Bridging the Opportunity Divide

The All-Hands-on-Desk Initiative to Improve Low-Performing Schools in Tennessee

October 6, 2014
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The All-Hands-on-Desk Initiative to Improve Low-Performing Schools in Tennessee
Memphis has bold plans to bring some of their schools from the bottom 5% in performance to the top 25% all in under five years.
More assistance should improve their chances of success.

If several educators have their say, teachers, not Elvis, will come to mind when you think about Memphis. That’s because they have a bold plan to turn the Tennessee city into Teacher Town, USA.

The Shelby County school district (where Memphis is located) has identified 68 schools in its purview performing in the bottom 5 percent of the state. Pledging to bring these failing Memphis schools into the top 25 percent of Tennessee educational facilities (an unprecedented turnaround challenge proposed by the Achievement School District and Shelby County) in five years, superintendents Dorsey Hopson and Chris Barbic are using every lesson plan they can find to do right by their kids.

To create the best classroom environments, Shelby is taking a three-pronged approach for “1) retaining great teachers, 2) developing local teacher talent, and 3) recruiting national talent,” according to the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

As Sara Solar, portfolio director of the Teacher Town USA funding initiative explains, “We know that transforming Memphis … will require that we work at every stage of the teacher life cycle — from novices to our strongest teacher leaders.”

As a part of this initiative, they’re focusing on cultivating young teachers with the leadership and guidance of older educators and encouraging them to build a strong, personal and lasting bond with the community.

Knowing that big changes always come up against entrenched political, economical and racial tensions, Shelby started bringing together representatives from the schools (public and charter), civic organizations, non-profits, universities and others  to start a discussion on “how to make Memphis the best place in America for great teachers.” Consulting the philosophy of “high-stakes donor collaborations,” Shelby’s school district is using the newest and best ideas out there to push the envelope into the future and secure long-range funding and philanthropy for their school programs.

One of the funders, Jim Boyd, sums up the initiative very nicely: “We know we have this moment in time, and something concrete and specific to work on together…And so we partner even when it’s hard. Perhaps because what makes it hard is also what makes it powerful.”

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