A tale of two cities

Achievement gap is narrowing in Memphis, growing in Nashville, study says

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Memphis is making headway while Nashville is struggling in closing the achievement gap between students from low-income families and their more advantaged peers, according to a new study released on Tuesday.

While Memphis’ gap is larger than 70 percent of major U.S. cities, it narrowed the gap by a whopping 19 percent between 2011 and 2014, one of the fastest rates in the nation, the study says.

Conversely, Nashville’s gap is bigger than 75 percent of the nation’s major cities, and grew by an alarming 11 percent during the same time period, with only one of 10 students from low-income families attending a school that is closing the achievement gap.

The study is based on the Education Equality Index, the first national comparative measure of the achievement gap at the school, city and state level, and was released by Education Cities and GreatSchools, both nonprofit organizations focused on school improvement, in partnership with the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation.  (The organizations later retracted the portion of the report about state-level changes, citing data analysis errors, but said its district-level analysis was sound.)

“There is much to celebrate in Memphis,” said Ethan Gray, founder and CEO of Education Cities, of the findings.

With more low-income Memphis families having access to a more equal playing field in education, Gray said the city is “proving that greater equality is possible.”

Memphis and Shelby County’s educational landscape has undergone sweeping changes in the last six years — some the result of the 2013 school merger and the 2014 secession by suburban municipalities creating their own school systems — but also due to major policy changes that led to the creation of Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone and the state-run Achievement School District and contributed to the growth of the city’s charter sector.

“The one thing we’re seeing in Memphis, is that the diversity of options you’re providing are really evident on this list,” said Carrie McPherson Douglass, a managing partner at Education Cities.

“The 19 percent score [in closing the achievement gap] is pretty exciting. Even if the overall score is not the best, it shows that Memphis is moving in the right direction,” she said.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson says that the numbers are even more remarkable considering the challenges facing Tennessee’s largest public school district. They include adapting to new structures amid a shrinking enrollment and budget, as well as a high concentration of the state’s lowest-performing schools.

“I can remember telling our teachers and principals years ago, that they were going to have to drown out all of the noise and chaos, focus, and just make it happen,” Hopson said. “And they did, and they continue to persevere by using an extraordinary amount of focus and grit.”

Nashville school leaders said they are not surprised by the findings that show the state’s capital city lagging.

“There’s been a growing awareness by our board and in our community that Memphis is out-hustling us when it comes to closing the achievement gap,” said Will Pinkston, who serves on the school board for Metro Nashville Public Schools. “The fact that our district’s leadership was not thinking or acting with a sense of urgency in addressing this is one reason why there wasn’t an appetite for renewing Jesse Register’s contract” in 2014 as director of schools.

The nation’s 42nd largest district, Metro Nashville has been plagued by low student achievement and the flight of affluent students to private and suburban schools, while also struggling to keep pace with its changing student population. It is searching for a new schools director to replace Register.

District leaders also recently toured Shelby County Schools’ iZone, the Memphis district’s heralded school turnaround program, and want to emulate that model in Nashville. “When we have a new director, Job One needs to be to establish an iZone structure that’s similar to what’s going on in Memphis and make sure it’s adequately staffed with competent people who know how to turn around urban schools,” Pinkston said.

The Education Equality Index study identifies up to 10 schools in every major city with the smallest achievement gaps that serve a student population where the majority are from low-income families.

The Memphis schools, which represent Shelby County Schools and three charter schools, are: Delano Elementary, Ford Road Elementary, Freedom Preparatory Academy, Hollis F. Price Middle College High, Jackson Elementary, John P. Freeman Optional, Middle College High, Oakshire Elementary, Power Center Academy High, and Power Center Academy Middle.

In Nashville, RePublic Schools CEO Ravi Gupta points out that top 10 schools include six charter schools — two of which are run by RePublic.

“We have three or four board members in Nashville that vote on denying every charter,” said Gupta, whose Nashville-based charter network also operates schools in Jackson, Miss. “Charters, percentage-wise, are a very small group of schools in Nashville, yet they make up six out of 10 schools on that list. I think that’s pretty remarkable.”

Pinkston, who last year called for a moratorium on all new schools until the Nashville district can grapple with how to balance charter and traditional school growth, notes that charter schools do not serve students with special needs, English language learners and others with limited English proficiency to the extent that Metro Nashville schools do.

“They play by a different set of rules,” Pinkston said. “If you want to run test prep mills in Metro Nashville Public Schools, then by all means let’s charter everything because that’s all those schools care about.”

The Nashville schools listed are Z. Kelley Elementary, Chadwell Elementary, Joelton Elementary, KIPP Academy Nashville, LEAD Prep Southeast, Liberty Collegiate Academy, Nashville Prep, New Vision Academy, Rose Park Math/ Science Middle Magnet, and STEM Prep Academy.

 

Editor’s note: This version updates a previous version to include comments from Metro Nashville school board member Will Pinkston.

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.