City Reporter 

City Reporter

Ready For a "Radical" Change

School board endorses uniforms.

By Mary Cashiola

If it's good enough for Shane Battier, it's good enough for Memphis City Schools (MCS) children. And if it's a radical change, that's okay now too.

Monday night, the MCS board voted 8-1 in favor of mandating that all MCS students -- from kindergarten to high school -- wear school uniforms. The board did not specify what the uniforms should look like or how they would be implemented throughout the district.

"There's nothing bad about uniforms," said Commissioner Sara Lewis. "The Air Force, the Marines, the Grizzlies -- they all wear uniforms."

The proposal, raised by Commissioner Lora Jobe, initially applied only to the 64 state-identified low-performing schools. Other commissioners, however, expressed concern that the uniforms might have the same sting as a dunce cap.

"I suggest putting the policy in place for all elementary schools," said Commissioner Lee Brown. "The policy could benefit those schools not on the list."

The commissioners also considered including only children in grades K through 8 in the proposal, but that was amended to include high school students as well, mainly because of their present attire. "Where the kids are losing their clothes," Lewis said in reference to some of today's styles, "it's not really in the elementary schools."

Commissioner Wanda Halbert agreed. "Everybody needs to look the same," she said. "Let's get the focus off the clothes. I'm ready for a radical change."

It's not the only change that could be considered radical. In January, board president Michael Hooks Jr. instituted commissioner-led working committees in an effort to bolster student achievement throughout the district.

"The working committees have been really helpful," he said Tuesday. "They allow the staff and the board to communicate effectively before it turns into a public debate."

As for the other proposals, Hooks suggested they are reactions to what's going on in the district right now. "Uniforms aren't going to change the world, but I do look at it as a radical change. ... I think the community is crying out for change," he said. "I think some of the state's actions are radical. The state is saying, If you don't perform, we're going to take over your schools."

The district's 64 schools on the state-identified list are vulnerable to state takeover by 2004 if they don't show improvement.

Jobe, reached at her home Tuesday, said uniforms were only the tip of the iceberg. "Some of us feel like enough is enough," she said. "Before, when we tried to talk about [changes], we would say, That's too big or that's too heavy. The board is at a place where we're saying, Hey, if it's better for the kids, nothing is too big or too heavy. Let's just do it."

One of those ideas is a mandated after-school program for all elementary schools; any student making lower than a C would be required to go to the program. "Research has shown those students that go to after-school programs do better on the TCAP. Why wouldn't we want to do that right away?" said Hooks.

Another idea being tossed around is a later start time for high school students. Research has shown that the students are going to school at a time in their biological cycle when they are most inefficient and unproductive. "For a long time, we said, Oh, no, we can't change the status quo. Now, we're saying we can do what we need to do," said Jobe. "We're mulling around some ideas. It's pretty exciting."

Commissioners also voted Monday night in favor of parent report cards, a sort of self-assessment that commissioners were quick to point out was not about blame but rather should help serve as a reminder for parents to know what they need to do to help their school-age children succeed.

Commissioner Hubon "Dutch" Sandridge was the only board member who did not vote in support of the school uniform proposal. n

D.O.A.?

The Oxford American struggles to survive.

By Chris Davis

On May 2nd, THE Oxford American editor, Marc Smirnoff, sent a heartfelt e-mail to friends and contributors. The gist was this: The decade-old O.A., founded by best-selling author John Grisham, had two weeks to raise significant funds or find a new ownership group. Otherwise, they would be closing shop for good.

"John [Grisham] is a benefactor, believer, and good soul, but he's not a magazine corporation," Smirnoff says of his figurehead publisher. "He's bailed us out before. [He's] been doing it for many moons and supported us above and beyond the call of duty. [Now, he wants] to pass the baton to a new ownership team. Someone that will be able to commit to the magazine."

According to Smirnoff, the magazine, which has a paid subscriber base of 34,000, didn't begin to break even until the summer of 2001, when they changed from a bimonthly to a quarterly publishing schedule.

"We've been underfinanced from the beginning," he says, explaining that the majority of the subscriber base has been built on word of mouth. The financial shortage is, in Smirnoff's opinion, why subscriptions aren't twice or even triple what they are now. Naturally, an increased subscription base would attract more national advertising.

"We've never really had a business team," Smirnoff admits, "and I've had to step in and handle much of that end [of the business] and I'm not very good at it. We went around the whole thing bass-ackwards. Now we know how to make it profitable." Unfortunately for the O.A., which dedicated the bulk of its editorial space to the exploration of Southern culture, this knowledge may have come too late.

"If we could find [investors] who weren't looking to make a killing but were interested in something that is quietly and steadily profitable, I think there is an audience that will sustain The Oxford American," says Smirnoff. "If there is room on the newsstand for a magazine about poodle grooming, there must be room for one dedicated to this mysterious region we live in."

Since sending out his initial e-mail, Smirnoff says people have offered assistance, though as of yet nothing has been done to stave off the O.A.'s impending demise. "Our contributors are devastated," Smirnoff says. "They've responded to tell me they are all contacting rich friends. I am, at this point, oddly optimistic." n

Transportation Troubles

Meeting will explore problems with daycare.

By Janel Davis

State Rep. Kathryn Bowers (D-Memphis) will hold an emergency transportation meeting on Thursday evening for all daycare providers to examine ongoing transportation problems in the child-care industry.

Expected to attend are representatives from the Tennessee Quality Daycare Association, the state Department of Human Services (DHS), the governor's Special Committee on Daycare Transportation, and the Tennessee Daycare Advisory Committee.

"In light of recent events, it is imperative that we examine the laws and regulations for daycare providers," said Bowers in a prepared statement. "For the sake of our children, we must band together to make their daycare environment as safe and secure as possible."

Daycare providers will be asked to complete a survey of transportation concerns. Bowers says most providers would rather not provide transportation, but their businesses would suffer if they did not offer service. Therefore, Bowers and several child-care providers are in favor of state-funded public transportation vouchers for parents. If vouchers are not provided, Bowers would like the DHS to allow centers to contract out services with other transportation companies, much like the Memphis City Schools' agreement with Laidlaw.

"Daycare centers are having to subsidize transportation costs," says Bowers, "because DHS reimbursement rates do not cover even 30 percent of the costs."

Diane Manning, head of the Tennessee Quality Daycare Association, operates two three-star level centers that provide transportation services. She says the $2 per day, per child reimbursement rate that DHS pays does not come close to covering her actual transportation expenses. Of the 450 children enrolled at the two centers, 90 percent use the center's eight vans for transportation.

"I pay $22,000 a year for insurance, $4,000 per month for repairs and maintenance, $3,000 to $5,000 per month for gas, and I pay my drivers $12.50 per hour," says Manning. "I got in the daycare business to provide quality child care -- not to transport children."

Debra Neal, director of Child and Adult Care Services for DHS, says it's too early to consider any changes or recommendations regarding child-care transportation.

"The Governor's Committee on Daycare Transportation is still studying the situation, but the department is not adverse to looking at how other states are providing transportation," says Neal. "This is a very difficult situation, especially in Memphis, and we have providers who are seriously concerned with the safety of children."

The meeting comes one month after the fatal crash of a Tippy Toes Learning Academy van, which left four children and the driver dead. The driver, Wesley Hudson, was found to have marijuana in his pocket and the drug's active ingredient in his system. An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board is ongoing.

"Every day [providers] live in fear, hoping that nothing will happen to one of the children while on our buses," says Manning. "It's mental torture on daycare providers every day."

The meeting will be held Thursday, May 9th, at 7 p.m. at Wooddale Middle School, 3467 Castleman.

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