Alcy Elementary uses holiday fun to boost reading

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier

At Alcy Elementary, a school up for closure as recently as last year, and where only 24 percent of the students are reading on grade level, hosting an event where 300 people show up to read to students was enough to bring the principal to tears.

“This is the largest turnout we’ve had so far and I’m so grateful to all of you,” Principal Sunya Payne told the group earlier this month. “I always wanted one adult to be assigned to one student.”

The 7th annual Read Around the Christmas Tree event was held Dec. 12 in the school’s cafeteria. The purpose of the event was twofold: to reinforce the importance of literacy, and to give students books to take home.

Volunteers came from all walks of life: a former Alcy student, now grown, and his mother, a teacher at the Lichterman Nature Center, and representatives from sororities, fraternities and various civic groups and businesses.

Alcy was one of 13 Shelby County Schools officials considered for closure last year, not just for academic deficiencies, but also because the district hoped to cut from its budget the $1.2 million cost of maintaining the building.

A focus on improving literacy is how the school managed an almost 10 percentage point jump on state reading tests earlier this year.

But there’s still a long way to go: even with those gains, just over 75 percent of Alcy’s students are reading at a below basic or basic level.

Alcy students are fairing better in math with 35.3 percent of students proficient and advanced on the 2014 TCAP, which is an 11.2 percentage point improvement over 2013. Still, that leaves almost two out of three Alcy students performing at below basic and basic level in math.

“Literacy was the area where we declined (in 2012-13), but during 2013-14 we came out of the bottom 5 percent and with the help of community support, the school stayed open,” Payne said.  “We were all in this effort together.”

The pressure is on to continue the momentum and move the struggling readers to higher ground.

“The pressure is intense,” Payne said.  “When the district was considering us for closure, we had a talk, as a team, and decided how we were going to work together. Each of my teachers build each other strength.  They work after hours with students and on Saturdays without pay. We use a variety of strategies to meet students where they are and take them to the next level.”

In one example of the school’s teaching strategies, Alcy teachers model the expectation of a lesson, practice it with students and check for their understanding. The school also is part of the district’s blended learning pilot to use laptops in classroom instruction. Students will use the technology in math and reading beginning in January.

Alcy offers students before and after-school tutoring and started Saturday school a month ago. Many Shelby County Schools that are working their way off, of trying to stay off, the state’s priority list are using similar strategies, hoping it will have a positive impact on student achievement. The Tennessee Department of Education updates its priority list every three years. The list consists of the lowest 5 percent of schools as measured by standardized test scores. Alcy was on the state’s priority list in 2012-13, but the school earned its way off the latest priority list released in August.

Another feature of Alcy’s work to improve student achievement is the involvement of parents and the business community.

“We realized that some of our parents couldn’t help their children with their work because they needed help themselves,” Payne said.  “So we started a GED program for parents.”

Alcy receives help from two local businesses: Barnheart and Crane and Supply Chain Solutions. Barnheart and Crane supplies instructional materials, Smartboards, school supplies, cd players and the company rented the chairs that were used during the Read Around the Christmas Tree event. Supply Chain Solutions pays its employees to come and tutor our students in reading and math during the school day. Payne said.

During the reading event, Dory Lerner, a teacher at the Lichterman Nature Center, read to third-grader Andria Nunnally. Lerner brought two books, “If You Take a Mouse to the Movies” and “Big Tracks, Little Tracks” as presents for Nunnally. Ursula Fullilove and her son Joshua Erby, volunteered as well, providing books from the Olivia adventure series.

“Reading wasn’t my favorite subject, but I know it’s important to know how to read well,” said Erby, who was a student at Alcy 10 years ago.

Fullilove, who was part of the community effort to save the school from closure. supports the school and its teaching staff.

“There is a lot of support for this school,” Fullilove said.  “Whenever they call or need anything, volunteers show up.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”