MCD Partners

The Commercial Appeal
Guest column: Making the right choices for education
August 17, 2014
By Mary C. McDonald, Special to The Commercial Appeal

There is a moment when making the right decision, regardless of the risks, changes everything. Decisions made more than 15 years ago became the catalyst for the educational reform that is happening now in Memphis and Shelby County. A series of impossible situations became opportunities to change the educational landscape for the sake of the children in our community — all the children.

Twenty years ago the public schools in inner-city and urban Memphis were struggling with student achievement and negative perceptions. Most of the schools on the state’s list of failing schools were in parts of Memphis scarred by burned-out buildings, gangs and crack houses. But there were children in those areas who needed educational options that provided a way out.

There was a lot of talk, and requests for more funding and more programs, but nothing was changing because you can’t solve a systemic problem with a programmatic approach. Everything needed to change, and it did, slowly and steadily.

The change started with the perfect storm of educators, venture philanthropists and business leaders who refused to stand by while a failing school system graduated an undereducated workforce. Some had the resources to intervene but wanted to be as strategic in their investment in education as they were in their businesses. They wanted to make a difference. The change came slowly in small steps of success.

In August 1996, New Hope Christian Academy, a small private elementary school, opened its doors in the renovated basement of First United Methodist Church in Downtown Memphis with 27 kindergarten students. Its scholarship program offered a new paradigm of educational choice for economically disadvantaged children.

In 1998, a group of local business leaders founded the Memphis Opportunity Scholarship Trust (MOST) program to offer scholarships that assist parents in providing a private school education for their children. It empowered parents who could not afford choices with a choice.

In 1998, the year I was appointed superintendent of Catholic schools in Memphis, the Catholic schools mirrored the situation of dioceses all across the country. Urban schools were fragile, and all of our inner-city schools had been closed, some of them for more than 50 years. My task was to grow Catholic education, first, for the children who needed it most in the inner city.

We became partners with venture philanthropists who saw the empty school buildings as resources that — with an infusion of capital and strong leadership — could become beacons of hope and catalysts for change. These investors were convinced that if scholarships were provided, faith-based schools would make the difference for the city, and for the children and families living in poverty in these neighborhoods.

Through their generosity, the dedication of a great number of people who worked to bring the vision to life and the grace of God, the reopening of eight inner-city Catholic elementary schools, known as the Jubilee Schools, began in July 1999 with one school, one kindergarten class and 26 students. The impact of the schools that were reopened during the following seven years — and their success in educating the students who came, most more than two years behind grade level — raised the bar in addressing the educational expectations of an underserved population. The Jubilee Schools proved that student success is not limited by ZIP code or multigenerational poverty.

During the next several years other faith-based scholarship schools were started in urban areas of Memphis. Systemic change was beginning, but the change needed to be more widespread, and include all students.

In 2003 the first four public charter schools opened in Memphis. This year there are 25. Charter schools are independent public schools of choice whose success has been well documented.

More choice, more competition, more change followed. In 2012 Tennessee officials created the state Achievement School District to take over failing schools and catapult the bottom 5 percent of public schools in Tennessee to the top 25 percent by creating a system that prepares all students for success. The ASD started in Memphis with six schools in 2012; this year there are 23, serving students from prekindergarten to 12th grade in traditional and alternative school settings.

The change widened. Well-prepared teachers and school leaders are critical to sustaining improved educational outcomes. Beginning in 1999 new partnerships were formed with the University of Notre Dame ACE Teachers Program, Christian Brothers LANCE Program, The Teacher Residency Program, New Leaders for New Schools and Teach for America. High-quality, well-prepared educators from Memphis and across the country came to participate in these new educational endeavors and raise the bar for teacher effectiveness.

In 2010 the Memphis City Schools board, facing increasing turmoil, surrendered the charter for its schools. The decision was put into the hands of the Memphis voters, who spoke very clearly. They voted for a unified Shelby County Schools system administered by the Shelby County Board of Education. Planning for the merger started immediately. Later, residents in all six of the Shelby County suburbs voted to create their own municipal school systems in Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington, and classes began in those schools this month.

These years of systemic change have now brought us to a new school year, and a new era in education for Memphis and Shelby County. It’s all about the children, and we’re going to make it work if we just keep making the next right decision, and the next, and the next.

What we have today may not look like what anyone planned, but it can thrust us into continuous improvement, accountability and hope for all God’s children.

Dr. Mary C. McDonald, a former superintendent of Catholic schools in Memphis, is a national educational consultant and president of MCD Partners.

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