I covered the historic separation of six new suburban school districts outside Memphis during the summer of 2014 for Chalkbeat TN. The separation marked the end of a long struggle between the mostly black Memphis city and the wealthier, whiter suburbs.

The previous year the suburbs were forced to join with Memphis City Schools in the largest schools merger in US history. This year six suburbs finished a three-year process of creating their own school systems, so they could maintain local control and separation from the inner-city Memphis schools.

But in order to do so they would have to rush to pass hundreds of policies, carefully allocate their funds, attract students who lived outside their zones and navigate many new logistical challenges.

Millington Registration Day-06051-2

August 7, 2014
 The one new suburban district that doesn't fit in

Check out my full radio story for WKNO here:

August 6, 2014
 Suburban schools that didn't get their own district

A compilation of interviews of school board candidates and their plans for representing the more than 10,000 suburban students who aren’t part of the new school districts.

August 4, 2014
 First Day of school reporting and photo gallery

August 4, 2014
 Municipal School Districts by the Numbers

See this article in full here.

August 3, 2014
 Bartlett celebrates opening of schools

The Bartlett community joined together on Saturday to celebrate a long-fought battle to gain control over its schools, which will open on Monday.

Parents and students joined teachers and administrators at the Bartlett United Method Church grounds for speeches by local leaders and performances by cheerleaders and the high school band.

July 31, 2014
 With its own school system, leader says Germantown will distinguish itself

This is the last of six interviews I did with all of the new suburban superintendents about their visions for the new districts and their rush to get schools open on time.

July 30, 2014
On registration day, school transfers based on experience, reputations

Shelby County students and parents took shade from the summer sun on Tuesday to register for school in everything from flip flops and t-shirts, to military and football uniforms. The day took on special importance this year because many schools’ boundaries have changed, especially in the suburbs where six new municipal districts will open their doors for the first time on Monday next week.

Parents were urged by district officials to notify them of their final decisions so they could get a headcount and start assigning teachers, ordering textbooks and determining class schedules for the first day of school next week.
“There’s never been a year as important for everybody to show up for registration,” said Collierville Municipal Schools superintendent John Aitken…. Read more here

June 30, 2014
 Municipal districts say the first measure of their success will be their buses

Two weeks after the start of school last year Debbie Rike, the director of transportation for Shelby County Schools resigned and David Stephens, then the deputy superintendent, was answering questions from reporters about what went wrong with the school buses. There were reports of late buses, long lines, students left behind and busy phone lines in the crucial first weeks of the merged Shelby County Schools’ existence.

So it wasn’t a total surprise when on June 16, at a Bartlett City Schools board meeting Stephens, now the Bartlett superintendent, faced questions about the status of his new district’s transportation contract that still hadn’t been finalized. “This is such a big one because it gets so much attention,” said board member Shirley Jackson. “It impacts those parents every morning.”

Stephens didn’t hesitate before responding. “I have touched that stove and burned my hand: I do not want to touch it again,” said Stephens.

Three days later the Arlington Community Schools board raised the same concerns. “It’s always a nightmare at the beginning of the year,” said board member Danny Young.

These kinds of nervous exchanges have been happening at board meetings all across the six new municipal school districts in Shelby County in the last month, as they prepare to open their doors for the first time in less than six weeks.

“There’s not a date that goes by that someone from the municipal districts’ operations department doesn’t check with me or have a question,” said Rike, who is now directing transportation for all six municipal districts through a shared-services contract.

The performance of the buses in the first days and weeks of the school year will be one of the most visible and important tests of the new districts, according to public statements by board members and interviews with their superintendents. Most teaching and learning happens away from parents and student test scores aren’t available until the end of the year, so transportation could shape early perceptions of the new districts….

Read more here

June 24, 2014
 Arlington board voted to reduce retiree health benefits Tuesday night

Arlington Community Schools became one of the first municipal districts to approve a new retiree health benefits package Tuesday night that is less generous than the one teachers receive in Shelby County Schools.

June 23, 2014
 Bartlett board bypasses protocol so employees will have health insurance on time

In a rush to provide its new employees health insurance, Bartlett City Schools board members passed an unfinished health benefits package that they had not yet seen before their meeting Monday.

