Standing before an audience of students and parents, community and business leaders, and District staff, Memphis-Shelby County Schools Superintendent Toni Williams delivered the State of the District address with the theme “Triumphant Together.” District stakeholders gathered Tuesday, March 21, at the Teaching & Learning Academy to hear about the progress MSCS has made and our plans for the future.
Superintendent Williams highlighted the District’s achievements, previewed plans to address persistent challenges, and outlined a vision to unite us in “transforming the 901” with a path forward through academics, safety, and respect.
Here are the highlights.
College and Career Readiness
Superintendent Williams shared updates on the District's efforts to prepare students for the workforce. She reported that the District’s College, Career, and Technical Education program has seen a 7% increase in student industry credentials since last school year. Williams attributed the increase to additional resources provided through federal COVID relief funds and industry experts who also teach in the District. The District plans to transform its CCTE program (formerly known as Vo-Tech) through a $43.2 million Innovative School Grant.
The expansion will allow the District to offer more career and technical education programs, giving students the skills and credentials they need to enter the workforce. "Because of the skills and credentials they are gaining, our students will be employed," Williams said. This initiative aligns with the District's goal of ensuring that all students who graduate are ready for college, career, and life.
This year MSCS has approximately 3,500 more students enrolled in advanced courses than last year. That means that more students are taking honors courses, Advanced Placement, Pre-AP, International Baccalaureate, Dual Enrollment, and local and statewide dual-credit courses compared to the prior year.
Despite these gains, we acknowledge that 80% of students need extra resources and extra time to get on track. Our path forward in Academics also focuses on Attendance, PreK Expansion, Literacy Commitments, Extended Learning, and Supports for special populations, such as our English Language Learners.
Addressing Chronic Absenteeism
Williams also addressed concerns surrounding chronic absenteeism. The chronic absenteeism rate in Memphis-Shelby County Schools is approximately 26%, which is lower than in other districts such as Metro-Nashville, Fayette, and Tipton counties with a rate of approximately 29% and Knox County with approximately 27%. However, she stressed how vitally important it is for our students to be in school every day and told the audience the District has implemented measures to connect parents with resources to help them overcome barriers to attendance, such as healthcare and housing insecurity.
We’ve enhanced our communication and support by:
- Automating our District warning notice to parents of students with three or more unexcused absences. Adding report card messages to inform parents of absences.
- Re-allocating resources for attendance specialists to directly support schools with the lowest attendance rates.
- Partnering with Judge Tarik Sugarmon and Juvenile Court to develop a dedicated docket for attendance when our supports fail.
- Partnering with District Attorney Steven Mulroy, so when all of our interventions fail, there are legal consequences for nonattendance.
The District also launched the “Miss School, Miss Out” campaign to address absenteeism in these last weeks of school, leading up to state-mandated standardized testing.
Superintendent Williams spoke about the MSCS Literacy Commitment and the recently enacted third-grade retention law, which requires that third-grade students who don't demonstrate reading proficiency on the TCAP assessment for English language arts participate in tutoring or summer learning programs or risk being held back from the fourth grade. Even before the state law was enacted, MSCS invested more than $30 million to fund 750 Specialized Education Assistant (SEA) positions in grades K-2. Within the first year of adding SEAs to classrooms, K-2 students made double-digit gains in ELA scores and were trending up in mathematics.
Safety & Security
Regarding safety and security, Superintendent Williams assured her listeners that the safety of students and staff remains a top priority. She talked about our $22 million investments in mentorship and counseling programs to support social and emotional learning. Additionally, the District is investing in technology upgrades to ensure that our campuses are as safe as possible. We are piloting the new process in three schools and look forward to expanding to more locations with the support of additional local, state, and federal dollars to scale up this technology. Superintendent Williams also shared positive news that gang-related incidents have decreased by 43% in our schools, cutting those incidents nearly in half. “This achievement is a testament to the District’s dedication to providing a safe and secure learning environment for its students,” said Williams.
Williams told the gathering that the District, pending School Board approval, is investing an additional $27.3 million toward teacher salaries through Collaborative Conferencing with the UEA and MSCEA teacher unions. This investment, Williams said, shows the District’s commitment to attracting and retaining talented teachers who are instrumental in providing a quality education for MSCS students.
With this added funding, MSCS can give new teachers the highest starting salary in the metro area. We are currently exploring a starting salary of $50,000. The District is also exploring academic achievement and growth performance bonuses.
