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3 R's and an 'O' -- online -- up next for Memphis City Schools

"We're using online sources to get children oriented to college and work force life, where a whole bunch of training and learning is happening online," said Deputy Supt. Irving Hamer.

Let's see: In November 2009, the Memphis city school board accepted a $90 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, along with $1.9 million in companion funds.

More details here.

Then in March 2010, Tennessee won in Round 1 of Race to the Top. In Arne Duncan's words the two winners "have statewide buy-in for comprehensive plans to reform their schools. They have written new laws to support their policies. And they have demonstrated the courage, capacity, and commitment to turn their ideas into practices that can improve outcomes for students."

Tennessee will receive $500 million to implement their "comprehensive school reform plans" over the next four years.

The result of the money windfall so far in Memphis: require students (starting in Grade 6) to take online courses, fire aides, and require every district employee to take a two-day furlough.

I can't say that I'm sad they cut the budget for workbooks and paper used for worksheets. I've long claimed that the greatest quick school reform would be to lock up the copy machines.

The Memphis superintendent was formerly chief of accountability and systemwide performance for Miami-Dade County (Fla.) Public Schools.

Reader Comment: My god. I would say that this is intended to eliminate teacher jobs, if it weren't for the fact that this will never work, and Cash, without a doubt, knows that. If teachers have a problem "managing" students while reading the lesson plan scripts the district gives them, why would anyone expect those same students to learn in front of a computer screen?

I can't see any reason for this decision other than to siphon off money to private entities.

By Daniel Connolly

Memphis City Schools Supt. Kriner Cash says new online, distance-learning technology should lead to radical shifts in how schools are structured and his administration plans to move toward a new model of teaching over the next several years.

Cash touched on the changes during a presentation of the MCS budget Wednesday to the Shelby County Commission, one of the entities that funds local schools.

The district is asking the county for $255 million, the same amount it got last year. Commissioners won't cast school-funding votes until later.

Cash also said the 107,000-student system will have to shut down some schools, but didn't elaborate.

This year, the district closed Caldwell Elementary, a move that will send its students to Guthrie Elementary. In 1999, Guthrie and Caldwell had a combined enrollment of 1,418. This year, there were fewer than 500 students.

"You're going to see school closures," Cash announced, saying the system can't continue to operate schools that were small to begin with or that now have fewer students than they were supposed to hold.

With revenues uncertain, the superintendent said, the school system can't continue to make incremental cuts.

"What that means is, in short, that we have to completely reorganize the structure of the organization," Cash said.

"The delivery model goes back to the postindustrial 19th century," he said. In many ways, schools haven't changed since the late 1800s -- a teacher talks to students who sit in chairs, he said. The teacher reports to a principal, who reports to outside administrators.

"With technological innovations that we have today, we can deliver the courses online, facilitated by top-flight teachers," he said.

The process will start in the 2010-11 school year with additional computer-based learning tools in certain schools, Cash said. There will be more changes in the future.

"It's a ramp-up. It's going to take several years," he said.

In 2008, shortly after Cash arrived, the school board approved $679,000 in licensing and maintenance fees for 34 online courses. On Monday night, the board amended the contract with Florida Virtual School, adding seven more courses at a cost of $124,900.

With the addition, the city schools will have 31 online courses for grades 8-12 and 12 courses for grades 6-8.

Starting next year, students will be required to take at least one of the online courses to graduate.

"We're using online sources to get children oriented to college and work force life, where a whole bunch of training and learning is happening online," said Deputy Supt. Irving Hamer.

Last week, the school board voted in favor of a 2010-11 budget that would cut 584 positions, most of them teachers' aides. The figure includes eliminating 171 positions that are currently vacant.

The budget also requires all employees to take two-day unpaid furloughs.

Cash said the cuts are necessary because the city of Memphis decided to reduce funding because the county has kept its funding flat and because interest rates are lower.

Even with the cuts, the schools' $888 million general fund budget is about 1 percent larger than last year's.

The system negotiated 1 percent salary increases for staffers last year, Cash said.

— Daniel Connolly
Commercial Appeal





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