- Meili Powell is a program specialist at ALLMemphis.
Four years ago, I moved to Memphis to become an educator.
During my training, I learned how the 2014 school secession exacerbated institutional segregation between Shelby County Schools (SCS) and districts in the surrounding municipalities.
Since 2014, the City of Memphis has relinquished its responsibility for the education of city children and shifted K-12 funding to the county, while the other municipalities have increased their direct contributions to education.
Consequently, Memphis invests less than one percent of its $700 million budget on education, with that one percent going to pre-k. Working across multiple schools, I’ve seen how this egregious inequitable distribution of resources disproportionately impacts our most vulnerable students and families.
Immersed in the powerful history of Orange Mound and South Memphis, my third and first graders were resilient students who carried generational pride.
However, many students’ motivation was often hindered by waves of anger and emotion stemming from unresolved trauma. As a result, I saw seven to nine-year-old children face cycles of punitive discipline as reactions to outbursts that had nothing to do with what was happening in the moment.
Our students deserve resources to break out of those cycles
It was a common “solution” to have them sit in another room, alone. While they might have cooled down, they had no opportunity for meaningful reflection that could have led to long-term impact.
My students needed individualized support, yet we only had a social worker available for short group sessions once a week. Similarly, we only had one counselor, and our nurse was only present once a week.
Unsurprisingly, without proper interventions, negative behavior would be repeated, resulting in students being penalized with exclusionary discipline and suspensions for unresolved trauma and losing valuable learning.
Zero-tolerance policies led to students with unaddressed traumas or mental health issues being suspended and expelled at higher rates, feeding the school-to-prison pipeline while increasing dropout rates.
The lack of mental health support available to my students is representative of our community. Shelby County has extremely high Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) scores, with 52% of adults having at least one ACE, 21% having two to three ACEs, and 12% having four or more ACEs.
From substance abuse to emotional abuse and experiencing violence, ACEs have drastic community health and economic impacts. In fact, a study by Methodist Health indicated mental health/suicide as one of the top causes of death in our county.
To address community trauma and health in a transformational way, the work must start with bold solutions in our classrooms.
Memphis should say yes to better funding
The Youth Education Success, YES, Fund concept was created in collaboration between local education stakeholders—parents, educators, community members, and advocacy groups—who came together to dream up solutions to the education inequities that plague our community.
YES Fund allocations would prioritize increasing resources to improve for critical milestones of childhood development, including third-grade reading, ninth-grade success, and postsecondary readiness and access. Additionally, the YES fund investments would work to increase mental health resources, social workers, and nurses.
I’ve seen how lack of access to consistent health professionals results in chronic absenteeism, causing students to fall further behind. Currently, Shelby County’s average ratio is 414 students to one social worker, compared to the recommended 250 to one, according to the School Social Work Association of America. Shelby County’s average ratio is 1,207 students to one nurse, compared to the recommended ratio of 750 to one, according to the American Nurses Association.
However, with the chronic health conditions existing in Memphis—such as diabetes, obesity, and high asthma rates—one nurse per school is recommended to have the most impact.
The YES Fund would help ensure the effectiveness of this impact by making an investment to scale up an existing pilot model, which includes one nurse in every school and decreases the large ratio of social workers to students.
A second investment proposed under the YES Fund is implementing more trauma-responsive ReSet Rooms, an alternative to in-school suspension that provides an intentional de-escalation space for students to meaningfully reflect, develop coping skills, and engage in activities with trauma-informed specialists.
Examples across Memphis show that if students have access to ReSet Rooms and engage in restorative practices, there is a significant reduction in severe behaviors and suspensions. In fact, in the 30 SCS schools that have ReSet Rooms currently, the number of suspensions declined to 15% of the student population from 19% the previous year.
Reflecting on my time in the classroom, I think about what a disservice it was to my students who had trouble focusing and processing new information that they weren’t given the intentional space or individual attention from trained staff on how to productively manage their emotions.
During the 2019-2020 school year, over $5 million dollars was spent on about 130 in-house school resource officers, which includes sheriff’s deputies. In comparison, implementing an additional 30 ReSet Rooms schools in SCS would only cost approximately $2.2 million.
Investing in the development of youth’s conflict resolution, social-emotional, and decision-making capabilities provides an opportunity to close entry points to the criminal justice system.
Most importantly, with the YES Fund’s goal of having a ReSet Room in every school by 2025, our district can prioritize our students’ wellbeing to allow them to thrive academically while preparing them with lifelong skills to be productive citizens.
Memphis educators and schools deserve to be better supported. Memphis students and families deserve so much more than what our system currently offers. The Memphis moral budget proposal that includes YES Fund priorities along with other investments reflect the needs of our young people and our most underserved communities.
Meili Powell is a program specialist at ALLMemphis.