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School district superintendent leads from the start

David Stephens rallies community to raise achievement and career prospects in a brand new district
  • LEGACY—Superintendent David Stephens led Bartlett City Schools in separating from a large county district.
  • CREATIVITY AND CAREERS—Superintendent David Stephens watches students work in a medical device manufacturing lab at Bartlett High School.
  • CREATIVITY AND CAREERS—Superintendent David Stephens watches students work in a Genius Bar enrichment class at Elmore Park Middle School.
  • ENRICHMENT TIME—In the Genius Bar at Elmore Park, a 1-to-1 building, students work on tech-related projects, such as producing shows for the school’s Eagle News Network (above). Students have also recorded promotional videos for school clubs.

BARTLETT, TENNESSEE—Only a handful of superintendents have launched a brand-new district. Even fewer have done it only months after being involved in a large-scale merger. Meet David Stephens, superintendent of Bartlett City Schools in a middle-class Memphis suburb.

Stephens—whose father, grandfather, aunt and uncle all taught in Tennessee school districts—was chosen in 2013 to lead his new suburban school system in separating from Shelby County Schools. It happened shortly after the county absorbed the previously independent and much larger Memphis city system.

Stephens, a lifelong resident of the area and a former administrator in the Memphis and Shelby County systems, was one of six area superintendents who launched a new district, and Bartlett remains the most diverse of the bunch, he says.

“When you look at choice, there are good public school choices in our county—it has caused all of us to improve,” says Stephens, referring to the impact of Tennessee’s open enrollment policies on the new districts. “We are so tied to the county and to the city of Memphis that the rising tide has lifted all boats.”

Of his 9,000 students, about 2,500 come to Bartlett’s 11 schools from outside the district. Stephens’ focus on raising ACT scores and aligning CTE programs with local industry, among other factors, convinced the state to choose him as its superintendent of the year in 2017.

Next on the agenda is the $48 million renovation of Bartlett High School, which begins in summer 2018 with funding from a property tax increase that voters approved in a landslide.

“Bartlett is not the most affluent community, so it’s not a case of haves and have-nots,” says Stephens, referring to the criticisms levelled when smaller systems break away from urban districts. “The philosophy is that government works best when it’s closest to the people.”

Bartlett City Schools by the numbers:

Schools: 11 (6 elementary, 3 middle, ninth-grade academy, 1 high school)

Students: 9,155

Staff: 970

Per-child expenditure: $9,071 (2015-16)

Students on free/reduced-price lunch: 35%

Graduation rate: 88.6%

Annual budget: $76.6 million

ACT Composite: 21.5 Named an Exemplary District by Tennessee Department of Education for 2017

How to start a school district

From the early days of the separation, the six suburban superintendents have shared administrative resources. For example, the enrollment analyst who works in Bartlett’s central office also does projections for the other suburban districts. The six systems also share purchasing and nutrition functions, among other services.

Though Bartlett had strong local support from the outset, some in the wider community doubted whether the suburbs could afford to operate the districts, Stephens says. This forced him to start lean, with a fiscally conservative approach to which he still adheres.

For instance, he and his administrators took on multiple roles, and some of his staff continue to perform a range of functions: Bartlett’s human resources director also manages federal programs. And rather than employing instruction directors for different academic subjects, Bartlett gets by with two instruction supervisors: one for elementary and another for middle and high school.

The district also deploys its top teachers to lead PD in an unconference format. Administrators survey teachers to find out what skills they want to improve and which of their colleagues they think would be the best trainer.

The conservative approach has paid off. The district now has a healthy reserve as it prepares to renovate its high school, which hasn’t seen any improvements in 40 years. The auditorium is 100 years old and the gym was built in 1950.

“This renovation would never have happened in the bigger district,” Stephens said. “Because if you did it for one high school, you would have had to do it for every high school. We can focus on our 9,000 kids and our 11 schools and really make a difference.”

Superintendent David Stephens’ Favorite Things:

Teacher: Hank Gill, 11th-grade American history

Childhood aspiration: Coaching major college basketball

Pastime/Hobby: Travel with my family and playing golf with my kids

Sports: University of Memphis football/basketball and Memphis Grizzlies basketball

Travel destination: Navarre Beach, Florida

Food: Steak

Dessert: Anything chocolate

Books: Anything written by Tom Clancy or John Grisham

Music: All the great Memphis artists

Twitter: @BCSSup

Heroes: My Dad

Quote: Any of the lines from the poem “If,” by Rudyard Kipling

A manufacturing makeover

Two well-known education acronyms—CTE and ACT—are priorities for Stephens as he focuses on students’ success during and after their K12 years. Memphis has become the hub of a unique industry: medical device and surgical tool manufacturing.

