Student Well-Being

Memphis: A District Under Emotional Renovation

By Jessica Portner — April 19, 2000 5 min read
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Architectural terminology glides easily off Barbara Jones’ tongue. Metaphors of renovation come in handy, the associate superintendent of the Memphis public schools said last fall, when she began a campaign to systematically knock down the administrative barriers that stand between students and their emotional needs.

PART II: April 19, 2000
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Prevention: Los Angeles
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One School Strives
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Memphis: A District Under Emotional Renovation

S.D. Psychologist
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Budget Battles
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PART I: April 12, 2000
Image Complex Set of Ills Spurs Rising Teen Suicide Rate

About This Series
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The students in this district are generally poor, estranged from the health- care system, and living in neighborhoods plagued by gang warfare. The suicide rate among Memphis teenagers is above the national average. When and if they arrive at school, students need help with more than their reading, writing, and arithmetic, Ms. Jones said.

“We have to get a grip on kids to keep them from falling through the cracks,” she told more than 200 school psychologists, social workers, principals, and teachers at a training session held earlier this school year to explain the district’s ambitious remodeling plan. “If children don’t have a sense of emotional stability... if they have been exposed to trauma, they can’t just come in and do math,” she said.

Last fall, Memphis became the first school district to adopt an experimental program of fully coordinated support services—from health to conflict resolution to suicide prevention—that was conceived by University of California, Los Angeles, psychology professor Howard Adelman. His approach has been tested only in a single school in Los Angeles, but with promising results. If changing just one school’s social-service structure was challenging, Mr. Adelman said, then altering a whole district’s operations is particularly arduous.

But Ms. Jones seems to have the zeal for the job.

At the daylong training session at a hotel here, the school workers plow through 4-inch-thick binders stuffed with charts detailing the new organizational structure. Each staff member in the room, Ms. Jones explains, will be assigned to one of nine area teams within the district; each team will be headed by a newly appointed area administrator, who will make sure the operation runs smoothly.

This bolstered, streamlined system, Ms. Jones said, will ensure that everyone who has contact with a child—teachers, principal, counselor, custodian, nurse—shares information on a regular basis, and that a clear paper trail follows students who move from school to school.

The district is planning to hire 16 behavioral specialists and three more student and family specialists to conduct the time-consuming student assessments used to determine whether a child has a behavioral or emotional disorder. Newly hired aides will handle the phone-heavy task of tracking down parents to remind them to bring children to their appointments.

In addition, the district plans to recruit unpaid interns from psychology graduate departments at local universities. The idea is that the interns will free up the district’s social workers and psychologists to provide more counseling of troubled students. More one-on-one time with counselors will, administrators here hope, help resolve problems that can prompt students to lash out at others or take their own lives.

Bolstering Personnel

Currently, the 116,000-student district employs 48 school psychologists and 28 social workers, well below the ratio of one mental-health professional to 1,000 students that school health experts recommend. Arthur Hall, the principal at A.B. Hill Elementary School, said the counselors at his 585-student school are overwhelmed by children with serious family problems who can ill-afford private psychiatric care.

He recalled a recent case in which one of his students would fall asleep in class because her mother’s boyfriend had sexually abused her and she was afraid to go to sleep at night. It took a full week to get the county to send over a counselor, Mr. Hall said. The student’s problems would have been handled more swiftly if a school psychologist had been on hand, he said.

Under the new organization, a school psychologist will visit two or three times a week, instead of one, and thus will be able to see more students. “Kids won’t have to sit around in the counseling office” waiting for help, Mr. Hall said.

School psychologists applaud the new system because it de-emphasizes the most bureaucratic and often least rewarding part of their job.

Some 60 percent of a Memphis school psychologist’s work consists of conducting student assessments. Those tests are used to diagnose dozens of complicated behavioral and emotional disorders and learning disabilities; the results are used to determine a child’s placement in school. Whether a child is placed in special education, for example, depends primarily on such evaluations.

With additional personnel to administer the tests, mental-health workers will have more time to work with students on behavior modification, anger management, and individual counseling.

As most homeowners who have been through one will attest, remodeling jobs aren’t inexpensive. The Memphis district expects this effort to cost $1 million. But through a $325,000 rise in revenue from a recent tax increase, a few foundation grants, and reshuffling staff, the district is striving to do much with little. District officials plan to budget money for an evaluation as well as to test whether the changes have an impact in the long run on students’ grades, behavior, and sense of well-being.

It will also take some work to overcome the argument that emotional caretaking is more than schools can or should have to take on.

Some teachers and principals at the fall training privately grumbled after a session about the task ahead. Many said that other measures, such as increases in the teaching staff to shrink class sizes, would be a better use of precious district dollars.

But of such reservations, Ms. Jones said: “Kids are more than funnels to stuff academic knowledge into. We need to figure out how to do more.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 19, 2000 edition of Education Week as Memphis: A District Under Emotional Renovation


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