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Who Owns the SCS School Buildings? And What Memphis Middle School Was Best in the State?

April 15, 2013

A host of  insights was delivered by an expert panel leading last week’s  educational forum What the Heck’s Going On with Shelby County Schools – And What Are Your Options?  The ultimate ownership of the former Shelby County School System buildings was among the most topical.

Panelists included Shelby County Commissioner Chris ThomasMy Germantown Schools leader Ken Hoover, subbing for Rep. Mark WhiteMatt Throckmorton, Executive Director of Tennessee Charter Schools Association; and experienced homeschool mom and conservative activist Brenda Fowler. Eddie Settles of Back in River City MC’d the forum, held at the Great Hall in Germantown. The evening of  spaghetti and straight talk was sponsored by Charlotte Bergmann’s CharlottePAC and Sober House Homeless Mission.

Click here for Part I of this two-part recap.

Who Owns the Buildings?

Crosswind Elementary, Collierville

Crosswind Elementary, Collierville

If  Shelby County municipal school districts are allowed to form  (barring more lawsuit action following an expected pass through both Houses of the Tennessee Legislature today  and Gov. Haslam’s anticipated signature), the next hot controversy will be ownership of the buildings now in use by the proposed new districts. Panelist Ken Hoover  told an enrapt  audience that “State law is silent” on the issue, but there is “case law thought to be on point” establishing that “buildings follow the children.”

The pertinent 1898 case  concerned the tiny Shelby County town of Lennox. According to a 2011 Commercial Appeal article, County education officials decided  to move the town’s school farther south,  rousing parents and local leaders to incorporate a one-square mile area, form their own school district, and claim the wood frame school building as their own. The County sued.  After a two year fight, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled in favor of the parents. The decision is still cited in Tennessee annexation conflicts.

(Fun footnote: Lennox (later spelled Lenox) was located in what is now Midtown Memphis, near the Lenox School Condos off Union. County school officials preferred a site in the Buntyn area.)

Mr. Hoover noted that the proposed suburban school boards and the Shelby County  Unified School Board   (he personally prefers the more accurate term “consolidated” over the euphemistic “unified”)  have been in  conversations over building rights. If no agreement is reached, a legislative remedy could be considered; but a preferred solution is to “try not to legislate but let the adults in Shelby County work it out.” [Editorial comment:  “adults” in this context must also be a euphemism.]

A Primer on Charters

“We have many kids in Shelby County –  tens of thousands – who are struggling,” Ken Hoover said. “We must be willing to hit that head-on.”

Charter schools are one answer to that problem, according to panelist and Tennessee Charter Schools Association Executive work hard be nice schoolchildDirector Matt Throckmorton.

Thirty-nine Memphis charter schools are now accepting applications for 2012-2014, according to the organization’s website.  Nashville will have 18 charter schools this fall and Chattanooga four. Memphis has several more  in the pipeline.

Charter schools are public schools, Mr. Throckmorton told the forum audience. They must follow the same requirements  – for special education, for example. The difference, he  said, is that they are “free of mandates” binding them to specific curricula, teaching methodologies or collective bargaining. “They are also held to greater accountability,” he added, noting that a Nashville charter was closed for low performance two months ago.

Most charter schools, Mr. Throckmorton explained, are found in inner city areas and are populated with students who are behind grade level – usually 2-4 grade levels. This poses special challenges. Students so far behind cannot catch up in just one year. Most can only be brought up one to 1.5 grade levels in an academic year, he said, “so it takes years for results” to show clearly.

Not all charter schools are successful, but the freedom to innovate has produced notable – often astonishing –  results in cities across the country. Of the top 100 schools ranked annually by U.S. News and World Report, according to Mr. Throckmorton, 15-20% are now charter schools.

Memphis can boast of its own remarkable charter school success stories.Two examples:  Power Center Academy was the highest performing middle school in the entire state of Tennessee in 2011. City University School  has also achieved outstanding results. Over a three year period, 100% of its graduates were accepted into college and earned over $10 million in scholarships – an exceptional achievement for graduating classes averaging under 70 students. The school reports that sixty percent of its Class of 2008 have earned bachelor’s degrees.

Power Center Academy students. Photo credit PCA

Power Center Academy students. Photo credit PCA

Compare these results with the  performance of Memphis City Schools. According to SCORE, a statewide  education reform collaborative headed by former Senator Bill Frist,  30% of MCS students failed to graduate from high school in 2012. Only four percent of those who graduated were considered college-ready.

The Achievement School District (ASD), created to transform Tennessee’s 85 lowest performing schools (69  in Memphis), is a charter school organization. “Charter schools will help Memphis,” Mr. Throckmorton promised. “ASD is doing some great things.”

“Charter schools represent a great opportunity for Shelby County,” he stated. “The Tennessee Charter School Association does not start up schools. We believe they must start organically, from community leaders.”

