August 5, 2008

City School Plan on Table — Includes Hiring of College Students As Tutors; Funding Still a Hurdle

By Jane Roberts

A week before Memphis Public Schools open, the new superintendent and his team announced far-reaching plans for redeveloping schools and schoolchildren, including comprehensive strategies for addressing the needs of nearly 25,000 students who are older than their grade-level peers.

The unknown is the pending budget shortfall that could cut the school budget by half if the city council reduces its funding by $73.7 million and the state follows suit by withholding its funding.

Among the most creative of Supt. Kriner Cash's plans is an initiative to hire 2,000 college students as tutors for over-age students by tapping local foundations and community grants.

The tutors would help the over-age students progress and at the same time eliminate what Cash and his team say are the discipline problems created by children who are not only older, but often much larger than their peers.

In the city elementary schools alone, 9,000 children are over- age for their grade.

"This is the ticking bomb in the district. If not treated, it migrates to the middle school," said Irving Hamer, former deputy superintendent in Miami, and now deputy of academic operations in the city schools.

As the students pass along to higher grades, their numbers increase. In the city high schools, more than 10,000 students are over-age.

Cash has already met with University of Memphis president Shirley Raines and other higher education leaders, promoting the plan.

The district would also institute a quarterly plan for checking student progress, instead of waiting until state assessments are announced in the spring.

On the security front, the 14 schools with the highest incidence of fighting and violence will have daily metal detector screenings from Day One, said Gerald Darling, the former chief of police for Miami Dade Public Schools.

Security teams will be assigned to make random checks in the high- incident schools, along with collaboration with the Memphis Police Department to improve security in the morning and afternoon, key areas that Darling said must improve before students are in an environment conducive to learning.

On the troubled Central Nutrition Center, Cash announced a nationwide search to find a new leader and said he would be replacing leaders in supporting positions to get the area cleaned up.

The nutrition center has come under fire for wasting millions in taxpayer money when food spoiled and had to be thrown away and also for lax accounting and bookkeeping that has led to mismanagement and sometimes theft.

But looming over all, and pushing the board meeting late into the night was the issue of funding. With the $73 million decrease if the city does not restore its funding to the schools, the district would be forced to cut 334 positions and to take several other cost- cutting measures.

The impact would immediately increase student/teacher ratios in some schools and decrease the number of computers and other technology for student use. It could also create cash-flow problems "if we don't get this solved soon," said Cash.

Because the district cannot submit a legal budget to the state by Oct. 1 without knowing the city's contribution, the city school system stands to lose more than $400 million in state funding, setting up the possibility that the school district's $932 million budget would be slashed in half. That would make it likely that the city schools would have to turn the responsibility of educating Memphis children over to the state, Cash said.

Board member Jeff Warren said the district is in danger of losing enrollment because parents are not going to wait to see if the district gets funded. He asked the school board to support a resolution of working with the city council and other governmental bodies to work the issue out as a group of parents head to city council today to ask the city council to restore funding.

It passed with board member Kenneth Whalum casting the only dissenting vote.

- Jane Roberts: 529-2512



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Originally published by Jane Roberts [email protected] .

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