Arlington schools gear up for 2014-2015

Arlington school superintendent Tammy Mason

Tammy Mason
Click here for a brief biography.

Good enrollment numbers, shared services, and eager community support have Arlington Community Schools on track for the 2014-2015 school year, according to superintendent Tammy Mason.

Enrollment night participation gave the district the accurate numbers to plan staffing. The new school district issued letters of intent Monday for all teachers who will be retained. Fewer than five current teachers were not offered positions with the new district.

Mason provided a quick look at the student numbers, based on the latest district estimates:

  • About 4,750 students district-wide, up from the feasibility study’s projection of 4,371, including:
    • Non-resident students accepted as transfers: More than 600, mostly for Donelson Elementary and Arlington High School (AHS)
    • Non-resident students accepted on a tuition basis: More than 70 Fayette County students

The inter-local agreement and long-range planning

An inter-local agreement between Arlington and Lakeland municipal school districts will allow Lakeland’s middle and high school students to attend Arlington schools for the next seven years, giving the smaller Lakeland district time to build for its older students. Lakeland currently has only an elementary school but is projected to grow.

The Lakeland School System’s superintendent, Dr. Ted Horrell, says his district’s long-range plans will include building either a middle school or a combination junior/senior high school before the agreement period ends.

Mason expects to be able to accommodate Lakeland’s middle and high school students at least through the agreement period and to have room for high school students even beyond that.

She is currently working with Nedra Jones, the shared-services school district planner, and Heather Sparkes, Arlington town planner, on long-range plans, but she doesn’t anticipate zoning changes immediately.

The two elementary schools could have zoning changes in two or three years based on the town’s growth. Mason explained that some new apartments are being built that would be zoned to Arlington Elementary, which already has about 250 more students than Donelson Elementary has. She plans to involve the community’s feedback in adjusting any proposed changes.

For now, she has focused most intently on AHS, based on its high attendance projections. Just the anticipated Arlington and Lakeland students alone added up to more than 1,500 before transfers were considered.

Ideally, the high school will have around 2,000 students but no more than 2,200, she said.

And the high school is right on target. The in-district enrollees plus transfer applications already total 1,922 high-school students. The district has identified about 120 additional Arlington or Lakeland teens currently at the high school who have not enrolled in the ACS district yet.

“So we’re pretty confident we’re going to be about 2,000,” Mason said. “…We wanted to stay around that 2,000 range to continue to offer the wide variety of different clubs, athletics, and the different courses we have. So we’re really pleased.”

About 1,160 students have enrolled at Arlington Middle School, and only about 50 are non-residents, she said. The latest projections are for about 1,255 middle-schoolers. Both the middle school and Arlington Elementary are now closed for non-resident applications.

Challenges of a new district

To date, the district’s greatest challenges have been getting accurate student projections, staffing, developing the infrastructure, building a policy manual from scratch (currently about 65% complete), and particularly budgeting without a previous year’s budget to work from, Mason said.

Each element of the budget has details that must be explored, priced, compared, and chosen.

“And you’re looking at doing that for every single facet of school operations,” Mason said. “We’re pleased at where we are, but that’s been probably one of our biggest challenges.”

She expects to do a joint budget presentation on May 12 for Arlington’s school and city boards. Right now, the largest item outstanding is transportation, which is still being finalized. It will be outsourced as one of the services shared with other new area municipal school districts.

Saving with shared services

The shared services are breaking ground in Tennessee, she said — helping the districts economize by negotiating as a larger entity in operational areas while maintaining local control in the critical areas of curriculum and student services.

“There’s not another group of school systems that have banded together and put together the shared services like we have.”

For the shared services, Arlington will be hosting access control and security, as well as the CTE (the career and technology supervisor).

She noted that outsourced services will not compromise district standards.

“The companies that we will hire will be obligated to follow the policies that our district puts in place,” Mason said. “It does not allow them not to follow our policies.”

For example, her student services department will train bus drivers, and the special education supervisor will provide additional training for any special education drivers and the staff on the buses.

“It’s important that there’s a partnership,” she said. “And it’s our job to make sure that we educate and train whoever we outsource with to know and understand what our policies and procedures are so that they’re followed within our district.”