Through partnerships, MSCS can travel from trending up to triumphant. The dynamic partnerships between the District and multiple organizations, including YMCA, our Strategic Partners for Literacy, University of Memphis and the River City Partnership, Seeding Success, and local government agencies, create opportunities for the children of our community to flourish.
School Board Chair Althea Greene emphasized the importance of the community’s support and involvement in the success of the District. “Ultimately, we know that our success as a district is dependent on the support and involvement of our entire community,” she said. “We need all of you to continue to advocate for our schools, to support our students and staff, and to work together to find solutions to the challenges we face.”
“It will take a community-wide effort to move our District faster further, but if we unite, no matter the endeavor, we will be Triumphant Together,” said Williams.
Education Award Finalists
Finalists for Supervisor of the Year, Principal of the Year and Teachers of the Year were announced at Tuesday’s event, recognizing outstanding work and dedication.
The finalists for Supervisor of the Year are Brian Ingram (Human Resources), Sunya Payne (Student, Family, and Community Engagement), and Reggie Jackson (School Operations).
Finalists for Principal of the Year are Keyundah Coleman (John P. Freeman Optional School), Dr. Renee Meeks (Sea Isle Elementary School), and Dr. James Suggs from G.W. Carver High.
TEACHER OF THE YEAR FINALISTS:
Mr. Thomas Denson, the PreK-4th grade Teacher of the Year finalist for MSCS, is a Pre-K teacher at White Station Elementary School. Mr. Denson has 13 years of teaching experience in Tennessee. He is an award-winning educator who has served as a Literacy Laureate, and has earned thousands of dollars in grant funds to support projects for his school. Mr. Denson also leads the Graphic Design Club and the Broadcasting Club.
Dr. Tishsha Hopson, the 5th – 8th grade Teacher of the Year finalist for MSCS, supports 6th- and 7th-grade students at Hickory Ridge Middle School. Dr. Hopson has 11 years of teaching experience in Tennessee. She is a member of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development and is a First Generation PhD Fellow. Dr. Hopson is also an avid volunteer with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the Salvation Army of Memphis.
Dr. Ollie Liddell, the 9th – 12th grade Teacher of the Year finalist for MSCS, is the Director of Bands at Central High School. Dr. Liddell has 15 years of teaching experience in Tennessee. He is a highly decorated music educator who has received prestigious awards from the Grammy Foundation, the Country Music Association, and the National Band Association. Dr. Liddell recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award for Jazz Education from Downbeat Magazine.
PRINCIPAL OF THE YEAR FINALISTS:
Dr. Keyundah Coleman is the Principal of John P. Freeman Optional School. Dr. Coleman completed his Doctoral studies in Educational Leadership at Union University in December 2021. He, along with his staff, led John P. Freeman to become the Amazon Future Engineering School of the Year in 2022.
Dr. Renee Meeks is the Principal of Sea Isle Elementary School. Her career of more than 20 years spans classroom instruction, leadership, and non-profit educational outreach. She enjoys spending time with her family and serving as a mentor. She believes that relationships are key and that schools should provide a safe and nurturing environment where students and adults grow and flourish.
Dr. James Suggs is the Principal of G.W. Carver High School. Dr. Suggs is an experienced educator and administrator and has a deep passion for students, teachers, and families. Dr. Suggs has led Carver High to receive consecutive awards at the National Alternative Education Association Exemplary Practices for Alternative Schools Showcase (2018-2021).
SUPERVISOR OF THE YEAR FINALISTS:
Mr. Brian Ingram is the Executive Director of Talent Management. He began his career as a classroom teacher. He also has served as an instructional coach and elementary school principal with MSCS. In his current role, he leads and sets the vision for daily operations of MSCS’ recruitment and strategic staffing initiatives.
Ms. Sunya Payne is the Director of Student, Family and Community Engagement. Immediately upon stepping into her role, Ms. Payne led major partnerships for MSCS. She established a new large school adoption record with Amazon (20 schools), facilitated the donation of more than 7,000 books to students’ home libraries, and established a new partnership with University of Memphis Women’s and Men’s Basketball Teams.
Mr. Reggie Jackson is the Assistant Superintendent of Academic Operations. A dedicated educator, Mr. Jackson has been serving students and families for over 23 years. He began his education career teaching Special Education. During the COVID-19 global pandemic, Mr. Jackson advised and led the district’s safe re-entry plan through cross-functional collaborations.
All finalists went through a rigorous selection process that mirrors the eligibility requirements at the state-level. The District and State winner will be announced later this year.