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Saturday, June 22, 2024

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Fresh start … Really?

TSD education columnist Curtis Weathers.

My heart sunk to a familiar level of despair that I had not experienced for some time when I learned that Memphis-Shelby County Schools was going to “Fresh Start” two of its high schools and require all their teachers to re-apply and reinterview for their jobs next year.

Last week, teachers and staff at Hamilton High and Kingsbury High were called into a meeting and notified that their schools would undergo an academic review and that all teaching and support positions would be reexamined. Subsequently, a third school, Airways Achievement Academy, has been added to the list.

All teachers who wish to return must complete a full reapplication and interview process regardless of their experience and tenure.

Teachers at these schools and the teacher unions were caught off guard by these decisions, and district leaders, for some reason, are not talking much about this process and why it is being initiated at this particular time. 

At this point, the district has made clear that no additional information about personnel changes or transitions would be shared with the media. So, although we heard from a hand full of community members, teachers, and administrators at this week’s board meeting about how wonderful the Fresh Start process has helped their schools, we still do not know a lot about the schools chosen to go through this process.

Fresh Start is pitched as a way to reassess staff and ensure the best outcomes for all students. According to MSCS Supt. Dr. Joris M. Ray, this fresh start process will “allow for a close examination of culture, climate and data to assure student success and achievement.”

Still, the question remains: Why were these three schools chosen to go through this process at this particular time?

Two of the high schools going through the fresh start process are under the leadership of new principals, which is part of a districtwide restructuring process initiated by Ray last summer. The district said the “fresh starts” are a continuation of that process.

This process, however, is not limited to just teachers, but non-instructional staff as well. The district has reevaluated several positions at the cabinet level, including job roles for executive directors of equity, curriculum and instruction, and professional and leadership development.

But, can you imagine seeing your job posted on the jobs board and being told (without warning) you will now have to re-apply and interview for your position next year? It has to be incredibly disheartening for teachers and staff.

Another local school system, KIPP Memphis Charter Schools, fresh started some of its schools a little over a month ago. That process still is underway. Teachers and staff must re-apply to keep their jobs as well.

I have seen this “Fresh Start” process used before under the leadership of former superintendent Dr. Carol Johnson. In 2004, five Fresh Start schools were faced with the task of re-engineering their staff to improve academic achievement in their schools. 

These schools were able to reconstitute their entire teaching and support staff. The district created clear goals and objectives these schools were required to achieve, along with incentives to award schools, teachers, staff and principals for achieving their goals.

Professional development sessions and informational meetings were held with the district leadership team, academic directors, principals, assistant principals, instructional facilitators, teachers and staff.

These meetings were designed to determine what resources (instructional needs, strategies, personnel, funds, etc.) were needed to help the Fresh Start schools be successful. 

In addition, Human Resources conducted a job fair so that principals could staff their schools according to their needs and expectations. 

The process was well thought out and involved school, district and teacher union leaders working collaboratively throughout the entire process.

Unfortunately, I do not see the same level of coordination and cooperation this time around.

School systems across the country have used the Fresh Start process with mixed results. But I question the wisdom of implementing such a process at this stage of the school year and in the manner in which it is being rolled out. Why not wait until after state testing has been completed? 

For the new principals at these schools, this is a much-appreciated gift I’m sure; they get a chance to handpick their instructional team. Unfortunately, however, for the teachers and staff currently working in these schools, this is just another layer of stress they now have to endure, along with whatever else is going on in those buildings.

I truly hope this goes smoothly from this point forward and this transition is successful for each of these schools.

(Follow TSD education columnist Curtis Weathers on Twitter (@curtisweathers); email: curtislweathers@gmail.com.)

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