What it’s like to lead

MASON-SIDEBAR1 copyWith launching a new school district on a short timetable, Mason puts in 13- and 14-hour days like her colleagues in the other new districts, and she adds on after-hours email reviewing at home. It’s around-the-clock right now.

She said a father stopped her in Costco last weekend to ask a few questions, and the man’s wife tried to intervene, chiding him for cornering Mason on a Saturday. He shushed his wife, saying that the superintendent works 24/7.

Mason laughed, recalling the story. “I said, ‘Your husband’s right — I do work 24/7.’ We all do.”

People ask her all the time if she’s exhausted, she said. “You know, when I go home I’m dead tired, but when I get started in the morning, it’s like a brand-new day because it’s just so exciting, and there’s always something new each day.”

She particularly enjoys engaging with teachers and staff and seeing them anticipate consistency and calmness after the upheaval of the Memphis-Shelby County schools merger and then the uncertainty about forming new municipal districts.

Fortunately, Mason got valuable experience when she was director of Shelby County’s middle schools during the city/county schools’ merger. Sitting through many planning meetings and school board meetings gave her a deep, long-range perspective and helped build the foundation for her new role.

Mason also believes in relying on the expertise of people around her. She has had mentors among her previous Shelby County Schools’ supervisors, particularly Mike Morrison, her principal at Houston Middle.

“I tell people all the time, he really taught me 90 percent of what I know and believe,” Mason said.

What to expect next at ACS

The focus is on getting the district up and running smoothly right now, she said. “Our goal has always been for people not to see a big change from when it was legacy Shelby County, because that’s what they know.”

One change is a new honors program for incoming ninth-graders, and she expects applications to be up on the district’s website by the end of this week. Also, her supervisor of middle and high schools is meeting with University of Memphis officials to increase dual enrollment. Teens will be encouraged to take the district’s 20-plus advanced placement (AP) courses. As the district’s first school year progresses, a needs assessment committee will be formed to identify other potential improvements.

Mason plans to stay in touch by having her principals report directly to her and by meeting regularly with them and the high school vice principal, the staff, school leadership teams, student government at the middle and high school levels, and more personal visits with the elementary children.

Another growth area for the new district is empowering parents to have a bigger voice. She met earlier this week with her four schools’ Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) presidents and the state PTA president to look at getting Arlington its own chapter.

“I’m very passionate about PTA. I know that the success, certainly at the schools that I’ve been in, has been because of the PTA.”

She also prioritizes letting students and parents know that their voices are heard.

“What’s most important to me and everybody that I’ve hired — it’s been one of the integral pieces I look at in hiring somebody — is customer service,” Mason said. “It’s important that we offer optimum customer service. There’s been a great frustration this year with that, and so I want to make sure that we’re there and we’re responsive.”

People may not always get the response they want, but they will get a straight answer with factual justification, she said. “That’s something that is very, very important to me.”

She explained, “That’s the reason why they wanted their own school system, because they wanted a voice. And, obviously, it’s easier to do in a community of less than 5,000 kids than it is with 120,000 kids.”

Parents have contacted Mason and the school board members often, but she has not seen any trending concerns except for a recurring wish for the high school start time of 7 a.m. to shift to later. Even that has garnered fewer than 10 requests.

“I’ve been very blessed with a community that seems to trust me and the decision I’m making and the staff that we’re putting together,” Mason said. “We’ve had just an outpouring from the community on ‘What can we do to help?’”

The city is planning a June 2 building dedication ceremony on the day the districts takes possession of the buildings, and there will be a July 19 community celebration at the high school, Mason said. She hopes the July event encourages parents to remain involved and become regular attendees at school board sessions and PTA meetings.

“It’s important that the community know these are their schools; these aren’t my schools,” she said. “These are the community schools. So we’ve got to make sure that we have that dialogue.”

Through this whirlwind of district personnel collaborating, planning and putting in long hours of work, the new school year is racing closer, and Mason expects to be ready.

“We’re excited about it. We know there may be bumps in the road the first couple of weeks, but we feel pretty confidently that we’re going to be able to start school with very little interruption to what parents and students are used to. It’s just an exciting time.”

To reach Superintendent Mason, email