ANDREA DANDRIDGE

 When it was time to bring on employees at the Fortune 500 company where she worked, managers had the same gripes. They “always complained about the residents of Memphis notbeing hire-able. And it started to bother me that they didn’t see my people as hire-able.”

Dandridge defines her people as the families in the virtuallyall-black South Memphis community where she’s attended church her entire life. “I don’t want there to be another child in Memphis who goes into the workplace not able to read or write and be labeled as unhire-able.” So Dandridge, 42, followed in the footsteps of her mother, aunt and uncle and became a teacher. I

Over the years, she’s watched the neighborhood change,asa shrinking population shuttered several schools andblack-owned businesses that were sources of pride, employment andopportunity. And for the past three years as a fourth-gradeteacher at Riverview Elementary, where 85 percent of her students are economically disadvantaged, she’s seen how the decline hurts her students. 

In February, a nearby grocery store school closed, creating a food desert. “There was a bank in there, there was a pharmacy in there, they were using that store to get their medication or their children’s medications,” Dandridge said. “I have some students who were able to walk up there to the store, or it wasn’t much of a bus ride and now, they don’t have anything.”

In the end, it was the troubling remarks Andrea Dandridge heard on her job in human resources that pushed her out of corporate America and into the classroom.

One morning, Dandridge spotted him digging through a trash can at a nearby park. School administrators notified child protective services and ultimately, the boy and his siblings were taken from their mother and placed in a foster home across town. Despite her students’ challenges, Dandridge sees their strengths and admires their resilience. “They are bright and they are innovative, because they come up with ways to work things out that some adults might crumble under.”

According to the Tennessee Department of Education, Riverview is “approaching average effectiveness,” meaning that students are making less progress than academic standards require. Currently the school has interventionists for children who are in special education, and also for students who score in the bottom 5 percent based on state tests, which Dandridge argues is a flawed threshold.

“If all of them are at the bottom, then the bottom five is just the lowest of the low,” she said. If money were no issue, Dandridge would put full-time interventionists in each classroom. But money is an issue, particularly state funding, said Shelby County Schools’ chief financial officer Lin Johnson.

Tennessee’s Basic Education Program (BEP) sets aside a quarter of the state’s total budget, or more than $4.5 billion, to public schools. For the 2017-18 school year, the state of Tennessee allocated nearly $600 million to Shelby County Schools. But not only has the state failed to fully fund public schools according to the formula, “the formula does not take into account that students are not all the same and that because of that, some students may require more resources than others,” Johnson said.

With more than 109,000 students, Shelby County Schools is the largest district in the state. It anchors the poorest large metropolitan area in the nation. “At least 40,000 of our households in Memphis are under the poverty line,” Johnson said, which is $25,100 for a family of four. He stressed that this is no excuse. “We believe that all of our kids can and will be successful and we’re preparing them for that success.”

Still, nearly 60 percent of the district’s students are economically disadvantaged, about 12 percent qualify for special education services and just under 10 percent are English language learners. Equity requires a funding formula that recognizes that reality. In this year’s proposed budget, Johnson said, Shelby County Schools invested about $16 million to help students with social/emotional needs, including money for 10 behavior specialists, 35 guidance
counselors and several truancy specialists.

“The needs in Shelby County are greater than in Tennessee and across the country,” Johnson said. “Because of those needs, we understand that more supports are needed to prepare our students for the success we know they’ll achieve.” Or as Dandridge says of her students: “They don’t need to be perfect people, they can be imperfect people who get the perfect opportunity.”