Under pressure, Raleigh-Egypt High School posts scores high enough to escape state intervention

PHOTO: Daarel Burnette II
James "Bo" Griffin, who became principal of Raleigh-Egypt High School in 2014, will return to Bolton High School as its leader.

Late last fall, James “Bo” Griffin, the principal of Raleigh-Egypt High School, sat his staff down in the faculty lounge of the school’s cinderblock building for a sobering meeting. While a charter operator had declined the state’s invitation to overhaul the Memphis school, the threat of takeover still loomed. Just one of the school’s 170 seniors had passed the state’s English exam, and only half of its seniors graduated.

“The problem with Raleigh-Egypt is sitting in this room,” Griffin told the teachers. “So is the solution.”

Over the next year, Griffin and his staff strictly enforced Raleigh-Egypt’s code of conduct, brought in a literacy coach to work with English teachers, and rebuilt the sports powerhouse’s school pride.

On Wednesday, Griffin hosted district leaders at Raleigh-Egypt to celebrate this year’s scores. By boosting the number of students passing state tests — 31 had passed the English III exam — the school had made some of the biggest gains in Shelby County Schools. And in doing so, it had escaped intervention by the Achievement School District for a second year, at least for now.

Of the 19 district schools that were so low-performing that they were eligible to be absorbed by the state-run district, 11 more saw test score gains large enough to stop that from happening this year — even as all of them, like Raleigh-Egypt, remain far from being high-scoring schools.

That leaves just seven Memphis schools eligible to be absorbed by the ASD — a move that usually causes schools to have their names, teachers, principals and programs changed. ASD officials have said they plan to take on six new schools for 2016.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said that the mere threat of being absorbed by the state district has whipped schools across the city into shape. Principals are observing more classrooms, teachers are spending more time on their lesson plans, and students are showing up to class more than ever, he told Chalkbeat.

“The ASD has created this sense of urgency that may not of been there,” Hopson said. “Principals, if they never knew before, you now see them with an extra pep in their step.  You see communities rallying around schools.”

Griffin, a former baseball coach and CrossFit enthusiast who works out in his basement at 4:30 a.m. daily, says he likes competition. But he gives the ASD — which has drawn fierce opposition from the schools it has tried to absorb — little credit for Raleigh-Egypt’s improvement.

“I don’t want the ASD to get one ounce of credit for what’s happened at this school,” he said on a recent morning while preparing for the school year, which starts in two weeks. “I had a spring in my step before they tried to take over this school.”

Pointing to the fact that the state had given the school the lowest possible rating for how much it helped students to advance in 2014, the ASD announced last fall that it would take over Raleigh-Egypt and assign operations to Green Dot Public Schools, a California charter network.

Hopson had just hired Griffin, a fast-talking Arkansan with a strong reputation in local schools, to turn Raleigh-Egypt around. And Griffin quickly had won over many in Raleigh, a down-on-its-luck community on the east side of Memphis.

Griffin immediately set to work. Along with his assistant principals, he drove around the surrounding neighborhoods of bungalow homes — many foreclosed on — knocking on doors and reminding parents and students that school was getting ready to start.

The school community grew closer yet because of a trauma near the beginning of the year. Duane Stokes, a longtime basketball coach, died at the school after suffering a heart attack. Griffin attempted to save him by performing CPR.

In an unusual move, Hopson said publicly that he told ASD officials not to take over Raleigh-Egypt because of the “synergy” he observed among Griffin and the principals of the community’s elementary and middle schools. The new leadership would bring changes to the long-struggling schools that many in Raleigh call “the tomb of doom,” Hopson said.

James Griffin points out the school's graduation rate.
James Griffin points out the school’s graduation rate.

After a contentious community meeting and several private conversations between officials and community leaders, Green Dot decided not to step in.

“We don’t want to create a hostile environment where kids are in the middle of this,” said Megan Quaile, executive director of Tennessee’ s Green Dot Public Schools, at the time. “They’ve asked us to give them some time, and we’re going to honor their request.”

But in a robocall to parents, the ASD warned that if the school failed to make improvement, it still could be overhauled in the future.

At the time, Griffin called the situation an “opportunity” and “fuel for us to work even harder to hit our numbers.”

On Wednesday, teachers described substantial changes that took place over the course of the year.

For starters, the school began cracking down on student misconduct. If a student was seen wandering the hallways during class, Assistant Principal Jacqueline Lang would ask them where they were supposed to be, something that didn’t always happen in the past.

Bigger changes took place in classrooms. Every student was given an individual plan for improving their English skills, and many were required to attend tutoring sessions on Saturdays.

With the help of central office staff, principals at the three neighborhood schools began collaborating on intervention strategies, meeting weekly and emailing each other daily. High school students took regular trips to the elementary school to tutor.

“We had to give students buy-in like they owned it. When they owned it, that’s when you start seeing the fives start showing up,” said Hope White-Lane, the school’s literacy coach, referring to the state’s highest score for student growth.

Students repainted the dim hallways with pictures of pharaohs and pyramids, and a sense of pride began to seep back into the school, said Sarah Robinson, 17, a rising senior.

“They pushed us really hard and told us you can do it,” she said. “There were a lot of new changes.”

While it made gains, the school still has a long way to go. Thirty-one seniors passed the English III exam last year, a 17 percentage point jump over the previous year. But 195 did not. They instead posted scores suggesting that they do not have the literacy skills needed to succeed after graduation. And only 139 of 226 seniors graduated, although Griffin said almost all of the seniors who did not graduate came to school rarely if at all.

For now, Griffin said he is optimistic about Raleigh-Egypt’s future.

“The main thing for us is we want to take care of our kids,” he said. “We’re here to serve the children of Raleigh.”

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

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.”