Let’s Go, Shelby County Schools! 

Some suggestions for how the new Shelby County Schools system can hold its own in the years to come.

click to enlarge midtown_is_memphis_bumper_sticker.jpg

When Tom Foster, Calvin Turley, and I started a little promotional campaign called "Midtown Is Memphis" 20 years ago, we were acting in our own self-interests.

We wanted to preserve our neighborhoods and send our young children to public schools and nearby playing fields so we wouldn't have to spend so much time hauling them to the suburbs. The bumper sticker was an afterthought. The more substantial effort was something called Parents for Public Schools, which didn't last nearly as long.

A high-performing neighborhood public school is 100 times more potent than a bumper sticker or ball field. Now — The Year of the Big Change — is the time for Shelby County Schools (SCS)to promote itself as a viable alternative to private and suburban schools. All talk of cooperation aside, it's every system for itself in the scramble for enrollment.

Fight, fight, fight! And looking ahead, SCS has the people and resources to win its share. There is no need to become just the old Memphis City Schools with a larger footprint.

In Dorsey Hopson, SCS has a young, battle-tested, homegrown superintendent who eats his own cooking by sending his children to a public school. In Optional Schools Director Linda Sklar, SCS has 35 years of experience spanning the past seven superintendents. And in innovation specialist Brad Leon, SCS has a decade of experience with Teach For America and other innovations in New Orleans, Nashville, and Memphis. This threesome knows what works and, just as important, what doesn't.

The University of Memphis, Rhodes College, Christian Brothers University (CBU) , and LeMoyne Owen College — all within the interstate loop — are powerful partners for public schools such as Campus School, Snowden Elementary and Middle School, Fairview Middle School, and Soulsville Charter School. Employees can drop their kids off and pick them up after work. Older students get the benefit of college-level courses, mentoring, and exposure.

My reporting career took me to these and many more public schools all over Shelby County. Some of them in the poorest neighborhoods — Douglass and Manassas high schools for example — have facilities that are as good or better than any suburban school. You could not say that 10 or 20 years ago.

Fairview Middle is especially significant in the big picture. For years, it was a failing school in bad repair. But it's been renovated, and the new windows, impressive entrance, and prominent location at the corner of East Parkway and Central across from CBU make it an attention grabber.

This year, it houses the Maxine Smith STEAM Academy (the letters stand for science, technology, engineering, arts, and math). It is an all-optional school, meaning students have to meet academic standards to get in. Unlike its predecessor, it is integrated. If things go well and the word gets out, in a year or two it could find itself holding a lottery for spaces, as high-ranked magnet schools in Nashville do now. 

Long term, the SCS board should think of a new high school to go with it on the property behind the board offices, as developer Henry Turley envisioned in his failed Fair Ground plans. Alternately, I could see Crosstown with its abundant space and proposed "urban village" filling this role.

The guiding vision for SCS should be a public school system that provides options for everyone. That ideal, once an American given, was wrecked by busing and white flight. More recently it has been undercut by suburban snark and Teach For America's misguided impression that anyone with the resources goes to private school and urban public schools are laboratories for experimentation on those who cannot escape.

In a year of historic change, most media attention, understandably, will be on the new suburban school systems. In effect, it's a built-in marketing machine. As much as anyone, I look forward to seeing the school-by-school enrollment numbers and demographic profiles when they are released in a few weeks. 

But one thing we already know is how savvy the suburban leaders are when it comes to selling their schools. SCS should take advantage of every opportunity in this year of upheaval to innovate on the fly and sell its own positive story just as vigorously.

John Branston is a former Flyer senior editor with a longstanding interest in public education.

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