War on illiteracy

This year, Shelby County students will read, read … and read

PHOTO: Creative Commons
Residents in the Munger Elementary School neighborhood will receive hundreds of books over the next three years to build better reading skills in youngsters.

As Shelby County students settle into classes this fall, they’re likely to notice some big changes: dedicating more minutes to daily reading, breaking off into smaller groups, and lesson plans that span multiple days.

The changes come as part of the district’s new war on the abysmal literacy rates in Memphis schools, reflecting a battle that’s being waged across Tennessee. Standardized test scores were released this week, and the percentage of students proficient in elementary and middle school reading dropped statewide by 1.1 percentage points. So did the percentage of students proficient in Shelby County.

In Memphis, fifth-grade teacher Donald Dyer is among district troops who are mobilizing colleagues at summer training sessions and talking up the necessity of improving reading skills across the curriculum. After all, when only 30 percent of an urban school district’s third-graders and half of its 8th-graders read on grade level, it takes a village.

“We’ve got to empower teachers in all different subject areas to teach literacy, because the problem is so large,” said Dyer, a teacher at Kate Bond Elementary School, while leading a recent training event. “We’ve got to get everyone well informed on what’s changing.”

Teachers with Shelby County Schools gather this summer at Hickory Ridge Middle School to learn about the district's new literacy guidelines.
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Teachers with Shelby County Schools gather this summer at Hickory Ridge Middle School to learn about the district’s new literacy guidelines.

Approximately 3,500 of more than 7,000 teachers in Shelby County Schools will have participated in the district’s literacy training by next month when the new school year resumes. And they’re not just teachers of English, language arts or reading. They’re teachers of math, science and social studies. They’re elementary school teachers with multiple subjects.

“We want rigorous texts and solid reading and writing strategies in all classrooms and inside of all content areas,” explained chief academic officer Heidi Ramirez about the district’s shift in strategy.

Ramirez, who came to Tennessee’s largest public school system last fall, has spearheaded the district’s comprehensive literacy improvement plan. She implemented a similar plan at Milwaukee Public Schools, where she served as chief academic officer from 2010 to 2012.

Because student reading skills are foundational to learning, graduation and career readiness, literacy training is high on the district’s summer professional development options for teachers, reflecting Ramirez’ philosophy that all teachers should be literacy teachers.

But Shelby County Schools has its work cut out for it. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s Destination 2025 vision plan aims to boost third-grade reading proficiency from 30 percent to 90 percent by 2025. That will require annual boosts of 5 percent, or 470 students.

And as this year’s test data showed, Shelby County students are back-tracking. To combat the slide, the district is using tools that range from across-the-curriculum interventions to literacy-based partnerships with churches and nonprofit organizations.

In February, Ramirez unveiled her plan of action before the Shelby County Board of Education, where she contended that though the district’s reading and language arts proficiency rate is increasing, it’s not fast enough. From 2013 to 2014, the rate for grades 3-8 increased by 1.6 percent. At that pace, it will be 2050 before the district reaches its 90 percent goal.

“It’s an ambitious project with many different groups that all need to be on the same page,” said Ramirez, who briefed principals on the instructional changes last spring. “That’s why this summer training is so important.”

New teaching strategies in classrooms will include:

  • Increased daily reading times in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade — specifically 50 minutes of reading in pre-K, and 90 minutes of reading and 30 minutes of writing in K-5 classrooms;
  • Use of “whole group” and “small group” instruction, in which the teacher teaches the whole classroom a skill and then directs students to practice that skill in smaller groups;
  • Lessons spanning multiple days at the high school level, a change from lessons traditionally spanning a single day.

For math and science teachers, it will be challenging to incorporate literacy into instruction, since they haven’t had to in the past, according to educators. That’s why the district-level trainings are critical, said Josalyn Tresvant-McGhee, a teacher at Knight Road Elementary School.

“This time is so important because it’s a planning session; we get practical ideas from it,” Tresvant-McGhee said. “Teachers learn best from each other.”

Still, some teachers say the literacy plan guidelines have been muddy at best.

“The vision is good, but practically, how is this going to be implemented and implemented at all levels in schools?” asked Nikki Wilks, an English teacher at Kingsbury High School. “There’s no overnight fix to this, and while this is a step in the right direction, I’m worried that teachers won’t make the necessary changes because practical application and reinforcement lack.”

Chief Academic Officer Heidi Ramirez visits a class at Southwind High School.
PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Chief Academic Officer Heidi Ramirez visits a class at Southwind High School.

Wilks said the district’s new curriculum maps, which diagram a curriculum to identify and record data that identifies core skills and content, emphasize the importance of incorporating the literacy plan into instruction and aligning instruction with the state’s new standardized exam, known as TNReady. However, the map doesn’t specifically say how.

“The curriculum map’s extremely vague, which is interesting considering everyone keeps telling us we have to follow them to a T,” said Wilks, who attended multiple training sessions throughout the summer.

Others warn that to truly stall the literacy slide, it’s going to take a village of more than just teachers. A child’s earliest years have a huge influence on their lifelong academics, and parents have to know that literacy starts as soon as they are born, said J. Helen Perkins, an associate professor at the University of Memphis who specializes in literacy.

“We have to emphasize the crucial importance of encouraging and teaching parents to speak to their children at home, to read with them, to teach them their ABCs,” Perkins said. “Too often, we see children come to us well into elementary school without even knowing how to write their own name. Teachers alone are not responsible for that.”

Perkins said she believes the district will make gains in literacy when teachers are well-trained and well-supported.

“Trained and expert literacy coaches would really help in this district as they support the classroom teachers,” Perkins said. “Administrators must be aware of what the best practices are and assist teachers in implementing those best practices in their classrooms with fidelity.”

Support will come in 35 literacy coaches, a first for the district, who have been hired for the fall. Their full-time role will be to support quality reading and literacy, Ramirez said.

She added, however, that it will take time, and some growing pains, to implement all of her plan. She said increased teacher participation in summer trainings is a good sign.

Dyer, who has helped lead some of those trainings, says the professional development sessions are a good first step.

“We can’t hold teachers accountable for what we haven’t told them to do,” he said.

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 cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

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