorks Executive Director Ron Wade said his organization has six facilities and is confident it can absorb the new students. “The most important thing for us is to make sure there are no transition issues that come through,” said Wade, adding that HopeWorks should be able to make “geographical adjustments” for students who face transportation challenges.

Rogelio Santos, a student enrolled in the GED program at Messick, said Tuesday that he and his classmates have not been informed of an impending shutdown. He said he noticed last week that computers had been removed from the classroom but, other than that, “everything seemed normal.”

“If the classes are ending, they haven’t told us,” Santos said. “I’m planning on going to class tomorrow. Maybe I’ll find out something then.”


Editor’s note: This story updates an earlier version to include the state’s clarification that English language learner students at Messick will be impacted as well.

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

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