[City Beat] School Choice in Memphis 

After 25 years, optional schools survive and, sometimes, even prosper.

Twenty-five years ago, a new Memphis City Schools superintendent threw his considerable clout behind a controversial program that gave students and parents a choice in the school they attended.

Optional schools were one of those imperfect real-world "solutions" that probably angered as many parents as it pleased and possibly hurt as many or more schools as it helped. The rich and nimble got richer and the poor and immobile got poorer as the best and brightest students flocked to optional schools that were often outside of their assigned district. Some optional schools became majority-white schools within majority-black schools. For years, there were long lines, sign-up lists, camp-outs at the board of education, and an unwritten set of rules for getting one of the limited number of transfer slots into the school of choice.

But over the years, the system got fairer and the rules got publicized so that today nearly all of the 11,300 students in the optional program got the school of their choice, despite the overworked political slogan that public school students are imprisoned in failing schools.

"Every person who applied on the first day last January, whether it was at 6 a.m. or 6 p.m., mail-in or drop-in, got into the school of their choice if they met the entrance requirements," said optional schools coordinator Linda Sklar.

The superintendent who made it possible was Willie Herenton. Two of his grandchildren in elementary school are in the optional program. That's called eating your own cooking, always a good public policy but one not always practiced in Memphis, where private schools and county schools attract most affluent families.

On November 14th, Memphis City Schools will hold an optional-schools fair at the central office at 2597 Avery Ave. The 31 optional schools specialize in college preparation, creative and performing arts, technology, the Montessori method, individually guided education, and focused literacy.

Last year, more than 3,000 parents and students attended the fair. This year, given the extra attention given to schools in the presidential and school-board elections, there should be more participants than that. Optional schools give Memphians a chance to turn the rhetoric of school choice, accountability, and parental involvement into action.

Some of the success stories are well known. White Station High School annually leads the state's public and private schools in the number of National Merit and National Achievement scholars. John P. Freeman, which has an entrance requirement of test scores in the 75th percentile, not surprisingly posts the highest test scores in the city. Wooddale High School graduates many of the future pilots and airplane mechanics that are so vital to the Memphis economy.

There are also some overlooked stories and pleasant surprises every year in a 120,000-student school system that is always undergoing subtle changes and shifts of population. One of them is Keystone Elementary School, located on Old Allen Road between Frayser and Raleigh.

Keystone has been an optional school since 1991. Its only principal during that time has been JoAnne Jensen, an educator since 1962. She could have chosen a comfortable pension and retirement 10 years ago.

This week, Jensen was invited to Washington, D.C., in recognition of Keystone being named a 2004 No Child Left Behind Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education. It is one of five schools in Tennessee and the only one in West Tennessee so honored.

"You are a national model of excellence from which others can learn," wrote Secretary of Education Rod Paige in a letter to Jensen.

Keystone third- through sixth-graders have tested in the 60th-70th percentile on standardized tests for three years in a row. Eighty percent of the students live in the working-class neighborhoods surrounding the school; 47 percent qualify for free and reduced-price meals, and that number has increased in the last five years, according to MCS.

"It shows what can be done if you have extremely high expectations for students, teachers, and parents," said Sklar.

Herenton and Sklar are two of the last public-employee survivors of an era of idealism and experimentation that followed the drastic changes caused by court-ordered busing in the early 1970s. Along with MCS employees like JoAnne Jensen, they have been crucial to the survival and success of optional schools, which have foundered in other urban school districts.

School choice will always involve mobility and awareness. The word has to get out about the best and worst schools and the procedures for getting into them or out of them. In 25 years, MCS has done a reasonably good job of doing that. The rest is up to the customers. If you're one of them, the dates to remember are November 14th, Optional Schools Fair day, and January 28, 2005, the first day that transfer applications will be accepted.

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