North Memphis

Memphis principals share their fears and steps they're taking to keep kids in school from home

Schools across the Mid-South are closed indefinitely due to the rapid spread of COVID-19. Most schools have set returns dates in April, but it's a real possibility students won't return until fall. 

Principals, teachers, and parents in Memphis and across the country are suddenly finding themselves in need of home-based education alternatives. They need them quick and they may need them long-term. 

For most principals and other school leader, this is uncharted territory. They're grappling with how to keep their school communities connected and kids engaged. From online learning to meal assistance and technology support, there's a lot to consider. 

High Ground sat down with three North Memphis school principals serving elementary, middle, and high school students. We asked how they're coping and what they're doing to keep students, parents, and staff learning together during a national crisis.

While parents of every ilk are finding themselves in similar situations, low-income communities like North Memphis are compounding a number of existing barriers with these new, COVID-related challenges. Kids don't have consistent access to food without free school meals and will struggle to learn if they're hungry. Many families have little or no access to virtual learning need like a home computers or reliable WiFi. Some parents struggle with their own reading and comprehension, which are necessary to homeschooling their children. They can't afford to hire tutors or other aids to assist. 

All three principals expressed the same. Students who are already struggling to meet learning goals will suffer the most from the weeks or months away from their classrooms. Principals and staffs have a daunting task ahead, but they're determined to rise to the challenge.

[Note: Some responses edited for length with minor edits for clarity.]


DEADRE USSERY

Perea Elementary School in Klondike, North Memphis
Grades: K-2
Deadre Ussery is the principal of Perea Elementary, located at 1250 Vollintine Avenue in North Memphis. (Perea Elementary)

How are you doing with all the uncertainty?
It has been an adjustment. I’m concerned about students. I’m concerned about families. I’m concerned about the faculty and staff and their well being.

Since the announcement on March 12, my thought's been, 'how do I support all of those groups?' It has made me more mindful of the needs of the community. And it’s made me realize that even though we are closing gaps, the gaps are very wide.

What happens if students don’t return until fall?
We know if we don’t return this semester and if there is nothing in place over the summer, then the gaps are going to be wider than when they left us.

Many of your students have tech gaps—no home computer, limited internet access, etc. What are you doing to help your families adjust to remote learning?
Right now, we are focused on paper and pencil and not requiring parents to go online. Since our students are kindergarten and first graders, we know how important those foundational years are for our students. The work that we’re sending home is a solid reinforcement of those foundational skills. We also try to balance the academics with the social-emotional. We don’t want to go full force with the academics without providing that social-emotional support.

[Note: Perea plans to add second grade when their current first graders advance.]

What else is on your mind right now?
I just want people to know that the Klondike and Smokey City communities are gems within Memphis. This is a place where children are loved, families support one another, and educators work to close the opportunity gap for not only children but the adults as well.
 

DANNY SONG

Believe Memphis Academy in Klondike, North Memphis
Grades: 4-8

Danny Song founded Believe Memphis Academy in 2018. The school shares a building with Perea Elementary. (Katie Cooper)
How are you processing the pandemic?
As a school leader, I’m feeling a variety of things: guilt that I’m not doing enough, thankfulness to be a part of a team, questions of how long is this going to last, and optimism that we will come out on the other side of this.

I think a pandemic like this really amplifies both the needs and inequities that exist in our city. It also amplifies the village mentality that our community has to take care of our children.

How are you supporting families while the school is closed?
We’ve had several calls with our partners like Whole Child Strategies, Neighborhood Christian Center and Perea Elementary. This week we became a food pick-up location for families. Families were able to pick up a week’s worth of food for their entire household. That’s for anyone who goes to Believe or Perea or that lives in the neighborhood.

Things are constantly changing. How do you lead in the midst of such uncertainty?
When we do nothing, inequity expands. In this really extreme pandemic state, it feels like—it’s not true but it feels—we’re being forced to do nothing because we can’t have school. No one is really clear on how we win or what “wins” look like.

But I think there is a sliver of opportunity that we can take advantage of during this crisis. We can define small wins for our students. A small win for us is continuing to develop a strong school culture, albeit virtually.
 

ANDREW BOBOWSKI

KIPP Memphis Collegiate High in Springdale-University Lane, North Memphis
Grades: 9- 12

Andrew Bobowski serves as the principal of KIPP Memphis Collegiate High, located at 2110 Howell Avenue in North Memphis. (Elizabeth Hoard Photography)
The city is sheltering in place. Parents are trying to maintain normalcy and balance across work, school, and family. How are you helping your KIPP family?
At KIPP, we are trying to set up routine structures in our school day. For example, we started doing Facebook live announcements at 9 o’clock every day. Our first video from this week already has 500 views! We’ve set up a general structure that we’re asking kids to follow. If they can follow it, great. If they can’t, they’ll just be responsible for getting their work done.

We also set virtual work norms with our staff. One is 'pets, kids and casual dress are encouraged!' When we’re on video calls, you’ll see all of these dogs, cats, and kids make all of these cameos. We’re trying to celebrate it and be cool with it.

How are you coping in your own household?
I'm making sure I can be present for my family. I have to do my best to set a schedule for myself. I’m not doing any homeschooling, but with a three-month old, I have to sync with my wife to determine who’s on baby duty.

How are you helping students navigate classrooms that are now online?
For our older kids, we actually have an opportunity to set up the coursework like a college. Students have classes on Mondays and Wednesdays or Tuesday and Thursdays. We say, 'Here’s what you need to do on your own. Here’s when it’s due, so many days out.'

Our 12th grade teachers have all done this. They are an amazing group. They are sending a message to their kids—this is actually an opportunity to equip you with a different set of habits and skills.

It must be especially hard knowing seniors won't have the final year they envisioned.
Our kids have worked so hard to get where they are, particularly our seniors. Just the thought of them missing out on a traditional graduation ceremony or prom or KIPP’s College Decision Day hurts. Decision Day is one of the biggest school events in the region and brings thousands of people together. If our kids don’t get to participate in that, it’s really sad.

With that, I believe it is still our responsibility to create a meaningful experience for them even if the traditional graduation or Decision Day can’t happen.


On the Ground: North Memphis  is an embedded neighborhood journalism series running January-July 2020. The series shines light on people, organizations, and businesses addressing the area's biggest challenges and making North Memphis a great place to live, work, and play.

Read more articles by Ashley Davis.

Ashley Foxx Davis is an author, educator, artist and Memphis native. She's been featured in Glamour, Ebony, and Essence magazines; Blackenterprise.com; TheRoot.com; and BET.com. Find her at kifanipress.com.
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