Achievement Gap

This Memphis School Cheated and Lied and It's the Students of Color Who Lose

In a world of extreme inequity in education, low-income students and parents may not expect very much of their schools, but they at least deserve to know the truth. Schools, on the other hand, too often hide the truth and the victims of these lies are the children and their families who have invested their greatest hopes and dreams in educational success.

Unhappy Holidays

This holiday season, instead of enjoying a break from the arduous first half of the school year, Memphis students and families will feel a sense of unease—wondering if they were casualties of a messy grading scandal unfolding in the Shelby County School (SCS) District that has already cost the principal who blew the whistle his job. A 258-page report written by a law firm retained by the district to investigate false grading alleges that 53 students at Trezevant High School were allowed to graduate through illegal grade changes. The report further alleges that, between 2012 and 2016, as many as 200 students may have graduated from Memphis high schools based on false grades.

Silent No Longer

Teachers are speaking out anonymously—saying that they were instructed and forced by school leadership to change failing grades to passing ones. The most recent culprit is the principal from Hamilton High School who has been suspended. Other schools implicated are Kirby, Raleigh-Egypt, Bolton, Power Center Academy, Arlington, Memphis Virtual School, Westwood and White Station. This grading scandal has prompted SCS to re-evaluate and suspend its policies on grade floors, a practice that allows teachers to give students a higher grade than they actually earned. In the past, principals had the autonomy to set their schools’ grade floor, for example, designating a 55 or even a 50 as a passing grade, even though we all know it’s an F. Back in November, the superintendent of SCS defended grade floors, saying they “ help students succeed and not drop out.” So basically, this policy pats them on the back and tells them they’re doing well when they’re actually failing. School board member Stephanie Love isn’t marching to that tune. “We are going to make sure this doesn't happen again, and the way we do that is to make sure the superintendent understands what happened was a disservice to our children,” Love said. Naturally, parents, students and community members are very disturbed and upset by this discovery, including Tresevant 12th-grader Maunderica Brooks. “I think it affected many, honestly, not me in general, but others,” Brooks said. “Now that I hear the whole story it kind of makes sense. Many people that I know, I questioned, ‘How did they graduate?’ knowing many of them didn’t work.” Brooks was hopeful about her own school, however, adding, “There were many schools that have been in this situation, but our school, I feel it won’t happen this year because our principal seems like he really wants us to excel and to apply ourselves.” Mendell Grinter, a community leader and the executive director of Campaign for School Equity, also expressed disappointment. “It’s a real disservice to the students...to have them think that they’re excelling and they’re not impacts their confidence and ability to secure opportunities in the future,” Grinter said. Mendell hopes this encourages people to become more active. He believes there is a lot of untapped potential in Memphis—and for that to be cultivated, students have to be educated and prepared to succeed. All in all, it’s a sad situation that affirms the belief gap and the culture of low expectations for low-income students of color. They have been losing this race for years—not because they can’t run it but because they haven’t been prepared to compete, and too many adults don’t think they can win and refuse to cheer them on. So, instead, these schools give the kids a trophy and tell them they’ve won the race when really, they’re falling behind and won’t ever catch up. Teachers point fingers at principals, principals point at the district and the district doesn’t know where to point the finger so they use bad policy decisions as their scapegoat. Here’s another idea: All the adults in the system should look in the mirror and recognize that they are all accountable for student achievement. Anyone who knowingly participates in a scheme that hinders students’ opportunity to learn is responsible for their failure.
Tanesha Peeples
Tanesha Peeples is driven by one question in her work—“If not me, then who?” As the former Deputy Director of Activist Development for brightbeam, Tanesha merges the worlds of communications and grassroots activism to push for change in the public education system. Her passion for community and relentless mission for justice and liberation drive her in uplifting and amplifying the voices and ...

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