Two years ago, Stephens brought his team—including high school counselors—to learn about the qualifications and skills of employees at large local companies.

A partnership—comprising the city of Bartlett, the manufacturers and the Memphis branch of the Tennessee College of Applied Technology—has allowed the district to transform its traditional voc-tech programs, where students were “making wrought-iron fences and duck blinds,” Stephens says.

With funding from the partners and from grants, the district now has state-of-the-art mills and lathes in its manufacturing lab. Students in the medical device program dual-enroll in the tech college so they can work toward professional certifications.

In November 2017, the district also began offering continuing education classes to adults planning to change careers or to machinists looking to update skills.

“It took time and persistence but we were able to do it with hardly any cost to the district,” Stephens says.

As for the ACT, the average score has risen from 19.4 to 21.5 since the district launched. That’s above the state average, and what has Stephens even more excited is that minority students—who account for about 35 percent of Bartlett’s enrollment—scored in the top 10 out of Tennessee’s 144 districts.

To drive this achievement, the district dedicated the high school’s extended fifth period to ACT prep and offers additional, free tutoring after school.

Stephens admits he may have ruffled a few feathers when, before his district opened, he decided all ninth-graders (the district now serves about 750) would attend an academy in a building separate from the middle and high schools. Part of the reason was capacity—Stephens and the school board wanted to maintain one high school so as not to divide community support between two buildings.

The academy approach has improved attendance and behavior because ninth-graders are not at the bottom of the pecking order—they get to take on various student leadership roles that might be unavailable to them in a high school, Stephens says.

Coping with anxiety and assessments

Like many superintendents, Stephens has seen an increase in anxiety among his students. While the digital age has brought great advancements in teaching and learning, it also exposes students to far more information than they may be able to process.

“At a state meeting, when they asked what’s one thing schools need more of, somebody said ‘social workers’ to help connect families with services,” he says. “We see more kids coming with issues and problems, and if some of their basic needs aren’t taken care of, how in the world are they going to succeed academically?”

High-stakes assessments are another source of stress—and not just for students. While superintendents can try to reduce pressure on their educators, districts will still be held accountable, Stephens says.

Teacher evaluations are already tied to student outcomes, and Tennessee will introduce an A-to-F school-grading system that will assess metrics such as AP enrollment and the number of students earning college credits.

“When you try to distill a year’s experience into two or three days of testing and give a school a grade, there’s so many things a test doesn’t tell us,” he says. “Some kids, if we knew their home situations, they’re performing at an incredible rate.”

A more sensible system would give schools separate grades for different areas, such as academic performance and attendance, he says.

“We keep adding more and more regulations,” he says. “We keep adding reform on top of reform so you never know if any of it is getting traction. First, we have to build confidence in people that what we’re measuring is the right thing and it’s being done with fidelity.”

“Like a new business”

The merger and subsequent breakaways represent only the latest tectonic shift in education in Memphis and Shelby County. That Superintendent David Stephens played a key role represents a bit of family coincidence—his father, who was director of research and planning for Memphis city schools—wrote the district’s desegregation plan in the 1960s.

Stephens started his career as a science teacher, but also nurtured lofty career goals that didn’t always center on academics.

“I thought I was going to be the next big-time high school or college basketball coach,” he says. “I found out that I enjoyed teaching more than coaching.”

After becoming a high school principal and later an administrator in Memphis, he found himself helping move a 120,000-student urban district into a county system that was less than half that size. The project involved two superintendents, 23 school board members and separate systems for transportation, payroll, food service and student management, among countless other functions that had to be reorganized.  

“What I tell people is that it’s pretty easy to take these kinds of systems and put them together,” says Stephens, who, as chief of staff for the Shelby County superintendent, served on the Transition Steering Committee. “But the districts had two cultures, and it would have worked better if we had spent more time getting the people together.”

That was one among many key lessons that guided Stephens, when, shortly after the merger, the citizens of Bartlett and the other suburbs approved a sales tax increase to form their own districts by taking over the former Shelby County schools in their communities. Stephens kept every principal and administrator and 98 percent of the teachers who had worked for the county.

Stephens knew from his experience with the merger that he and his staff then had to ensure that payroll, food service, bus routes  and PD were ready on opening day.

“We didn’t just open a district and get it up and running. We were able to get it up and running, and excel,” he says. “It’s like a new business­—if at end of first year, the lights are still on, you feel like you’ve done well. We opened a business and had a line going out the door of people wanting to eat here.”

Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor.