Shelby County Schools

Shelby County Schools makes plans to close gaps in Focus Schools

In recent years, the most publicized efforts to help Tennessee’s struggling students have targeted Priority Schools, where the majority of students are performing below grade level on state standardized tests. Schools ranked in the bottom 5 percent based on their test scores and graduation rates have been taken over by the state, restructured as part of “Innovation Zones” in Memphis and Nashville, or closed down altogether.

But now Shelby County Schools is putting new resources into closing achievement gaps in its Focus Schools, where overall academic performance is fine but where certain groups of students are lagging substantially behind their peers.

The district plans to hire approximately 40 new teachers this school year to provide academic support to students in its Focus Schools.

The positions are year-long, as they’re funded through a federal Race to the Top grant rather than the district’s general fund. But Cynthia Alexander Mitchell, assistant superintendent for academics, said Shelby County Schools will try to find ways to keep teachers in the schools for multiple years.

Focus Schools are identified as “the 10 percent of schools in the state with the largest achievement gaps between groups of students, such as racial and ethnic groups, students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, students with disabilities and English-language learners.”

In Shelby County Schools, six of 11 Focus Schools had large gaps between economically disadvantaged students and their peers. English-language learners were lagging in two schools, and students with disabilities were struggling in one. Two schools—Robert R. Church Elementary and Wells Station Elementary—were singled out for having fewer than 10 percent of students with disabilities scoring proficient on state tests. And one school, Grahamwood Elementary, was noted for having gaps between students with disabilities, economically disadvantaged students, and students who identify as either Black, Hispanic, or Native American and students who don’t fall into those categories.

The district has 180 traditional schools and 39 charter schools. Four schools that were part of Shelby County Schools in 2013-14 but are now part of the new school districts in the suburbs of Memphis are also on the focus list, as is one school in the state-run Achievement School District.

Shelby County superintendent Dorsey E. Hopson II said that the gaps in scores between the identified subgroups and their peers did not come as a surprise to district officials. “The gaps in those schools highlight the gaps we see throughout the district,” he said. “We need to address those gaps.”

The district announced an ambitious set of goals to improve academic performance and graduation rates across its schools earlier this year: The 80-90-100 plan would have 80 percent of Shelby County Schools students graduating “college- and career-ready,” 90 percent of its students graduating overall, and 100 percent of students who are college- and career-ready heading to postsecondary opportunities by 2025.

Assistant superintendent Mitchell said the district was putting a stronger focus on reaching struggling students across the district and closing gaps within schools this year. “In the past, we’ve focused on Priority Schools and missed the focus on Focus Schools,” Mitchell said.

Principals at Focus Schools wrote proposals outlining how the new staff members would help the schools improve education for students in identified groups. The district is still hiring teachers to fill those roles, which might include reading specialists or teachers who can work specifically with English language learners, depending on a school’s need.

Alexander said that schools are also developing more specialized strategies for closing gaps. Schools with gaps between economically disadvantaged students and their peers might create new tutoring programs, for instance. Schools whose English-language learners were identified as struggling might find new specialized teachers, Alexander said. Within schools, coaches will help work with teachers on strategies for assisting students in the identified groups.

Tennessee’s education department is currently working on plans and recommendations for the new batch of Focus Schools, according to Kelli Gauthier, a spokeswoman for the state. The federal education department called for the state to be more specific about its plans for addressing gaps in Focus Schools in a report earlier this spring.

The department plans to provide support for Focus Schools in each region of the state through its office of district support and regional offices. It will also likely run a grant program that would bring funds to the schools targeted at addressing gaps. Schools that won the last round of Focus School grants were awarded between $100,000 and $300,000 per year for two years.

Around the country, interventions for schools singled out for internal gaps tend to be less dramatic and more varied than interventions for failing schools. “It’s a more mixed bag of schools,” said Anne Hyslop, a senior policy analyst at Bellwether Education, in Washington.

For instance, every Priority School in Tennessee is also a Title I school—identified by the federal government as having a large number of economically disadvantaged students—while the focus list has both Title I schools and more affluent schools. The student bodies at the Focus Schools are also generally more racially and socioeconomically diverse than the student bodies in schools on the Priority List, which, in Shelby County, enroll mostly economically disadvantaged and minority students.

Parents at the Focus Schools were eager to hear specific plans for the schools. “I absolutely have no doubts that our principal and our teachers are doing the best with what they have. So as a parent, I’d like to hear what being on that list means for us in terms of how they’ll get more help to close those gaps,” said Ginger Spickler, whose children attend Peabody Elementary.

“The fact is that we have 400 incredible kids at Peabody who all deserve to be able to reach their potential, but they may need different things. That might mean that we have to take a look at how we do things now,” she said.

Mitchell said that the district hoped to have teachers in place as soon as possible. “You need to make sure supports are in place for every child in that 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.”