Thursday, May 10, 2007

Counting the Class of '07

As graduates prepare to march, a school board member wants some numbers.

Posted By on Thu, May 10, 2007 at 4:00 AM

Happy graduates in caps and gowns, proud parents with the latest cameras, dire warnings about misbehavior, and the most far-flung list of venues in recent memory mark high school graduation ceremonies for the Class of 2007.

Memphis and Shelby County high school seniors will march across stages from the DeSoto Civic Center to The Orpheum to the Mid-South Coliseum this month.

Uncertainty about the availability of the Coliseum earlier this year caused some schools to lock in dates at other sites. Germantown High School and Collierville High School are both slated for the DeSoto Civic Center. The Orpheum, the Rose Theater at the University of Memphis, Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, and World Overcomers Church are also holding graduation ceremonies.

The Coliseum will host graduations for four county schools and 11 city schools between May 19th and May 27th. The facility may or may not be closed and demolished as part of the redevelopment of the Mid-South Fairgrounds, but it is back in play for at least one more year as a graduation site. The second most popular site is downtown at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts, with nine graduations scheduled. Schools pick their own sites and set their own policies for how many guests each graduate may invite, said Memphis City Schools (MCS) board member Tomeka Hart, who will attend ceremonies for five schools in her district.

One of her school board colleagues, Kenneth Whalum Jr., also plans to attend several graduations, including one at the Coliseum for Overton High School, where his son is a graduating senior. But Whalum, himself a graduate of Melrose High, is not pleased with what he sees as a reluctance on the part of the central office to provide numbers on graduates and dropouts for each school.

"The statistics we get are useless without comparisons," said Whalum, who is pastor of Olivet Baptist Church.

At Monday's school board meeting, Whalum introduced a resolution directing the superintendent to produce a graduation report by the start of the 2007-2008 school year. It would include the total number of seniors enrolled in MCS in each high school at the start of the 2006-2007 school year and the number who actually graduate as well as school-by-school scholarship and college acceptance information.

Those numbers are currently not readily available and have not been widely reported when this newspaper has printed them. In previous years, the number of graduates has varied from nearly 400 at the largest schools to less than 80 at the smallest. A low number of graduates is usually an indication that a school is losing enrollment to demographic movements or dropouts. Such schools can face pressure to close — the most politically sensitive decision a superintendent or board member can make. Likewise, when scholarships offered to MCS grads are reported as a lump sum, it obscures the fact that a single standout student can receive multiple offers worth hundreds of thousands of dollars while the majority of his or her classmates get little or nothing.

As far as Whalum is concerned, a school-by-school graduation report would show that the MCS motto "Every Child. Every Day. College Bound." is unrealistic. "It's sticking our heads in the sand, it's a blatant lie, and it's unfair," he said. "We do not owe them a college education. We owe them a high school education that prepares them to make their own decisions."

Whalum welcomed Governor Phil Bredesen's warning last week that funding increases must be tied to better results next year or the state could take over the system.

"I say bring it on," Whalum said. "Remove the board if it's not doing a good job. But you know and I know that the state doesn't have the human resources to run the schools."

Whalum believes smaller class sizes are the best remedy, even if all failing schools must be converted to charter schools. But he doubts that will happen, because "I am seen as this preacher who is new and doesn't know how things work."

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