Friday, August 19, 2005

Too Much of a Good Thing?

Will Memphis' 30-year optional-school experiment run off the rails?

Posted By on Fri, Aug 19, 2005 at 4:00 AM

Too many students, too much of the limelight, and now too much controversy at White Station High School are raising questions about the Memphis City Schools' vaunted optional-schools program, which is 30 years old this year.

Thanks to population growth in East Memphis, high rankings in high school surveys by Newsweek and USA Today, Advanced Placement (AP) course offerings, and the well-established optional program that attracts top students from all over the city, enrollment has exploded to over 2,300 at White Station. The school, which has not had a major capital improvement in over 30 years, was built for about 1,500 students.

Overcrowding isn't the only problem.

"Everything is not perfect at White Station," said Wanda Halbert, president of the Memphis Board of Education and parent of a WSHS student.

Several parents and former students came to a meeting with Halbert and Superintendent Carol Johnson at the school last week. Grievances included personnel changes and a reprimand given to WSHS principal Wanda Winette. Some of the parents saw Halbert as the hidden hand behind both moves, but she said she is misunderstood.

"A lot of people there don't like me," she said. "They've been told things about me but they don't know me."

Halbert did not attend Monday's school board meeting where WSHS parents again voiced their complaints. But the concerns she has about AP courses and the school-within-a school grouping of optional and "traditional" students are shared by other board members and likely to outlast any personality conflicts.

The optional program and parent choice have created an academic powerhouse at WSHS but depleted the talent pool at other city schools. The Class of 2005 was offered $17 million in college scholarships and boasted more than 20 National Merit Scholars. Four current or recently retired members of the school board have had children or siblings at the school. WSHS offered 18 AP classes last year; many city schools offered one or none. A WSHS graduate who spoke at the board meeting will enter Vanderbilt with 21 credits.

White Station (49 percent white, 43 percent black, 8 percent other) has done this with a student body that is much more racially diverse than most public or private schools. At the Bridges Kickoff Classic this weekend, White Station's integrated football team will be easy to recognize because the other schools will be almost all-black or all-white.

"It's a better school than it was when I went there," said Dr. Felix Caldwell, WSHS Class of 1972. He has sent three daughters to WSHS but told board members Monday that parents and teachers are suffering from low morale. In a competitive, ratings-driven environment, a diploma from White Station, bolstered with AP classes and membership in the National Honor Society, can be worth thousands of dollars in scholarships at prestigious colleges where tuition often exceeds $20,000 a year. To Halbert, one of the less-than-perfect things about WSHS and other high schools is the process by which students get into AP classes and the availability of such classes.

"You've got to let every kid go through the same process," she said. "I know they don't. Some are tested and some are not."

And while she does not want to lower standards, Halbert is concerned that "traditional" students in the school system rarely get into the National Honor Society.

Optional-schools director Linda Sklar said 20 MCS high schools offered at least one AP course last year. A student must score at least a 3 on a 1-5 scale to earn college credit. The College Board, which administers the AP program nationwide, is tightening standards.

"You can't place kids in AP who have not had adequate preparation," Sklar said.

As a parent of two recent WSHS graduates, I think Halbert and Sklar both have a point. A system with 118,000 students has unwritten rules for getting ahead and is not always fair. A decade ago, it was easier for a goth to get into Chi Omega at Ole Miss than for an overworked African-American single mom to camp out at the school board to get her kid into the best optional school. Optional schools were a partial solution to the unsolvable problem of white flight. It took years to fine-tune a program that may yet run off the rails.

"The way to keep it on the rails is to keep it fair," says board member Jeff Warren.

The long-range solution is to create more White Stations. To that end, Central High School alumnus and former school board member Dr. Tom Stern is spearheading a drive to raise $3.5 million in private donations for Central. That's a fine start.

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