Inspired in Memphis
At the end of August, I had the pleasure of visiting the Shelby County School District’s I-Zone (Innovation Zone) in Memphis, Tennessee. The I-Zone is designed to move schools from the bottom 5 percent to the top 25 percent in the state. (See the I-Zone webpage at http://www.scsk12.org/izone/). I had the pleasure of observing teachers, meeting principals, engaging with students, and listening to administrators as they dove into the work of improving school culture, curriculum, and instruction. I saw educators who faced huge challenges stemming from poverty, racial issues, urbanicity, and the frustrations associated with years of failure; yet, who believed in the potential of the students they served and believed in their collective capacity to make a powerful educational difference. It was clear to me that there were huge challenges ahead as these schools sought to transform systems in ways that would ensure the success of every child, but I left feeling affirmed that we share a remarkable profession. Perhaps, more than any other profession, we have the unique opportunity to positively influence the trajectory of millions of young lives.
At the beginning of a school year, it is easy to resume old routines and pursue tasks with the same strategies used in prior years. Certainly, if we started each new school year as if it were our first, we would miss opportunities to utilize the knowledge created by our experience. On the other hand, if we rely too heavily on old routines and patterns, we are likely to generate results similar to those we previously achieved. When I visited the I-Zone, I observed educators who were bravely trying new practices to encourage their students to express their thoughts. I observed principals who were utilizing new approaches to support teachers. I spoke with district leaders who were questioning their own practices and looking for solutions that would support teachers, principals, and other school personnel. Admittedly, I saw some folks who were struggling to figure out what to do and how to do it; however, a critical mass of educators had committed themselves to finding the answers that would lead many more students to educational success. I saw an urgency to improve educational practice coupled with a resolve to focus on data and make smart decisions that would benefit children.
Our studies of high-performing urban schools suggest that while some teaching practices and leadership practices can make a powerful difference, so much is influenced by the extent to which students and families perceive that school personnel are committed to their success. As well, so much is influenced by the extent to which school personnel are convinced that school and district leaders are committed to their success. I am thrilled to see the Shelby County Schools take major steps to provide high-quality support for struggling schools. I am in awe of educators (at all levels of the system) who have chosen to dedicate themselves to making a difference. Let’s all follow Shelby County’s lead and re-commit ourselves to doing our utmost to ensure the success of every child we have the privilege to serve this year!