City Reporter 

City Reporter

St. George's Day School Adds Grades, New Campus

By Mary Cashiola

A brochure for the new St. George's Day School includes a statement about diversification. As if to echo the Germantown private school's intentions, it is written in three languages -- English, Spanish, and Yoruba, a Nigerian tribal tongue.

Opened in its present-day location on Poplar in 1959, St. George's has been teaching kindergarten through sixth grade for the last 42 years. But this year starts a wave of expansion that includes both middle and high school grades, as well as a new urban campus on Kimball Road in Memphis.

"It happened over a period of many years," Rick Ferguson, the head of schools at St. George's, says of the expansion. "So many students and their parents said, 'Why can't you just add seventh or eighth grade?'"

Ferguson, who has been at the school for 17 years, says that the question has been raised every single year as students graduated St. George's program and went on to other public or private schools.

It wasn't until 1996 that the school began to seriously contemplate extending the school.

Last month, the private school opened its Memphis location with the first class of 19 pre-kindergarten students. Each year the school will add another grade until the classes extend from pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. By that time, the new middle school and high school building, which opens next fall, will be ready to incorporate students from both the Memphis and the Germantown campuses.

"We've felt for years that we needed to be a more diverse community, particularly in terms of African Americans," says Ferguson. "We've worked at it for a number of years, but it's difficult, being out here in Germantown."

The Germantown day school draws students from all over the city, says Leah Jerkins, director of public relations, but most of the students live east of Midtown. They're hoping St. George's, Memphis, will provide for these families.

"We're serving children in an urban environment," says Angela Webster, associate head of St. George's Day School, Memphis, "that are in other situations that would prohibit them from being [at St. George's, Germantown]."

Tuition to the elementary school runs about $8,000 a year. About 75 to 80 percent of the Memphis students are on scholarship because of a generous gift.

"The middle and high schools came out of planning first," says Ferguson, "but then we were approached by some anonymous donors who asked us if we would consider a school in Memphis." As part of a $35 million-plus capital campaign for the expansion, the donors gave the Memphis school $6 million in seed money.

"Their interest was the Memphis school," says Ferguson.

As with any new project, there have been a couple of snags. Students in the middle grades, taking classes at the Germantown location until the high school opens next year, get out about 45 minutes later than the younger students ... but only on Wednesdays.

And while the school's mascot has been a dragon ever since it opened, school officials knew that the high school's mascot would have to be something different; Collierville High School, part of the Shelby County school system, has the same mascot.

Now St. George's students will be Dragons up until fifth grade but will then become Gryphons.

"We plan for them to go to St. George's High School or another private school after this and to clearly go on to college," Webster says of the students. "That's the foundation that's being laid."

Next year, the school will add eighth, ninth, and tenth grades; the high school will eventually have a student body of roughly 400.

"Public education is the mainstay," says Ferguson, "but we want to do everything we can to partner with public education. We want to offer a broader educational experience in the Memphis community."

Sentenced Durand kidnappers get jail time.

By John Branston

Sixteen months after he was kidnapped at gunpoint and thrown into the trunk of his car, attorney Kemper Durand watched with some regret this week as two juveniles involved in the case were given prison sentences.

Durand was walking to his car around 2 a.m. on May 25, 2000, after attending a party on Beale Street when a lone gunman walked up behind him, took his wallet, and forced him into the trunk. The abductor, Cleotha Abston, drove around and picked up friends then, after about two hours, escorted Durand into a Mapco station to withdraw money from an ATM. A uniformed Memphis Housing Authority officer entered, Durand yelled that he had been kidnapped, and the kidnappers ran away.

On Monday, Abston pled guilty just before he was scheduled to go to trial and was sentenced to 20 years in prison without parole. He had earlier turned down an offer of 15 years on the same charge but, according to Durand, told the court "he did not want to sign his name giving himself the time." Abston has a long juvenile record of theft and aggravated assault.

It was the sentencing of the second defendant that gave Durand pause. Marquette Cobbins was 17 years old at the time of the incident. He was one of the friends picked up by Abston after he kidnapped Durand. His prior court record consisted of a truancy violation and a disorderly conduct charge.

"He was literally sitting on the porch when Abston came by," says Durand. "Any kid who could grow up where he did and have only two miniscule run-ins I figure is probably pretty decent material."

Durand wrote a letter to District Attorney Bill Gibbons urging probation for Cobbins if he would submit to conditions including supervision by a private probation service, high school graduation, repaying Durand $195 for the money in his wallet and towing charges for his car, and undergoing a mentoring program.

The proposal was turned down and Cobbins pled guilty to aiding a kidnapping. He was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years and will be eligible for parole in 18 months.

Durand says he feels bad about that and is also dismayed at the pace of justice.

"Cleotha Abston spent almost 16 months in jail before today," Durand says. "Perhaps this is one reason why the jail is overcrowded."

Lost In The System

East High School students still wait for books, schedules.

By Mary Cashiola

Vakeena Robinson, a junior at East High School, wants to study political science at Clark University one day. Right now, though, she's getting an education with the Memphis City Schools. It's just not the one she needs.

For the first two weeks of school, she sat in the high school's auditorium because she did not have a full schedule. Then she was given a schedule, but it wasn't the right one.

"They just stuck me somewhere," she told the school board Monday night. "I got the right schedule just last week."

The first day of school was August 20th; the first six weeks ends October 2nd, which means that the grading period will be over in a week. James Robinson, Vakeena's father, wonders what the students could possibly be tested on. Vakeena still doesn't have a locker or any books.

But she's not the only one.

"A lot of kids are not in the computer," she says after the meeting. "It doesn't show that they're registered at East."

The problem seemingly stems from WinSchool, the system's new student information system. Put into effect partly because of state-mandated requirements for data, the system cost the district almost $13 million.

