Meili Powell

by Meili Powell, Special to The New Tri-State Defender

Two years ago, I started as a third-grade reading teacher in Shelby County Schools (SCS). I knew that third grade was the strongest predictor of long-term learning success, but I did not know the complexity behind the immense literacy gaps within our district.

Three out of four SCS third-graders are not reading on grade level. In 2018, only 27 percent of SCS third-graders were proficient on the reading state assessment. I’ve seen the impact of these statistics, as many of my students entered the year behind.

Recently, SCS developed the “3rd Grade Commitment” to correspond to revisions of its policy for promotion and retention. Currently, second-graders are promoted if they earn above a D (70+). This new policy requires the district’s 8,700 second-graders to meet at least 8 of 12 points under a new success criteria. Students who do not meet the criteria must attend summer school, and, if still not successful over the summer, will have 45 days of the following year to catch up before having to repeat the second grade.

SCS states that the 3rd Grade Commitment will “hold district and school leaders, teachers, and all stakeholders accountable” for students’ success before third grade. With the plan for implementation in 2020, I am left wondering, what new measures will hold adults accountable? Also, if students are given new requirements to move from second grade to third grade, what new supports will they receive?

While focusing on literacy is crucial, it cannot be an isolated effort. To change results, the root causes for what left students behind in the first place must be simultaneously considered.

When I think about my students who needed literacy intervention, I know that support goes beyond academics. Two of my students lost family members to gun violence this year. I vividly remember when they came to class crying, as I helped them make cards that day because they couldn’t focus. They showed resilience but had anger management issues and emotional outbursts throughout the year. Consequently, they had multiple in- and out-of-school suspensions and were penalized for using the only coping mechanisms they had to deal with their trauma.

Research shows that two-thirds of Memphis children who are treated at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital have at least four adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), traumatic events that can range from neglect to poverty to the incarceration of a parent and exposure to violence, and one-third have food and housing insecurity.

If my students who were exposed to violence had fallen under this new policy, how would SCS provide new trauma-responsive supports to ensure that they are given every opportunity to succeed?

Two other students at my intervention table often missed instruction because they were chronically absent. Some weeks, they would only come to school for one or two days. One of them always got picked up early, missing countless instructional hours. He spent the year working on sounding out words on a first-grade reading level (two grade levels behind). Last year, 12 percent of SCS students were chronically absent, meaning that they missed 18-plus days of school.

If my chronically absent students fell under this new policy, how would SCS establish new measures to communicate with families and ensure their attendance?

SCS must also be strategic in evaluating the negative impacts on retaining students mid-year. Retaining students in elementary grades is less harmful compared to later years, but SCS needs to communicate to families that retention is not a punishment. It will be critical to ask, what supports will be given to students who are forced to integrate into a new grade mid-year?

Thousands of students may not be promoted based on the new criteria. We must ensure that literacy funding is prioritized and supports are put in place to balance out the negative repercussions of retaining students at a large scale. This policy change is an attempt to transform a local culture that is too accepting of low literacy for our children, and we need to recognize that a real 3rd Grade Commitment must come from our entire community.

A real 3rd Grade Commitment means investment in true, universal pre-K that is not solely needs-based. It means stressing the importance of K-2 foundations and making sure that the universal phonics curriculum recently funded in the SCS budget is a high-quality, evidence-based choice.

SCS must invest not only in literacy laureates (teachers who coach part-time), but also in full-time literacy coaches, because research shows that they have the most impact on student achievement. In addition, we should look to identify opportunities to reduce student-teacher ratios as a way to further enhance learning.

Holistic support that addresses non-academic challenges that students face requires increased school support staff, such as counselors, social workers, and trauma-responsive family engagement specialists. These investments should be intertwined with implementation efforts for the recently passed SCS resolution to become a trauma-informed district. An enhanced communication between all entities in the district will be necessary to enact a strategy for comprehensive student development. 

(Meili Powell, a teacher, is a Stand for Children member.)