Bartlett City Schools, which will become one of six new municipal districts in Shelby County this fall, is joining with four other municipal districts and the cities of Bartlett and Colierville to offer new health insurance policies to its employees. Teachers keep their old Shelby County Schools health insurance until Sept. 1 but the district staff’s insurance expires July 1, so the board added the policy at the last minute.

“This will not be the normal course of business moving forward,” said Jeff Norris, the board chair. “This is not ideal to execute these things without allowing you to see them.”….

June 17, 2014
 In 90 minutes, Bartlett board passes on more than 40 policies for votes next week

The Bartlett school board reviewed more than 40 district policies at their work session Monday. They discussed and passed policies for a vote next week on corporal punishment, new school lunch prices and transportation, among others. The board will make final votes on the policies June 26.

“That might be a record time for the amount of work conducted in a work session,” said Chairman Jeff Norris at the end of the 90 minute meeting….

June 16, 2014
 Proposal to conduct $1.8 million school facilities study fails after debate over municipal buildings
June 9, 2014
 Parent groups face uncertainty just when they're needed most

When Regenia Dowell learned from her son that Frayser High School would stop offering advanced math because it was no longer a requirement, she went straight to the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA).

The new principal quickly reversed course and began offering the class again. Dowell is one of many parents and community members like her who advocate for students through PTAs and other parent organizations throughout Shelby County.

But like many PTA members throughout Shelby County, Dowell doesn’t know what to expect next year. Because of low test scores Frayser High School is being taken over by the state and renamed Martin Luther King Preparatory High School. She said she doesn’t know if the school will even have a PTA.

The uncertainty that Dowell faces is endemic across PTAs in Shelby County school districts this summer as six new municipalities form their own schools districts, the state-run Achievement School District takes over more academically-struggling schools, nine schools are closed and several new charter schools open.

PTAs in at least four of the county’s six new municipal school districts are forming separate PTA councils, and some parents aren’t sure which council to align with. Some parent groups are dropping their affiliation with the PTA altogether, after Shelby County Schools dropped its long-standing rule that all parent organizations must be PTA affiliates.

Because of all the transition, parents are having a hard time learning about new initiatives at their schools or ways to get involved, several PTA members said.

Parental involvement has become an increasingly important priority in Shelby County Schools, one of the worst academically performing districts in the state. Principals will now be evaluated on parental engagement, as part of the state’s new principal evaluation system. This is in part because many experts say that increasing the quality of parental involvement is a key driver of student performance in the classroom.

When controlling for all other factors, such as teacher quality, a school with strong parental engagement increases student performance by an average of a third of a grade every year, for example, from a B to a B+, according to Joyce Epstein, the director of the Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University.

“It really adds up over time,” Epstein said. “We’re not talking about magic results, we’re talking about real kids learning and they learn incrementally over time.”

As districts merged, parents remained seperate

When Memphis and Shelby County schools merged into one district last year, the PTA councils did not. Although a merged council would’ve meant more members, increased funding and greater influence, there wasn’t any legal reason the two PTA councils had to join together. So some members thought that, with all the uncertainty around whether municipal districts would break off, they should remain separate.

Some Memphis PTA board members never bought into the unified vision of the district. “We’re urban and they’re suburban. We don’t think the same way,” said Janice Robinson, the scholarship chair of the Memphis PTA Council. “We have more challenges.”

Terri Harris, president of the Shelby County PTA council, said that the Memphis PTA council is welcome to join, but her council is 95 years old and her members did not want to give up their charter. “Basically we just want our schools to have PTAs and those PTAs to be supported by a council where they are comfortable and they fit in,” Harris said….

Read more here

June 4, 2014
 Lakeland celebrates first building, makes plans for more

Hundreds of students, parents, faculty and staff came out to celebrate a symbolic ribbon cutting at Lakeland Elementary School Tuesday evening. Although it is not a new school, the building has acquired new significance as the flagship and only school in the Lakeland School System.

“Three years ago this was a dream,” said Dr. Ted Horrell, superintendant of Lakeland. “And a lot of people said you can’t. But I can tell you Lakeland can, Lakeland did, and Lakeland has.”
Read more here and see more photos here

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