Thursday, August 16, 2007

Day One at Southwind

As workmen sizzle, the county's newest high school opens.

Posted By on Thu, Aug 16, 2007 at 4:00 AM

It was a record 104 degrees when the first day of the first semester of the first year of classes at Southwind High School ended at 2 p.m. on Monday, but if you were standing on the freshly paved black asphalt parking lot it felt more like 120.

Another headline to put away in the time capsule for Memphis and Shelby County's newest high school, to go along with:

The school that opened the summer easy credit for housing dried up ... that was singled out by a federal judge's desegregation order for being racially unbalanced before it even opened ... that is only half finished, with students on one side and construction workers and heavy equipment and piles of building materials on the other ... whose upperclassmen are sophomores and whose entire student body of 1,000 or so is new.

And the school that sprawl built. They're called the Jaguars, but consideration should have been given to Roadrunners or Highwaymen. In the 1980s and 1990s, Shelby County and the state of Tennessee had a case of road fever and criss-crossed the area north of Mississippi and south of Poplar Avenue with six-lane connectors like Raines, Shelby Drive, Hack's Cross, and Winchester and tied them all together with a superhighway, Nonconnah Parkway, now called Bill Morris Parkway in honor of the county mayor during that time.

The school and the neighborhoods around it are officially unincorporated. The area isn't Germantown, although Germantown Road lies to the west and many of the students went to Germantown High School last year. It isn't Memphis, unless Memphis acts to annex it, as the planning department and the City Council threatened to do last year. And it isn't Collierville, which is located to the east a couple of interchanges away.

It isn't really Southwind either. Southwind is the name of the PGA golf course, office park, and gated neighborhood less than a mile to the north. That Southwind was built in 1988 and drove the construction of the highway that was later extended to Collierville. The mansions around the golf course are outside the Southwind High School attendance zone, and the teenagers who live in them are not likely to attend public school in any event.

The high school is at the intersection of Hack's Cross and Shelby Drive. The traffic problems that some people predicted didn't happen, at least not on Day One. Two uniformed women in bright green vests stopped cars on Shelby Drive so children could cross the street, and sheriff's department squad cars blocked the entrance off Hack's Cross.

Southwind High sits on 62 acres, which the county bought for slightly more than $5 million and then proceeded to cut down every tree in sight. We super-size our schools these days, providing students with more elbow room and playing fields than their parents and grandparents could have imagined. Southwind's site would accommodate Snowden, Central, B.T. Washington, Hillcrest, Southside, and Melrose put together.

The principal at Southwind High, Linda Patterson, was at Germantown High School last year and has more than 30 years experience. County schools spokesman Mike Tebbe is confident that she will do a good job. Her three sons were or are student athletes at Harvard, Northwestern, and the University of Memphis. Patterson was directing traffic in the hallway and understandably too busy for an interview when I saw her Monday outside the office, an open space where several students and parents were waiting for help and the phones went unanswered.

Construction is supposed to be finished next July. The school will add a grade a year for two years. There seems to be no shortage of students. Shelby Drive and Hack's Cross are lined with subdivisions and signs saying "New Homes," "No City Taxes," "$20,000 Builder Bonus," "$0 Move-In," and "Free Washer/Dryer/Refrigerator."

If there is a Hickory Hill-style housing collapse brewing, I couldn't see it when I drove through 20-year-old subdivisions like Richwood and the new ones adjacent to the school. The overwhelming majority of the homes and yards looked like the very model of neat and tidy suburbia. If this is "unincorporated," then some of us who live a lot closer to Memphis City Hall should be so lucky.

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