Tennessee

New school year kicks off with big changes, big goals

Students check their schedules in 2014 at Fairley High, a turnaround school in Memphis under Tennessee's Achievement School District.

The start of the 2014-15 school year Monday marked the first day that eight districts—Shelby County Schools, which includes Memphis and some of the surrounding county, six new school districts in the Memphis suburbs, and the state-run Achievement School District—will operate simultaneously in this corner of southwestern Tennessee.

The stakes are high for schools across the county. Shelby County Schools has set a goal to dramatically improve the district’s graduation rate and academic performance in the next decade. The district’s lowest-performing schools are eligible to be taken over by the state.

The Achievement School District, which aims to dramatically improve academics in schools that were ranked in the bottom 5 percent in the state, is entering its third year and striving for increased stability and consistent results across its schools.

And the new districts in Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland, and Millington are hoping to prove that their first year will go smoothly—and that the creation of their districts were worth the legal back-and-forth and debate that have dominated the public conversation around schools for more than three years.

Chalkbeat Tennessee visited schools in Shelby County Schools, the ASD, and two of the six new suburban school systems to see how the first day of school went.

Shelby County Schools

The first day of school often means a review of rules and procedures, but many teachers across the county hit the ground running to gauge what students know and which techniques they should use this year to get them to where they need to be.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson II toured classrooms where students were working on writing assignments and others where teachers were reviewing mathematical formulas.

Hopson said his goal this year is to “figure out a way to drastically improve student literacy and academics overall.”

Hopson spent the first day of classes visiting the brand-new Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, A.B. Hill Elementary, Riverview K-8 and Germantown Elementary.

While visiting A.B. Hill, Hopson along with his administration team and the school’s principal Veronica Parish walked in the surrounding neighborhood taking note of the blight in the area where students live.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson II tours the neighborhood around A.B. Hill Elementary.  He is accompanied by his administrative team as well as SCS Board member Chris Caldwell and members of local media.
PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson II tours the neighborhood around A.B. Hill Elementary. He is accompanied by his administrative team as well as SCS Board member Chris Caldwell and members of local media.

“When I’m in schools like A.B. Hill that have only a handful of students, I understand the feeling the community has of ‘don’t close our school,'” Hopson said.

He called schools ‘a beacon of hope’ in communities like A.B. Hill that have been stricken by poverty. Hopson has often said that providing students with quality educational opportunities is the only way to stop the cycle of poverty in Memphis’ hard-struck areas.

Hopson praised A.B. Hill principal Veronica Parish for increasing student growth in the midst of facing district changes to grade configurations at her previous school, Riverview Elementary, which is now a kindergarten through eighth grade school under principal Rosalind Martin.

At Riverview, Hopson was greeted by Martin, who was dressed in full military fatigues as part of this year’s theme of “Bootcamp to Improve Student Literacy.”

“I love your theme for literacy,” Hopson told the principal.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson II talks academic goals with Riverview K-8 principal Rosalind Martin on the first day back to school Monday.  Martin said her school's theme this year is "Bootcamp to Improve Literacy."  Martin and her staff will wear their military gear each Monday during the school year.
PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson II talks academic goals with Riverview K-8 principal Rosalind Martin on the first day back to school Monday. Martin said her school’s theme this year is “Bootcamp to Improve Literacy.” Martin and her staff will wear their military gear each Monday during the school year.

Riverview’s K-8 configuration is new this year, the result of the merger of Riverview Elementary and Riverview Middle School. Martin had been the principal at Riverview Middle.

Riverview K-8 is also one of the district’s Innovation Zone schools, which means the school has more site-based initiatives that it can use to address low student performance.  The school will be one of the 16 sites that will participate in the blended learning pilot, which will put computers in students’ hands so they can continue learning at school and home.

Martin said the students have longer days and an hour-long intervention time in subjects where they need to improve.  Riverview is also using single-gender classrooms in some subject areas.  The impact has been fewer behavioral problems and improved performance, Martin said.

Riverview seventh grader Anthony Poindexter’s new school year resolution is to work to improve his reading skills, the subject is not among his favorites.  Poindexter prefers math and hopes to become a football player or a veterinarian.

