Behind the Headlines – April 5, 2019

– (female announcer)
Production funding for Behind the Headlines
is made possible in part by: the WKNO Production Fund, the WKNO Endowment Fund, and by viewers like you,
thank you. – Superintendent
Joris Ray on vouchers, charter schools, and
much more tonight on Behind the Headlines. [dramatic orchestral music] I’m Eric Barnes, president
and executive editor of The Daily Memphian,
thanks for joining us. I am joined tonight
by Joris Ray, superintendent,
Shelby County Schools. Thanks for being here. – Thank you, Bill,
I appreciate it. – Along with Bill Dries, reporter with The
Daily Memphian. So we’ll talk, you are new
to the job, but you’ve been at Shelby County school
system for some time. Where were you before
you were superintendent, and this all follows
Dorsey Hopson resign, or retiring, I guess
we should say from– – He’s relaxing. – Relaxing, yes, relaxing. So what were you
doing before this, and then we’ll jump
into some issues. – So again, Eric, thank
you for having me here. You know, lifelong
Memphian, born and raised, a student and a product
of this school district. Graduated from
Whitehaven High School. Went to the University of
Memphis, and I got two degrees. I got my bachelor’s
and my doctorate at University of Memphis. Started out, young teacher,
just passionate for education, because that’s
where I understood that victory is
in the classroom. And I was fortunate to
become an assistant principal at 25 years old, thanks
to Greg McCullough who’s now the principal
of Central High School. He gave me that
opportunity at Kirby Middle when he was principal there, and I’m forever
grateful for him. School administrator,
director at district level, assistant superintendent,
and chief of academic ops at my last job, and
now the superintendent of Shelby County Schools. – All right, well, right now, there are a whole lot of
issues, and there’s always, I mean, education in
any city but Memphis in particular, there’s
a lot going on. – Sure.
– At the state level right now, vouchers, as
I mentioned at the top, is the governor, Bill Lee– – Yes.
– And we talked about it quite a bit last week.
– Yes. – With some of the
state legislators, has a voucher program. What is your take on
this voucher proposal? – Well, you know, I had
a great conversation with Governor Lee
a few weeks back. We talked about CCTE,
and we talked about social-emotional learning, and those are some
things that we agree on. – CCTE is? – Career, college and
career technology education, I apologize.
– No, that’s okay. – Educators, we
use our acronyms, so I’ll be mindful of that. Great conversation with
Governor Lee, and again, we talked about the vouchers. And so clearly, as
I told the governor that I think his heart
is in the right place, but it would definitely have
some unintended consequences as it relates to vouchers. I think our board
spoke loud and clear. It will definitely disrupt
public education as we know it. And also, we have so
many different options within Shelby County
Schools for our students. You have optional
schools and CCTE and International
Baccalaureate Program, so many different options. For students to
take public dollars to a private entity, I
just do not agree with it. – And just a little
background on it. The voucher program as
I think it still stands, and it’s moving
the legislature– – Yes.
– And gets tweaked along the way, but the
gist is $7,300 voucher that would go with the child
to a public, excuse me, to a private school.
– Private schools, yes. – A $25 million price
tag in the first year, capped at 5,000 students, then
growing to 15,000 students by 2025 and can cost
up to $125 million. The governor is saying,
if I understand correctly, that that money that
would go with the child, $7,300 would be effectively
backfilled by the state, so if it came out of XYZ
school and that student leaves, as it is now, the state money
travels with the student from school to school,
from public schools, but that they would
backfill that money. So is there a risk
of loss to the budget and to the school
if a parents says, well, no, we’re gonna,
this is working for us, we’re gonna take that child out. The school itself,
according to the governor, wouldn’t lose out financially. – Well, Eric, you know,
and the governor shared the same information with
me as he unpacked his plan, but that’s this year. What about next year,
what about years to come? As you know, I would
love for the governor to invest that $125 million
for the voucher program back into public education. At the end of the
day, we do it better, and there’s no doubt
about it in my mind as far as public education
and Shelby County Schools. You look at what the
Innovation Zone is doing, we’re outperforming
the state model as it relates to student
growth and just innovation. So you know, I shared these
things with the governor. Again, things where we
agreed, I pat him on his back. I’m very happy about
the $25 million invested into college career
technology education. And you know, this
one, the governor and I just don’t see eye to eye. – Yeah, Bill Dries. – Dr. Ray, you made what I
think is an important point, and that is that people
who run school systems don’t have a view that’s
just today or next week. You’re always looking
several years down the road because you have to
plan for children who are moving through
the school system. So that’s an important– – Yes.
