Truant in Teacher Town, USA
10/16/2015 by Tennessee Education Matters
Last Spring, an angry group of Memphis parents and students showed up at a school board meeting to protest yet another school closing. One mom from Lincoln Elementary School, Patience Maxwell pointedly told the school board, "You guys are moving these kids from school to school to school." Then, she asked, "Remember 'Where's Waldo?' Where's our kids?"
Last year, over 40,000 children were missing from Memphis schools when the truancy rate climbed to 41%. But the reality of the matter is that no one really knows how many truancies there are in Memphis and Shelby County.
The multiple paths to achievement model was introduced in 2012 during the Memphis City and Shelby County school merger by The Boston Consulting Group. Since then, it has lead to numerous school closings, ASD takeovers, and a proliferation of charter schools in Shelby County. The school system has become so fractured that it has no idea how many kids have fallen through the cracks.
Just three years ago, Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools had a combined population of nearly 150,000 students. But when the two districts merged in 2013-2014, enrollment in the new unified system fell to only 143,849 meaning almost 6,000 kids were lost in the merger. And nobody seems to know what happened to them.
School Closures & Takeovers Provide Multiple Paths to Truancy
The school closings came in rapid fire succession as the newly appointed interim superintendent, Dorsey Hopson recommended closing 15 schools in 2013. An astonishing increase considering only 12 schools had been closed during the preceding eight years.
A full list of the school closures and ASD takeovers can be found in the Schooling Memphis blog which predicted school closings would lead to instablitiy as children lost contact with long-standing respected, well-loved school employees and neighborhoods lost their school traditions and pride.
Legacy Memphis City school board member Kenneth Whalum refused to vote in favor of the 2013 closing schools. Whalum chastised the board for spending money on everything else but helping the poorest children in Memphis keep their schools open. He warned the board that they will pay a high price for school closings when rival gang members were assigned to the same school.
While the school board was busy closing down schools, the state run Achievement School District had its sights set on Memphis. Gobbling up neighborhood schools and spitting out charter school replacements.
This prompted Sara Lewis, another legacy Memphis City Schools board member, to criticize the ASD charter schools as being poor substitutes for the neighborhood schools being replaced by them. Lewis accused the mostly young, white charter school staff of lacking both knowledge and understanding of African American culture and history. "Someone should have taught them African-American culture 101," she said.
Hard feelings towards the ASD continued as parents found out that an ASD takeover can disenfranchise children from their neighborhood school. Last year, the charter school chain operator Aspire arbitrarily capped enrollment at Coleman Elementary leaving its students out in the cold. “Once we hit capacity, we notified parents who wanted to attend Coleman that we no longer had space available.” Children who attended Coleman and resided in the Coleman attendance zone were no longer allowed to register for their school. Instead, the kids were told that they would be bussed 45 minutes across town to another Aspire school where student test scores were considerably lower.
During the past few years, Memphis has become a city full of kids who have lost the stability of their neighborhood schools. Now, there are over 40,000 truants. That's more than the entire population of Germantown, a nearby suburban city. Along with an increase in truancies, Memphis has been rocked by a rash of teen violence. After all, truancy is a stepping stone to delinquent and criminal activity.
Even in a town plagued by crime, several incidents involving teenagers have stunned the city. Among the saddest examples is J.P. Shelley's murder by a 15 year old boy. On October 4, 2013, two teenagers went to the house that J.P. Shelley was renovating instead of going to school that day. The boys robbed and killed him. His wife, Beverly Shelley was teaching school at Southwind Elementary when she received news of her husband's murder. "I just could not believe how young this person was," stated Shelley. "These children were supposed to be in Shelby County Schools where I work. That's really something that's bothering me a lot," continued Shelley.
There have also been shocking reports of people being randomly attacked in public parking lots by huge mobs of vicious teenagers. In 2014, over a hundred teens descended upon a Kroger's parking lot jumping customers and beating two Kroger's employees into unconsciousness including one with developmental disabilities. Last Spring, another teenage mob attacked customers at a BP gas station. One man was attacked while trying to protect a woman as she walked to her car. He was carrying his baby while the teen repeatedly hit and beat him. A local news channel reported that "many of the kids involved in the fight had a similar charge on their record: truancy." Also last Spring, a massive fight broke out at White Station High School receiving national attention. Girls were fightinguncontrollably in the cafeteria and hallway. The fights then spread to some nearby classrooms.
"We know through data that truancy is a predictor of further crime."---Memphis City Councilman Harold Collins