The Homeschool Option

Brenda Fowler represented the growing number of parents in Tennessee opting for homeschooling. The mother of three children homeschoolspoke ardently for parents’ right to select the educational option best for each of their children.

“Every family is different,” she stated. “Every child is different. Parents are best suited to decide” the right educational setting  for each of their children.  The Fowler family chose homeschooling for their three daughters. One of those daughters spent nine months on dialysis at LeBonheur Childrren’s Hospital. “We needed flexibility to fit our family,” she said.

Mrs. Fowler pointed out that homeschooling doesn’t necessitate that a parent be responsible for developing a professional quality curriculum. While some parents tackle such a task without reservation, Mrs. Fowler was pleased she could  choose from a number of proven  curricula developed for homeschool application.  She selected Tennessee Virtual Academy’s K12 program for her youngest daughter, an proven course of study she said is   “one of the top programs” available.

Mrs. Fowler’s daughter has weekly meetings with a licensed teacher who creates an individual lesson plan for her. Parents or “Learning Coaches” are also provided by K12 with traditional supplementary materials and support from the child’s teacher. In homeschooling, Mrs. Fowler noted, accountability lies with the student, not the teacher or school.

Q&A 2

The panel fielded a volley of earnest questions following their individual remarks. We are selecting a few to share here. For the sake of brevity and clarity, we have edited,   paraphrased and combined some questions.  Answers provided here may represent responses from multiple panelists.

Q. We know of teachers in suburban schools who have been laid off.  Yet, we don’t seem to hear about layoffs on the Memphis side. Even when families move out of the county and the total number of students declines (which has happened already), where are the corresponding layoffs? Is this about  job security for MCS or is it about the students?

A. This is a leadership issue. Hard decisions have to be made. The 23-member Unified School Board is unwieldy, slow moving, and has been unable to  come to agreement on many of the tough issues. The voters need to hold them accountable.

Q. There is a perception that  Memphis schools are universally horrible, that they have “failed.”  That has not  been my family’s experience. My children attended Memphis City Schools and are now successful teachers in the Memphis system. My grandchildren in Memphis City Schools are thriving, and are benefiting from  excellent arts programs. How do we get the word out about the good things and change the perception about Memphis schools?

A. There are a lot of good things going on in Memphis schools. For example, White Station is the highest achieving school in Shelby County. Colonial Middle School is the best possible place  for a child interested in music and the performing arts. There are outstanding programs in our Memphis schools. But those programs are serving around 10,000 students of the 100,000 in the system. The vast majority of students are not thriving. That’s the problem.

The size of MCS   has been a hindrance to high performance. The merger will exacerbate the problem .  Research indicates that the size of a school and  the size of a district is more important to a student’s success than  the size of his or her classroom. Smaller schools outperform larger schools. This principle applies  even in charter schools. Smaller systems outperform huge systems.There is no evidence anywhere that creating a 150,000 student district will improve student performance in Memphis.  The “sweet spot” for a district appears to be 15,000-20,000 students. (Matt Throckmorton)

splitting the pieQ. Should the suburban districts exist, how will the money be split?

A. The County  allocates a standard amount ($3000) to each student, wherever that student goes.  The state uses a complex formula, so it’s more difficult to state that correctly at this time. (Ken Hoover)

Q. In Collierville, the prospect of a municipal school district was treated as a magic bullet. But lawsuits are on the table and the district may not have enough funding. What is the overall economic impact if a school system goes down due to  insufficient funding?

A. Memphis schools are still in trouble. People are still moving out. “As goes Memphis, so goes the rest of the community.”  There has been too much division. It has devolved into an us versus them (city v. county) issue. That doesn’t help anyone. (Commissioner Thomas.)

Q. Millington just lost 11 teachers. We heard that Germantown only lost five. Who is making the decisions about teacher cuts? It doesn’t seem equitable.

A. “Germantown has lost more than five.”  Cuts had to be made because it would have cost $80 million to lift the Memphis schools up to the SCS staffing model. Maintaining the two separate models for an interim period was considered, but abandoned due to the fear of lawsuits filed for discrimination. At each school, the cuts are supposed to be executed according to the staffing model, but some principals are apparently adding special circumstances to get around strict compliance with the model. (Ken Hoover.)

Back in River City will further explore school school vouchers, charter schools, and Common Core State Standards in upcoming posts.

Stay tuned!

What do you want to know about:

1) the merger of Memphis and Shelby County schools, and

2) public education reform in Tennessee?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 15, 2013 9:22 pm

    I would like for the adults to actually act like adults and put the children first instead of being so concerned about who will control what. The ego’s need to be checked at the door.

    • April 15, 2013 11:27 pm

      Definitely agree with you, Holly. Our school ground politics hurts Memphis on many levels.

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