Riverview seventh grader Anthony Poindexter Jr and his mother Lysandra Bradford filled out his registration paperwork on the first day of school on Aug. 4.  Poindexter plans to work harder in reading this year.
PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN
Riverview seventh grader Anthony Poindexter Jr and his mother Lysandra Bradford filled out his registration paperwork on the first day of school on Aug. 4. Poindexter plans to work harder in reading this year.

 

Achievement School District

Students at Fairley High School returned to a familiar, but somewhat different campus now that their school is operated by Green Dot, a state-approved charter operator. Fairley, which had been placed on the state’s priority list after ranking in the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state, is officially part of the Achievement School District rather than Shelby County Schools now.

The school is still called Fairley High School, and it is still required to serve all students who would have attended the school when it was part of Shelby County Schools. As of late Monday morning, some 500 students were at school. School leaders had planned for more than 600 students, and are hoping more students will enroll in the next few weeks.

Students on their first day back Monday said they were adjusting to the changes, which included new paint and classroom numbers. In some hallways, old pictures of the school mascot, a bulldog had been painted over; in others, new versions of the mascot had been “tattoed” onto the wall.

Early in the day, a group of seniors helped direct younger students to their new classes.

The students were also adjusting to new teachers. In one classroom, a teacher on her very first day called roll. “I might not pronounce all of your names correctly,” she said.

Megan Quaile, the chief growth officer for Green Dot, which also runs schools in California, said, “ACT scores at the school need to go up. But we also want kids to want to be here.” Green Dot is tasked with improving the school’s academic performance dramatically.

One wrinkle Monday morning: Buses, provided by Durham School Services, were running close to 40 minutes late.

Before school started, Fairley teachers wrote individual resolutions for the new school year. Their resolutions, along with community members’ and students’, will be posted in the halls of the school.

James Sullivan, a former Shelby County Schools teacher who is now teaching Algebra 1 at Green Dot, said that he hopes to increase his students’ ACT scores so far.

The six schools that are directly run by the Achievement School District in the Frayser neighborhood also opened Monday. This is the ASD’s third year running schools, and the first year that the ASD has not added additional direct-run schools. Ash Solar, director of the direct-run schools, said school leaders were glad to be able to focus on improving schools and sharing best practices rather than on starting up new ones.

Six new charter schools, and 23 school altogether, are part of the ASD this year.

Fairley High School teachers wrote resolutions for the new year.
Fairley High School teachers wrote resolutions for the new year.
Student Jasmine Jeffries, a senior, says her goal for the new year is to learn more - especially in AP government. She was struck by all the changes to the school's building.
Student Jasmine Jeffries, a senior, says her goal for the new year is to learn more – especially in AP government. She was struck by all the changes to the school’s building.
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Municipal School Districts

In their inaugural year as independent school districts, not just students and teachers but leaders and administrators had an especially nervous and exciting first day in Lakeland and Arlington.
Parents at Lakeland elementary bought last minute supplies from the school store, hugged their students goodbye and then Principal Joretha Lockhart gave her first welcome on the intercom.

Students in Spanish IV discuss their goals for the year at Arlington High School on the first day of school.
PHOTO: Oliver Morrison
Students in Spanish IV discuss their goals for the year at Arlington High School on the first day of school.
Employees documented how many students got off each bus and what time they arrived. Superintendent Ted Horrell said he hopes that they're able to consolidate the students into fewer routes
PHOTO: Oliver Morrison
Employees documented how many students got off each bus and what time they arrived. Superintendent Ted Horrell said he hopes that they’re able to consolidate the students into fewer routes

The pressure to keep performance high is also a factor for Arlington High, a high performing school last year.
“It’s easier to get to the top than it is to stay on top,” said Chris Duncan, principal. “Put the things in place to give opportunities for kids to succeed.”

But the first day ran smoothly, he said: if you hadn’t been reading the papers or watching the news, you wouldn’t have known that anything was different this year.

Last year students complained that the cafeteria food was bad and they are hoping that the new district will bring better quality food.
PHOTO: Oliver Morrison
Last year students complained that the cafeteria food was bad and they are hoping that the new district will bring better quality food.

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.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.