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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

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Buckle up for an unparalleled start to a new school year

TSD education columnist Curtis Weathers: “The district has a formidable list of issues and circumstances to navigate over the next 10 months. There is a laundry list of challenges that potentially could derail any momentum our school leaders might have generated this last school year.”

The start of school always has been an exciting time of the year for many reasons.

I always looked forward to “the first day of school” and hearing about everyone’s summer vacations and new expectations. 

But we are about to embark upon an unparalleled start to the school year for Memphis-Shelby County Schools.

The district has a formidable list of issues and circumstances to navigate over the next 10 months. 

There is a laundry list of challenges that potentially could derail any momentum our school leaders might have generated this last school year. 

How we manage these challenges could negatively impact our children’s academic growth and development well into the future. 

Let’s look at some of these issues.

Our superintendent

First and most important, we have a leadership void at the very top of the organization. 

Our superintendent, Dr. Joris Ray, is on administrative leave because of allegations of sexual impropriety. An investigation is underway. The school board has handed over leadership of the district to two of his top assistants. 

Not only does his absence leave a huge void at the top of the organization, but the allegations against him are the worst kind of embarrassment a school system could imagine. 

His situation certainly will be a seismic distraction throughout the entire school year and potentially shift our attention from the education and welfare of our children to the sordid soap opera of the investigation into the accusations against him. 

I think when all is said and done, we will find ourselves looking for a new superintendent before the end of the calendar year. 

So, brace yourselves everyone. This could be ugly.

We are trending up

Memphis Shelby County Schools devised the TCAP PERFORMANCE tour to provide MSCS families with information about the district’s performance, school registration and more. (Photo: MSCS Twitter)

Our schools this year will be challenged first and foremost with improving students’ academic achievement as measured by their TCAP performance. 

The district seems to have adopted a new mantra, “trending up,” based on last year’s TCAP performance. I am starting to hear that phrase a lot from district leaders. 

Keep in mind that we have a very deep hole to dig ourselves out of. Our TCAP scores are among the lowest in the state and have been for quite some time. 

While we are indeed “trending up,” we have a lot of work to do to get to a respectable level of performance. 

The COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over. It has left deep and lasting scars on the educators and students in our schools, and a trail of damage that will take quite some time to recover from. 

Infection rates are again on the rise. According to our local Health Department, the Community Risk Level is still “High” in Shelby County. 

But we also see a significant uptick in vaccination rates among school-age children, which is encouraging. 

I think Dr. Ray did an excellent job navigating our district through the early days of the pandemic. But let’s not let our guards down. We still have miles to go before we can return to a true state of normalcy.

Teacher shortage

The start of a new school year always is exciting and especially important to school leaders, teachers, and students. Educators everywhere understand the importance of getting off to a great start, if possible. 

Unfortunately, the district is dealing again with a significant shortage of classroom teachers. There are simply not enough teacher applicants out there to fill all the vacant positions in our schools.

According to reports, Memphis-Shelby County Schools has more than 200 vacant teacher positions and may only be able to fill a fraction of these positions before the start of school next week.

The pandemic has tremendously impacted teacher morale and caused thousands to rethink their decisions to enter the teaching profession. 

But this is not just a local problem. Large school systems throughout the country are dealing with the same issues in their communities. 

Districts are doing all they can to recruit new teachers. In Texas, for example, some districts have reduced their work week from five to four days to attract more applicants for their open teacher positions.

The Memphis-Shelby County Schools is offering incentives such as signing bonuses, boosting salaries, and expanded health care coverage. And Tennessee now has a new law that will allow retired teachers to return to work while keeping their retirement benefits.

There is nothing more disconcerting for principals (or teachers) than having to start the school year with multiple classrooms staffed by substitute teachers. 

Forty new principals

Speaking of principals, don’t forget, before he was placed on leave, Dr. Ray fired, dismissed, or demoted (however you choose to phrase it) 40 district principals, which of course, left a leadership void at 40 different schools. 

It is rare to see so many principals replaced at one time. We should keep these new leaders in our prayers, they are going to need our support.

Let’s support our schools

Again, this school year will be one of the most consequential years we have ever experienced.

To our district leaders who are filling in for Dr. Ray, I wish you well.

To those 40 new principals: Congratulations, what a wonderful opportunity you have.

And lastly, to our teachers and students, let’s do our best to make this a GREAT school year!

(Follow me on Twitter @curtisweathers. Email me at [email protected].)

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