The Memphis City Schools Scramble 

Parents line up and camp out for spots in favored city schools.

When the going gets tough, the tough get in line early.

Memphis City Schools announced that sign-ups for open enrollment would start at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday. But Renee Farrell wasn't taking any chances. She and a friend arrived at the school board offices at 11:00 o'clock Monday night, an hour when many Memphians were watching North Carolina celebrate its win over Michigan State in the NCAA championship game.

Farrell, who lives in the Ross Elementary School attendance zone, has one child in Richland Elementary School and wants to make sure a younger sibling gets in too.

"I'm optimistic," she said, after filling out her papers seven hours later. "As long as they don't go to a lottery rule."

Loyce Shelley arrived at the school board at 11:30 p.m. Monday and got number 21. She slept outside in a lawn chair.

"It was worth it," said Shelley, who wants to get her 11-year-old into Ridgeway Middle School instead of Kirby Middle School. She was sold by a tour she took of Ridgeway recently. "I'm just praying I can get him in," she said. "The children seem to be in love with the principal there."

Monica Henderson, number 36 in line, said she was heeding the wishes of her high school-age children who want to transfer from Wooddale to White Station. "It's more challenging," she said. "My son in ninth grade is doing seventh-grade work. He told me he didn't want to graduate from Wooddale."

The lineup for desirable schools in MCS is nothing new, but it was invigorated this year by the weak economy and growing awareness of the ratings system under No Child Left Behind. From a public relations standpoint, it's a mixed bag for MCS, because for each school that gets an endorsement, another one gets a vote of no confidence.

"The line is a little longer this year than normal," said school choice director Bill White. "With the economy, we’ve been expecting people to check out public schools."

A veteran of the process myself several years ago, I arrived shortly before 5 a.m. Tuesday and found the parking lot on Hollywood was already full and cars were parked bumper to bumper on the side streets. A security guard told me the first arrivals came at 8 p.m. Monday. The doors were supposed to open at 5:30 a.m., but security officers took pity on the crowd huddled outdoors in the near-freezing weather and let them in early. Within 30 minutes, the auditorium was full, and a line snaked through the corridors of the school board offices from front to back.

Many of those near the front wore winter clothes and carried sleeping bags or blankets and lawn chairs. This prompted some grumbling in the back of the line. "We were told not to get here until 5:30," said a woman named Angela, who hopes to get her child into Overton High School. "I don't think everyone was on an equal footing."

Others were philosophical.

"I was hoping not to be way back here," said Tanyo McDowell, parent of two children ages 11 and 12 who are zoned for Hillcrest but want to attend Hickory Ridge Middle School "because they have been there since sixth grade."

Mindy Ouellette has a five-year-old who attends St. Anne private school but hopes to transfer to Richland Elementary. "I can't afford it," she said. "I was hoping to get a jump on it." Richland, located in East Memphis, was a popular choice. "It seems like everybody is trying to get into Richland," said Jennifer Chase, who lined up at 3:30 a.m. "They have better academics and a strong parent organization that can raise money in case of funding cuts."

Shango Cooke, a school system employee, heeded the rules and arrived shortly after 6:30 a.m., as the sun was coming up, hoping to land a spot in Sea Isle kindergarten instead of Cordova. He was surprised to see the long line.

"I guess we got some wrong information," he said. "But I'm going to wait."

He could well be rewarded. The process continues until April 24th, so anyone arriving Tuesday was an early bird. And priority will be given to siblings and to children attending failing schools, said school choice coordinator Grace Copeland.

"Those first in line might not get their first choice, and those at the end of the line might get their choice if they are in a high-priority school," she said.

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