The National School Boards Association’s (NSBA) Council of Urban Boards of Education (CUBE) is happy to announce Tennessee’s Shelby County Schools as the winner of the 2020 Award for Urban School Board Excellence. This is Shelby County School’s second recognition by CUBE.

Created in 2004, the Award for Urban School Board Excellence recognizes school boards that exhibit excellence in school board governance, academic improvement, educational equity, and community engagement. Shelby County Schools will be presented with the award during the 2020 CUBE Annual Virtual Conference on Sept. 24.

“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.”

As Tennessee’s largest public school district and the 23rd largest school district in the country, Shelby County Schools faces many of the educational challenges that exist in our nation’s urban centers. The district oversees 200 schools that serve 113,000 students in Memphis and the unincorporated areas of Shelby County. Of those students, 40,000 live in households that make less than $10,000 a year.

Recognizing the district’s opportunity to positively impact student life, the board finalized a strategic plan in 2015 to achieve the following goals by 2025: 80% of students college/career ready, 90% of seniors graduate on time, and 100% graduates enroll in a post-secondary opportunity.

The board has made tremendous progress in achieving these goals. At the halfway mark of the ten-year plan, the board has updated policies around early literacy requirements to ensure students reach reading readiness before third grade. They have also become a trauma-responsive district that builds and maintains supportive learning environments for all students through comprehensive staff training. And the “Reimaging 901” plan ensures students receive 21st century learning opportunities through investing in the district’s infrastructure.

The board has a deep commitment to equity, pushing for an audit that prompted the development of an Equity in Action plan. The plan highlighted that students of color were not adequately represented in the district’s gifted program, so the board implemented a universal screening process to identify eligible students. The new process enlisted more than 600 students to the program.

“In presenting this annual excellence award, CUBE celebrates the intentional, focused work that urban school boards are doing to prepare all students for academic and life success,” says CUBE Steering Committee Chair Jacinto Ramos, Jr., a trustee for the Fort Worth Independent School District in Texas. “This year’s recipient, the district leadership of Tennessee’s Shelby County Schools, presents 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.”

Though the pandemic upended Shelby County Schools’ normal operations, the board’s leadership helped the district navigate unprecedented school closures. The board developed a plan to provide meals to students, ensure salaried and hourly school-based employees did not experience a loss of pay, and collaborated with local stakeholders to provide all students with digital devices and internet access.

Additionally, the board employed its comprehensive communication plans and engaged the community to keep all constituents informed. Their pandemic communication channels included a comprehensive website, video lessons broadcasted on TV and digital platforms, livestreams, and direct outreach through phone, email, and text message.

As the 2020 recipient of the Annual Award for Urban School Board Excellence, Shelby County School will serve as a resource for other CUBE districts and share best practices to help them improve. The district will also be featured in Urban Advocate, CUBE’s quarterly feature in the American School Board Journal (ASBJ).

Learn more about CUBE.

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