– Point to you, is the money gonna be there
to in effect, as Eric said, backfill this if this
program passes and intact. – Yes, I mean, and the
governor laid it out. As I told him, I
said, say for instance we have 500 to 1,000
students to decide to, hey, we’re gonna
take our dollars and go to a private entity,
and then the next year it’s 1,000 more, then the
next year, 1,000 more. Ultimately it’s 3,000 students, and you times that
time the $7,500. Eventually, taxpayers
are gonna ask how’re we’re gonna backfill,
how’re we gonna pay this money, and are we gonna allow it to
stay within Shelby County? You know, when I
talked to the governor, I couldn’t really
get a final answer because eventually, somebody’s
gonna call into question after three years of the
bleeding and students leaving. Right now we’re saying, oh,
this is not gonna affect the classroom, but
eventually, it will. – This is, it’s interesting,
the school system’s always in budget season
because the process starts– – Yes.
– Pretty early, but in the last few years, the school system has
seen a pretty dramatic turn in building a budget. The budget is now what’s
been called by some a needs-based budget as
opposed to in past years, frankly, the approach
had been how much do we think we can get from
the city and the county when the city was
still funding schools. But talk about that
transformation to needs-based budgeting, some call it equity budgeting,
what does that mean? – Well, one thing
we wanna do is align all of our resources
back to the classroom. This year, it’s gonna be
a tough budget year for us in Shelby County
Schools as we try to, as we have to submit
a balanced budget. One thing we’re gonna do is
hit at the heart of equity, and one of the seven next
steps of Destination 2025 in my plan is academic
equity in action to ensure a high-quality
education for all students and put the dollars
back into the classroom. So as a team, yesterday
we spent a significant amount of time combing
through the budget, culling through and
see where we can make the necessary
efficiencies in order to redirect those dollars
back into the classroom. One is academic
equity in action. You know, the whole
notion of our students reading on or at
third grade level is very important to me,
third grade guarantee. We wanna put those
dollars to where, hey, let’s go research, let’s
go get the best teachers, not only K2 but K12, but
also redirect those dollars for professional development
and ensure our students are competitive
across the district. – You, right now,
I think the board is mulling a policy about
whether they would hold back second graders, is that right,
that don’t hit the standard, don’t hit the reading
level, is that the point? Everyone, I mean,
from Mayor Strickland to anyone we have on the
show to talk about education, virtually everyone,
will talk about this third-grade reading, and
if you don’t hit reading, if you’re not reading
at grade level by second, third grade,
right in that range, you just, it sort of
snowballs from there. – Right.
– So where, and right now, what,
it’s 27% of third graders in Shelby County are
proficient in reading based on state tests,
which is a 6% jump from the previous year,
but it’s still only 27%. I mean, that means 3/4
of the kids aren’t. – That means only one in five of our students read at
or above third grade, and it’s not about
holding back students. First let me say, I don’t
believe in social promotion. However, I don’t believe
in failing students. I feel we have to
figure out a way to motivate our students,
putting resources back into the classroom,
providing intermission periods for the fall and
spring and the summer to give our students every
opportunity to have time on task to double-dose in
reading and also math. – What is that
intermission period? – Intermission period is
where we have students, instead of having a fall break and a spring break,
they attend school. They attend to where
they really laser-focus on literacy and
laser-focus on math. Oftentimes our students
during break times, we’ve just, you know,
merely anecdotal, just asking students
what do you do, what did you do during
fall break or spring break. Very few of our students
take a vacation. They’re home, and
they’re home alone. Sometimes even our
students say, hey, I didn’t get lunch
every day I was at home. We just try to
provide opportunities to help them academically
but also socially, because my mom used to say, “Idle mind is the
devil’s workshop.” So we wanna alternately
engage our students for them to really
focus and not have a academic slide
during those breaks. – Isn’t it–
– And so– – No, go ahead, go ahead, Bill. – And so from a
district standpoint, what you’re looking at
is directing the money for those programs–
– Yes. – At schools where the gap is
and more specific than that to classrooms where there
is a real gap in that. – So Bill, victory’s
in the classroom, and I believe in our teachers
working with our students, giving them the
opportunity during those fall and spring breaks, ’cause many of our
teachers work second jobs. Also, this gives
them the opportunity to hey, you know, do what
they love and that’s to teach and to really work
with our students during those fall
to spring breaks. It just goes hand in hand
what we do in the summertime. Now, you guys probably heard
of the Summer Learning Academy where our students come for
about five to six weeks, and they enjoy a
fun-filled time, but it’s focused on
academics, and I– – Who’s eligible for
the summer academies? – All of our Shelby
County Schools students. And any student
that want to attend a Shelby County school,
if you in private school and you register
with Shelby County and you’re gonna be one of
our students in the fall, you’re welcome to attend
as well, pre-K through 12. – Yeah, back to
the reading levels, and isn’t that, for
proponents of things like charter schools
and things like vouchers and many of these
reforms or changes– – Sure.