While her schedule was still in limbo, Vakeena says she spent more than three hours a day sitting in the auditorium with other students. She estimates that for a while perhaps 500 students were there during third period.

"There could have been more coming in for fourth period or less. It depended on the day."

Vakeena took the ACT in 9th grade and got a 21. Now she's studying to take it again but is having to do it on her own.

"This is affecting us," she says.

East was one of the 64 Memphis schools on the state's low-performance list.

Giving Their 10 Percent

Local waiters pitch in to help NYC relief effort.

By Mary Cashiola

The PHRASE "United We Stand" has taken on additional significance lately, comforting a country that has to make sense of the nonsensical. But to find out what the phrase really means, you don't have to look much farther than a local group.

Calling itself SOS-29 (Servers On Saturday, September 29th), a group of servers at downtown restaurants is asking that Memphis restaurants' waitstaff and bartenders donate 10 percent of their tips earned on that date. The money will then be donated to the New York Firefighters 9-11 relief fund.

"It was sort of an impromptu inspiration," says Justin Palmer, one of the founders of the program. Palmer and a few others were just sitting around talking. "We said, 'What can we do as servers? Is 10 percent of tips too much to ask?'"

The program, which is not affiliated with any one restaurant, has already enlisted servers at Huey's, Automatic Slim's, McEwen's, and the Lounge to participate.

Although members of the group have been canvassing the city, Palmer knows that they haven't been to every restaurant in the area and hopes that won't stop other employees from participating.

"Restaurants are usually so competitive with each other ... but if we all stick in $5 we can make a difference," says Palmer. "The bottom line was: Let's get the servers together and all unite."

Cynthia Shambaugh, a server at McEwen's, is also one of the founders of the grassroots project.

"We're novices at this, so we're learning as we go along," she says. "It's a very casual project. We just wanted to help."

Anyone interested in helping or participating can call Shambaugh at 726-4282. Restaurant management and owners are also invited to donate.

city beat

No Kids In Class

Most Memphis school board members don't eat their own cooking.

by John Branston

Despite their disagreement last week over who is responsible for 64 low-performing city schools, Memphians Avron Fogelman and Sara Lewis have more in common than meets the eye.

Fogelman, a member of the State Board of Education, and Lewis, a member of the Memphis City Schools Board of Education, are both strong-minded senior citizens of considerable accomplishment who enjoy the public stage and are used to getting their way.

Fogelman, a graduate of Central High School, is a successful real estate magnate, a philanthropist, a former owner of the Memphis Chicks and Kansas City Royals baseball teams, and a current or former member of several public boards. Lewis, a graduate of Manassas High School, was director of the Free the Children anti-poverty program and the Shelby County branch of Head Start for several years.

They have this in common, too: Neither one has children in the public schools.

They're hardly alone. At the state and local school board level, a majority of members don't eat their own cooking.

On the Memphis school board, four members (Wanda Halbert, Patrice Robinson, Lora Jobe, and Barbara Prescott) have children in Memphis City Schools. Five members (Lewis, Carl Johnson, Michael Hooks, Lee Brown, and Hubon Sandridge) do not, although some have in the past and Hooks is a fairly recent graduate.

On the nine-member State Board of Education, Cherrie Holden of Germantown has a child in public school but she is apparently the only member who does. Phyllis Childress, spokesman for board chairman Hubert McCullough of Murfreesboro, says having children in school is "not a consideration" for membership. Not all members could be contacted by press time, but Childress and Holden say they believe Holden is the only member with a child in public school.

Only the seven-member Shelby County Board of Education, which had no schools on the low-performing list, has a majority of members (four) with kids in public school.

This is not a mere mathematical oddity. School board members without a parental connection to public education sometimes reveal a surprising ignorance of what actually goes on in classrooms 180 days a year.

Last week Fogelman fired a broadside at the Memphis City Schools and the board that was off-base on several counts. According to Commercial Appeal Nashville reporter Rick Locker, Fogelman said the following at a board meeting after release of the list:

"Basically, the problem as I understand it is the district is so big and the schools are so big and the school board is made up of politicians who are there for their own political gain. The superintendent is caught in the middle and can be fired in a minute. The school board members' interests are more directed toward their own benefit or gain or agenda than to the district."

Excluding interim appointees, Memphis has had three superintendents in the last 23 years, hardly a sign of a system where the superintendent "can be fired in a minute." During that time, there have been four Tennessee governors and seven head football coaches at the University of Memphis. The longest serving superintendent, Willie Herenton, has enjoyed some success in public life since leaving the job.

With 117,000 students, MCS is most assuredly "big" but bigness is not necessarily a problem or a plus. The failing-schools list includes high schools with close to 2,000 students and elementary and middle schools with fewer than 500 students and lots of empty classrooms. White Station High School, which annually leads the state in the number of National Merit Scholars, is one of the biggest, with nearly 2,000 students.

As for board members serving "for their own political gain," Lora Jobe and Wanda Halbert, to name only two, were active in parent organizations for years before being elected. The only recent board member who moved on to another elected office is Memphis City Council member Tajuan Stout Mitchell; some other capable colleagues, notably Archie Willis III, dropped out of public life after finishing their terms. And it is at least arguable that Memphis school board members, who are elected, are more accountable to ordinary citizens than state board members, who are appointed by Governor Don Sundquist.

A better question for Fogelman and other board members to ponder is this: Why are they more qualified than hundreds of thousands of parents of current public school students? The empathy of board members with children in school is not necessarily greater than that of their colleagues, but parents are both the first to know and the first to suffer when there is a problem school. When East High School parents and students complained to the school board Monday night about chaotic conditions, Patrice Robinson nodded sadly. She has a child at East.

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