MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Teacher salary, chronic absenteeism, literacy and more were several topics highlighted during Memphis Shelby County Schools State of the District address.

Toni Williams, Interim Superintendent for MSCS, took the opportunity Tuesday morning to update district, city and state leaders.

Notably mentioned, Williams said it was time to go from “Re-Imagining 901” to “Transforming the 901.” “Re-imagining 901” had been the ongoing slogan for the district put in place by former Superintendent Joris Ray.

Williams highlighted many successes the school district achieved in the last year.

“For the first time since the 2015 school year, MSCS is a level 5 school district, the highest distinction available,” Williams said to a packed auditorium.

Williams mentioned plans to invest in teachers in the next year. Pending board approval, the plan is to increase teacher salary.

“We will invest an additional $27.3 million in teacher salary,” said Williams.

Williams also said the district is exploring ways to set the starting pay for new teachers at $50,000.

Williams updated that the scores from the TCAP test students took last year is showing that students are starting to recover from the losses of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Williams mentioned that the district has 3,500 students enrolled in advanced courses.

Even with the highs, Williams also took time to address issues the district is still facing.

Williams recognized that there is a large portion of students that need additional resources to succeed.

“80% of our students need extra resources, extra time to get on track,” said Williams.

Williams then jumped into the issue of chronic absenteeism. Data provided by the district showed MSCS with a chronic absenteeism rate of 25.5% for 2022. The data showed other large districts in Tennessee had a higher chronic absenteeism rate than MSCS.

“It’s not hard to understand that if they don’t show up, they can’t succeed,” said Williams.

Williams updated those in attendance to the address the steps the district is taking to lower chronic absenteeism. Williams mentioned the attendance task force has reconvened. Williams also mentioned that the district must help break down barriers that are preventing students from coming to school.

Williams said the district is utilizing technology to help.

“Now, when parents receive a message about their child missing school, we’re connecting them to a state database with services in their community such as food pantries, healthcare clinics,” said Williams.

Williams said the district is also sending out automated district notices to parents of students who have 3 or more absences. Those numbers are also being added to student report cards. Williams also noted several partnerships the district is participating in. Partnerships include Juvenile Court Judge Sugarmon who creates a dedicated docket for absences. Other partnerships mentioned include Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy to prosecute when the district has exhausted all efforts.

On the topic of literacy, Williams made sure to mention the new retention law in Tennessee. The law states that a 3rd grade student must test proficient in English in order to move on to the 4th grade.

Williams acknowledged literacy as an area the district needs a lot of help in.

Williams also highlighted several steps the district has already taken to help students.

“We’ve invested more than 30 million dollars in 750 specialized education assistants in grades K-2,” said Williams.

Williams said in the first year, those investments are paying off.

“We made double, double-digit gains in ELA scores and math. We’re trending up.”

However, Williams called on the community and parents to help continue the trend upward.

“We need more tutors, parents and guardians, we need you to sign students up for tutors,” said Williams.

Williams also touched on improvements the district is working to make in order to make campuses safer for students and staff. Within a new pilot program, a few MSCS schools received technology upgrades. Those upgrades included metal detectors and a weapons detection system.

In order to place these improvements in all schools, Williams said it would cost upwards of $50 million.

Williams also provided an update on the new high school planned in Cordova. Williams said the district has secured $77 million in funding. The price tag for the new school though is $125 million.

On top of the new school, Williams said the district will be announcing a 10-year infrastructure plan in the future.

The district wants to receive feedback from the community and stakeholders first.

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