– Or innovations, however you wanna
characterize them, but isn’t that low reading
level part of the argument that people in favor
of vouchers make and say, look, the school
system is only getting, you know, 27%, 25%
of its students to read at level of third grade, shouldn’t parents have
the option to take that public money
and go somewhere else where they feel like
they’re gonna have, their child’s gonna
have more success? – Well, if the school
district didn’t provide those options for parents,
I would say yes, but we do, and what we do as well
is try to figure out why the student isn’t
reading on grade level, what can we do as
a school district. So what we’ve done is
essentially just call it out, and let’s do something about it. And with the
third-grade guarantee, what you will see is
our teachers laser-focus on each individual
student, where they are, where they’re performing,
and really triage what’s the real reason they’re
not reading at grade level. So one thing is phonemic
awareness, phonics, going back to some
of the basic things, building that bench
when they’re younger and building them up, and
it’s one of those things that really
including our parents and getting them involved
in the educational process when a student is in pre-K. We can’t no longer wait
and take for granted the mysteries of time
during the summer and during these breaks. And also just quality teacher
professional development. – Yeah, and you said–
– Sure. – Triage, before we go to
Bill, how do you triage a second grader or first
grader, second grader, or third grader
and say, you know, that they’re not at level
and this sort of laser-focus you’re talking about
needs to happen? – Well, you know, just
assess the skills, and– – Does that TNReady, is that,
I mean, what testing is that? – Well, you know, we
have pre and post test. Also, our teachers are
masterful in looking at students and
their Lexile levels and seeing where
they’re performing and where they’re reading,
and go in and give them additional assignments,
if you will, but not only that,
smaller reading groups, just really focusing on what
the individual student needs. – Yeah.
– So again, I trust our teachers, our
teachers are the best. – Yeah, 10 minutes left, Bill. – Let’s talk about the
structure of the school system because the school
board’s been discussing some change in attendance zones, which happen on a
pretty regular basis, I know also pretty regularly
controversial with parents because it does involve
moving students around, changing their assignments. Is this kind of the
leading edge of an ongoing reconfiguration of
the school system, where the schools need to be,
where the students need to be? – Well, first let
me say this, Bill, I believe in neighborhood
schools, I really do. I feel students
should go to schools that’s closest to their home. But also I believe in choice. If a parent chooses to say,
hey, I like this school because it’s a performing
arts school, feel free. As you know,
Superintendent Hopson gave me a parting gift of
the footprint proposal plan, but that’s something,
Bill and Eric, that I really want to
weigh in with the public. I really wanna
hear from parents, community leaders,
business leaders, working with the city and county and to really develop a
footprint that’s indicative of our entire Shelby
County Schools portfolio. That’s including charters and the Achievement
School District. But also, the footprint plan
is basically brick and mortar. We have to infuse the
academic options for students. That’s the true plan, that’s
the true essence of a plan. The academic options and
academics should lead the way and tell us what we need to do, what’s best for our students. Now, of course, I know
the facilities index, I understand the
$500 million worth of deferred maintenance, I
understand low enrollment. But I also understand
why can’t we look at, you know, you have three
or four different schools in the same area,
all under-enrolled, some are low performing, and the building’s
just falling apart. Why not have one nice,
robust academic offerings and the bells and
whistles showcase school in one nice building
with 700 to 800 children in the building
that’s high performing and give students that
huge bump in opportunity? We would love to do
what Collierville did with the $95 million
school and state of the art right here in Shelby County. – And Hopson’s plan was,
which we did a show on him, and Bill’s written about others on certainly The Daily
Memphian site and elsewhere, Hopson proposed
rezoning 3,200 students, and it was a massive
facilities footprint plan that could consolidate 28 old
facilities into 10 new ones. So you’re saying
that is on hold, or you’re just moving,
and he left it, proposed it and left,
I mean, so it was not that it was completely
approved and so on, but are there parts of that
you’re talking about executing? – So let me say
this, Eric, again, first I have to find out the
appetite of our school board, but most of all, I really
want to engage the public. I don’t think when
Superintendent Hopson left, he left a plan, but it hadn’t
been vetted by the community. We hadn’t infused the
academic offerings– – Right.
– The academic options there. What I will say is
that we’re committed to do what’s best for
students, go ahead. – And is that plan, I
forget, is that plan, I should know this and
I don’t, was that plan voted on by the school
board at this point? – No, it hasn’t it been–
– That was a presentation that he and staff put out there.
– It was a presentation. – But it had not been sort of
adopted, just so I’m clear. – You’re correct, Eric.
– Okay, okay. – It was a presentation
at a committee meeting. – Yeah, okay.
