City Reporter 

City Reporter

Shaking Up the System

Superintendent wants to reorganize school administration.

By Mary Cashiola

See if you can solve this math problem: There are 185 schools in the Memphis City Schools (MCS) system. Twenty-two of them are what the state calls "corrective action." In the next three years, 60 of the district's principals will be eligible for retirement, while at the corrective-action schools principals have an average of five years' experience. And at 21 of the 22 schools, it's the principals' first post as a principal.

Unfortunately, this is a timed test, and for MCS time is almost up.

This week new superintendent Dr. Carol Johnson presented the school board with a report on the 22 schools, as well as a plan for a comprehensive administrative reorganization. With the exception of two posts that Johnson filled with staff from Minneapolis, all top positions will be reposted and filled in January. Johnson told the board it wasn't that the current staff wasn't dedicated or hard-working; she just wanted to put in place an organization focused solely on student achievement.

"I know this is extremely difficult for the organization and the people in it," said Johnson. "Yet I feel a real sense of urgency."

The move was called a "long-awaited breath of fresh air" by members of the board.

"Finally," said Commissioner Patrice Robinson, "after three years, it makes sense."

The numbers on the corrective-action schools made less sense. If corrective-action schools don't meet state standards by next year, they will move to "alternate governance" and could be reorganized by the state.

Two of the schools had high promotion rates, despite lagging test scores, making commissioners question whether a social promotion policy they had passed was being implemented correctly.

On a larger scale, 20 K-8 schools met the 95 percent participation rate for testing, but only five met with the required overall attendance of 93 percent. But it was another piece of data that Bill White, executive director of MCS Research, Testing, and Accountability, called "very concerning."

If current attendance figures were used, eight schools would automatically move to "alternate governance," regardless of test scores.

Commissioners wondered how schools could meet the test-day-participation rates, but not the daily-attendance rates. "How can you expect those students to do well [on the tests] if there is a problem with attendance in the first place?" asked Commissioner Hubon Sandridge.

Johnson said she suspected teachers and principals were making a big deal of the test day, urging students to be there and on time. "How do we make every day an important day for attendance?" she said. "What the one-day figure shows is that it's possible to get everybody there for the tests. We need someone to bird-dog attendance in every school."

But based on the current attendance figures, Commissioner Deni Hirsh asked if a change could realistically be made so far into the school year.

Johnson said that those schools will most likely move into the state's next level of categorization. "We will work aggressively," she said, "but for some schools it will be too little, too late."

Back in Court

New judge is appointed in ongoing He custody case.

By Janel Davis

Late last week a new judge was appointed in the ongoing custody case involving a 4-year-old Chinese girl, Anna Mae He, after the original judge recused himself, leaving the biological and foster parents in an unresolved dispute and possibly facing another lengthy delay.

Circuit Court judge Robert Childers was appointed by Tennessee Supreme Court chief justice Frank Drowota Friday afternoon, according to high court representative Sue Allison. No date had yet been set to resume proceedings. Calls to Childers' court were not returned by press time.

The appointment was necessary after Chancery Court judge D.J. Alissandratos announced his decision to step away from the case during the most recent court proceeding on November 14th, after hearing arguments from attorneys for both sides.

The biological parents, Jack and Casey He, along with representatives from the Chinese Embassy filed a complaint of wrongdoing against Alissandratos with the Court of the Judiciary. The complaint was filed independently after unsuccessful attempts by the Hes to persuade David Siegel to file it on their behalf. "We went against our attorney's wishes and filed it anyway," said Mr. He.

Siegel declined to comment on the complaint but said his immediate goal with the new judge, once a trial date is set, is to restore visitation rights between his clients and their child. His emergency motion for that item is still pending.

Also last week, the couple was involved in an incident with Anna Mae and her foster parents, Jerry and Louise Baker, at a Cordova-area Wal-Mart. According to Richard Gordon, Mrs. He's attorney, he was summoned to the store around noon after police were called to the scene.

While shopping with their second child, who has been living in China, the couple encountered Anna Mae and her caretaker. The Bakers were called to the store and Mrs. He was held until officers, reviewing a surveillance video, cleared her of any attempted abduction.

Memphis police spokesman LaTanya Able said incident reports have been turned over to the attorney general.

Meanwhile, the Hes face an upcoming immigration hearing next week. In that case, the hearing date had been delayed on two previous occasions to allow for a resolution in the Chancery Court matter. Mr. He lost student-residency status after graduating from the University of Memphis. n


The Blotter

Absurd crimes from the local police files.

'Tis the Season: In the last week, at least four reindeer, two wreaths with red bows, a metallic Santa valued at $500, a string of Christmas lights, something called holographic lollipop lights, and a seven-foot-tall inflatable Santa were stolen from yards around the county. After hearing a loud noise, the rightful owner of the inflatable Santa looked out and saw a car driving off with an ironically appropriate "Blow Me" sticker on the rear windshield.

A protest of the uniform policy? On December 2nd, police were called to Oakhaven High School. A student had set a white T-shirt on fire in one of the classrooms, leaving a three-foot burn mark on the tile.

So that's what they mean by joint custody: On December 6th, a woman called the police to report a $170 theft by her ex-husband. He had come by her house earlier to visit their children and left with the DVD player and two movies. When he called her later, he told her he took the DVDs and said, according to the police report, "If you give me $5 ... I will give you the pawn receipt." When she went to the pawn shop, they said her ex-husband had told them not to give them back to her. The pawn slip was tagged as evidence.

The rising cost of utilities: An apartment dweller on Provine called police December 5th because she saw a "white extension cord running from her outside electrical box into the neighbor's front door." The neighbors had done the same thing to another apartment just two days before.

-- Compiled by Mary Cashiola

Concern over Crossings

Guards and signs could be added at more schools.

By Mary Cashiola

In the past, crossing guardS have not been stationed at middle and high schools in Memphis. But when parents expressed concern about students walking high-traffic areas to reach the new American Way Middle School near the Mall of Memphis, that drew the attention of both the Memphis City Council and the Memphis City Schools board.

In September, the City Council passed a resolution calling for a review of signs and sidewalks around schools, as well as the cost of adding crossing guards to all middle schools. Last week, at the City Council Public Safety Committee meeting, Larry Godwin, deputy chief of the Memphis Police Department, estimated that putting crossing guards at middle schools would cost more than $300,000 a year.

City engineer Wain Gaskins told the safety committee that most schools have warning signs, flashing lights, or 15 mph signs. Seven schools, however, have no signs at all, and he mentioned that in 1997 the school system and city government talked about sharing the estimated $1 million to $2 million cost of adding more signs to school zones.

Nothing ever came of that discussion, but last week Gaskins said that school safety improvements will constitute a new line item in the 2005 budget. Some $36 million in school-related projects are slated for the coming years.

"I'm so glad to see the line in the budget," said council member and committee chairman TaJuan Stout Mitchell. "At least if it's in the budget it's a priority. We can identify the worst ones first and mitigate some every year."

And she zeroed in on the $300,000 figure for crossing guards. "That's a small price to pay for the safety of students going to school," she said.

The report was distributed to all council members, but no action has been taken.


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