a group picture of the shelby county school board with a student

All photos courtesy of Shelby County Schools

The district leadership team for Tennessee’s Shelby County Schools is uncompromising in its mission to prepare all its students for success in learning, leadership, and life. The challenges in meeting these goals can be numerous and complex for a 113,000-student school district with many needs.

But this year’s winner of NSBA’s Council of Urban Boards of Education (CUBE) Annual Award for Urban School Board Excellence continues to make profound advancements for its students. At all times, the leadership is led by a commitment to good governance practices, strategic policies, and effective programs. These programs are designed to ensure student achievement, equity for all, and support for the whole child. 

“We spend a lot of time thinking, ‘Are we making sure that there’s equity across the board, are we making sure that families are engaged in the work, and are we making sure that our community partners are engaged to help push us along the way,’” says Board of Education Chair Miska Clay Bibbs.

“What’s our end goal?” is a frequent, guiding question for the board, Bibbs adds. “And then we push the administration on ‘How do we get there?’”

Key policies and programs recently advocated by the nine-member Shelby County School Board and enacted by Superintendent Joris Ray have focused on:

  • Reading readiness by third grade.
  • Districtwide social-emotional and mental health supports.
  • Expanded access to rigorous academic instruction.
  • African American male student empowerment.
  • A landmark one-to-one digital technology rollout.
  • Assistance for students and families during the national health crisis.

“In presenting this award, CUBE celebrates the intentional work that urban school boards are doing to prepare all students for academic achievement and life success,” says CUBE Steering Committee Chair Jacinto Ramos Jr., a trustee for Texas’ Fort Worth Independent School District. “Shelby County Schools is an outstanding example of the commitment that school leaders can and must exercise in advancing educational access and equity while confronting some of the most challenging conditions in public education.”

“Shelby County Schools’ recognition is evidence that a strong school board and superintendent team that practices the best in school board governance is a powerful force for advancing urban education,” says Anna Maria Chávez, NSBA’s executive director and CEO. “This critical partnership is a necessary component to prepare all students for success in school and beyond.”

Merger and demerger

The current Shelby County Schools came into existence in 2013, following a merger between the Memphis City Schools, a district with a high-poverty, majority Black enrollment, and the Shelby County School District, which was better resourced and mostly white. In 2014, that union experienced a demerger when six suburban municipalities in the merged school district broke away to form independent school systems. The new school systems took with them some of the county’s most valuable property as their tax base.

Those events left Shelby County Schools, the largest district in Tennessee, with severe financial and academic challenges. The leadership team’s work in securing its financial and management stability and its progress in raising student academic performance was recognized by CUBE in 2017. The district’s dynamic work has continued over the past three years—and intensified in response to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Families depend on us

“COVID-19 shifted the way we think about how you educate, what your school building looks like,” says Bibbs. “More than ever, we were made aware that families depend on us every day, regardless of whether kids are in school or not. We had to make sure we were set up for them.” 

Although statistics show that 48 percent of Shelby County Schools students live below the poverty line, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the other 52 percent are “living in great means,” Bibbs says. For many families, “it just means that someone made a dollar over the poverty line.”

a student with a face mask in a car holds his new remote learning equipment
a laptop with a virtual education flyer
a car passenger receives a package for remote learning from someone off camera

The board approved a plan to not only distribute meals and instructional support to students but also to ensure that salaried and hourly school-based employees did not experience a loss in income during the shutdown. It also launched a website with information about how to stay safe during the pandemic and instructional resources to help families ensure their children participated in learning activities while at home. To assist families without digital access, the district created telephone resources, including a hotline for callers to speak with a trained therapist or counselor.

Knowing that exposure to traumatic events such as poverty, neglect, and violence can put children at increased risk for academic struggles and long-lasting physical and mental illnesses, the district provides ongoing trauma awareness training to all employees who support students. The effort is part of Shelby County School’s mission as a trauma-informed and trauma-responsive school system. “We have to really understand, more than ever, what trauma looks like and respond differently than we have in the past,” Ray says.

Digital access plan

The board began discussing a one-to-one digital device plan more than a year before the pandemic as part of its overall student equity goals and its 21st century learning initiative, Bibbs says. But it wasn’t until June 2020 that Ray’s plan was approved by the board in an eight to one vote. It puts more than 95,000 new devices in the hands of every district student, grades preK12. Distribution occurred in time for Shelby County’s virtual opening at the end of August.

The new $37 million digital access plan also includes mobile hotspots and internet access for the 25 percent of families who expressed need in a district access survey. Support and training for teachers, students, and parents also are included. Funding came from a combination of sources, with the largest contribution, $21 million, from federal CARES Act money that Congress passed for coronavirus relief.

“We knew we had to have this done to move our students forward,” Bibbs says. “It will put all of our kids on the same playing field.” 

Something on the front end

In response to an equity audit requested by the board, Ray developed the Equity in Action plan to eliminate barriers to achievement. The audit highlighted, for example, that students of color were not widely referred for the most rigorous classes offered through the district’s gifted program. More than 70 percent of district students are Black; 15 percent are Hispanic/Latino; 7 percent are white.

Implementing a universal screening process significantly changed the results. It considers every student, from kindergarten to third grade, for placement in the program. “We had 600-plus new students added to the program who otherwise would never have been given that opportunity,” Ray says.

To improve literacy outcomes, the board passed a policy update that changed the criteria for how kindergarteners through second-graders are promoted to the next grade. Known as the Third Grade Commitment, the new policy supports early learning goals by ensuring that all students are reading by third grade.

a student with big red glasses smiles brightly at the camera as she works at her desk
a child wearing owl headphones uses a digital device as part of a literacy program
a group shot of the participants of Shelby County Schools' African American Male Empowerment program

District research shows that in 2018 only one in four students was reading on grade level by third grade. That statistic “aligns with what happens by the time students leave in the 12th grade, with only one in four students being college-ready,” Ray says. By doing “something on the front end, it can definitely help our students on the back end when they leave us.”

At the high school level, an $8 million investment by the board in college, career, and technical education transformed the impact of the program. In recent years, “we had students leaving us with [a total of] maybe 200 certifications,” Ray notes. “By the end of 2019, we had over 3,000 certifications earned.”

One area that Ray is targeting for a similar transformation is the educational success and well-being of Black male students in need. The district’s African American Male Empowerment program is “designed to interrupt the destructive patterns in education” that can hinder these students by supporting them with additional tutoring and mentoring, addressing implicit bias, recruiting and retaining more Black male educators, engaging community support, and other approaches.

By lifting “this priority group, we lift our school district,” Ray says. “We lift our school district; we lift the community. We lift the community; we change the trajectory of life for all people here in Shelby County.”

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