– And it was a one-time presentation.
– I got ya. – But here again, you know,
I perused the document. It’s things that I agree with, but there’s some things
that I do not agree with within the plan.
– Okay. – But also, it’s
very important for me to hear from the public. It’s very important for me
to hear from my teachers. It’s very important for me to
hear from community leaders. It’s very important for
me to hear from parents. It’s very important for me
to hear from my students. At the end of the day,
we’re going to look at the overall plan, we’re going to look
at it in the lens of what’s best for students
and what academic offerings and academic options that
we’re gonna lead the way with that’s gonna be, in my
opinion, when we have a 2.0, it’s gonna be better
because now we’re talking about what’s best for students
and not facilities index and bricks and mortar and
the buildings and all that. – Bill, with five minutes left. – When you look at the
school system as a whole, do you think that the
present configuration of schools meets
where the students are at this point in time,
or has the population shifted and the schools kinda
remain in the same place? – You know, that goes
into the, to in depth of us looking at the
overall footprint planning, just working closely with
city and county government and see in-migration
and out-migration, all that’s important. I don’t have that
material on hand, but I know that
the team is really working hard and
dedicated to do, put together a
proposal and a plan that’s gonna fit the
needs of the students. – The school system
also announced something that sounds very simple,
maybe even trivial, but is really kind
of a big deal, registration has
changed dramatically. – Yes, it has.
– The registration process. – Yes, it has, so one thing
we were committed to do, we listened to parents, and
one thing parents mentioned and say, hey, why do
we have to continue to register year
after year after year? I know my child
is in the school, why can’t we automatically
register them? We heard the parents, and
we updated our system, and this year, for the first
time, no line, no wait. If your child is in
a particular school and they’re returning, you
don’t have to do anything. – They just show up
in the first day? – They show up in the first day. Now, if you’re a
parent who’s moved or what have you, or need to
update some contact information or a new phone number, all
they do is go in and update their information
and hit Submit. – With just a
couple minutes left, the Gateway charter
school was shut down I think by Shelby County
in the last year, and– – And the state board upheld it. – And the state,
yeah, the state board, they recently came
and said not only, yes, it needed to be shut down, I mean, Gateway was, let’s see, administration falsified grades, improperly employed
uncertified teachers, awarded credits for a geometry
class that did not exist, and even some other
that the state then found on top of all that. I’m not laying
this at your feet. What I am saying, though,
is what, for people, there’s 60 charter schools
in Shelby County, I think? That does not include the ASD– – No.
– Charters and so on. So 60 charter
schools, they range, they’re all, I mean,
some are high performing, some people live
and die by them, but from Shelby County
Schools’ point of view, what should be done,
what do you take from the Gateway
experience in terms of oversight and monitoring? Or is there much you
can do to prevent those kinds of circumstances? – Well, let me say this, Eric, all schools should
be held accountable, whether it’s
traditional or charter, all schools should be high
performing for our students. We have a school
performance framework that we look at
across the district. it talks about and looks
at academic performance, suspensions, discipline, I could
go on and on, attendance, take in consideration,
and at the end of the day, we’re gonna hold all
schools accountable. Now, I do know that
I would love for us to continue to partner
with our charter schools, and where they need help,
I would love to help them. We offer a high-quality
professional development. I would love for them to
attend professional development and get the resources
that they need to provide a quality
education for our students. These are Shelby
County students, whether they’re in traditional
school or charter school, and I just want our
schools to be successful. – Yeah, very
briefly, the TNReady, the state standardized
testing has been, some would say a
bit of a disaster over the last few years.
[Joris laughing] Are you confident that, we
have a new administration, I mean, are you
confident where the state is going with TNReady, or
does it remain to be seen? – Well, you know, Penny
Schwinn is our new commissioner of education,
and she understands the pitfalls that happened
over the last few years, and I just wanna
encourage our parents and our students
to do their best, and we’re gonna allow the state to take care where
they need to take care as far as the test
implementation. – We have, actually, I
misread my clock here, we have 30, 40 seconds left. Talk a little bit about
Hamilton Elementary, back to these, the combination, what’s going on
at Hamilton and– – We’re merging
two schools in one and developing a
high-quality, robust academic program for the
students of Hamilton K-8. – And that gets that more
density, the better enrollment that you’re after.
– It’s one building, and it helped with the
deferred maintenance, and also, most of all,
we’re gonna provide high-quality academic programs for the students
of Hamilton K-8. – All right, we
will leave it there. Thank you, Joris Ray, thank
you for being here very much. – Thank you, I appreciate you. Thank you.
– Absolutely. And thank you, Bill, and
thank you for joining us. Join us again next week. [dramatic orchestral music] [acoustic guitar chords]