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Memphis Daily News
Memphis Lessons That Follow You Home
December 16, 2015
By Dr. Mary C. McDonald

Every now and then events occur that seem small, routine, just part of the job until they collide with such force that they explode with meaning, renewing your work with a sense of purpose and change a job into a mission.

I have lived in Memphis almost 40 years. It’s long enough to assume the pride of a Memphian, and short enough to still have strong ties to my hometown, Philadelphia. In Philadelphia I learned who I am; in Memphis I learned what I can do.

When I was appointed superintendent of Catholic Schools in Memphis in 1998, I inherited a fragile system where most of the schools had closed or were headed that way. We had 14 schools, some of which were in a downward spiral. My job was to fix it, turn it around, and grow the schools, particularly in the inner-city and urbans areas where we had no education presence and it was most needed.

The next 14 years consisted of a lot of heavy lifting, securing needed funding, recruiting dedicated, talented people critical for such a wholesale resurgence, designing, planning and a lot of praying. When I left 14 years later we had 29 schools, including eight reopened long-closed Catholic schools in the inner city, money in the bank, new schools and the highest enrollment since the 1970s.

My plan for “retirement” was to consult with others who were experiencing similar challenges and share what I learned in Memphis. That was before I really knew how many had similar challenges, and before I got the phone call.

Shortly before I left my position I was contacted by a group of philanthropic entrepreneurs from Philadelphia. It had just been announced that 15 of the inner-city Catholic schools in their city were closing. They had assumed the governance of one, but felt that all of them needed to continue in order to address the dire needs of a large population of children living in poverty in Philly. They had heard about the Jubilee Schools in Memphis and wanted me to help them. I was not sure that this offer sounded like “retirement,” but told them I’d come to look at the schools and decide.

A few days later I was riding through the urban areas of Philadelphia on my way to visit the first school on the list, DePaul Catholic. It didn’t look like the city I left, and the street where the school was located only looked vaguely familiar.

As I got out of the car, and look at the school, it all came back. This is my old grade school! It had a new name, and served a new population of children, but it is my grade school. How can I turn my back on my past, the place that gave me such a strong foundation in academics and character development? How could I deny that same experience to the children who need it now?

“I’m in,” I told the group with me. “You can count on me.” Now, almost four years later, all 15 Independence Mission Schools, as they are called, are open, serving more than 8,000 children who need them now more than ever. And I learned that I can go home again, but only if I take Memphis with me.

Contact Dr. Mary C. McDonald, a national education consultant, at 574-2956 or visit

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