June 30, 2008

Can Memphis Schools Be Fixed? — Scandals. Discipline Issues. Violence. Academic Struggles. Socioeconomic Challenges. As the New Superintendent Takes Over the City’s Education System This Week, He Faces Quite a Daunting Task.

By Zack McMillin

In the very early morning hours of March 11, Constance Terry- Morris parked her car on Avery, across from the Memphis Board of Education, and tugged her 5-year-old daughter, Alexa, from the back seat.

So determined was Terry-Morris to ensure her daughter would begin kindergarten at the city school of her choosing - Richland Elementary in East Memphis - that when the babysitter did not show, she brought Alexa with her to guarantee an optimal spot in the city schools' open-enrollment school transfer process.

By the time Terry-Morris received No. 27 five hours later, a line of many hundreds snaked almost to Hollywood Street.

For Dr. Kriner Cash, the man who will take over this week as the new Memphis City Schools superintendent, that line symbolizes the opportunities and challenges awaiting him.

The system, with an expected 110,000 students for 2008-09 and an overall budget of $1.2 billion, does attract parents so committed to the city schools they will wait in line for hours. Terry-Morris, a 44-year-old single mother who works full-time at MLGW while taking a full load of classes at Crichton College, considered private schools but became convinced city schools could provide a great education.

"I believe we wrote our checks that night," she said. "I don't feel like I'm taking a chance. I believe in Memphis City Schools."

Yet, that line for transfers also revealed how dissatisfied many parents are with the schools for which their children were zoned.

Terry-Morris is well aware of the troubles MCS has encountered in the last 12 months, dating to before former superintendent Carol Johnson left to take a similar job in Boston.

There have been the scandals involving the school nutrition center, with a revelation that 240 tons of food were wasted, sparking an audit that found more than $4 million in wasteful spending and violations of state and federal bidding laws. It has led to further investigations that may end in indictments.

Other problems on the operations side, including issues with transportation contracts, have also drawn investigative scrutiny. Disciplinary issues including fights, shootings and embarrassing student behavior have become staples of TV news broadcasts, some of them attracting national attention.

On the academic side, there are many statistics school administrators believe validate their work - the vastly improved graduation rates, the studies showing test scores improving faster than any system in Tennessee - but the raw, bottom-line numbers show the enormous challenge faced by the new superintendent.

According to Partners in Public Education's 2006-07 community report card to parents, 103 city schools are not achieving state benchmarks and 17 schools have not achieved them at all for six straight years. Memphis received a D+ on its three-year average TCAP Academic Achievement Grades for grades 3-8.

Cash, chief of accountability and systemwide performance for Miami-Dade County (Fla.) under highly regarded superintendent Rudy Crew, interviewed for the MCS job while the City Council was excoriating the commissioners of the Memphis Board of Education for lack of accountability.

Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, himself a former MCS superintendent , was injecting his own voice into the debate about how to deal with the schools while also calling Cash and other finalists "third-rate" candidates for the job.

When Cash accepted the job, on June 10, he said he was aware of the issues - including the City Council's decision to cut MCS's funding from the city by $62 million - but struck an optimistic tone.

"I pledge that we will work together to uplift this city's children and give them hope for the future," Cash said.

As Cash takes over, the inevitable question arises: Can the city schools be fixed?

Those on the board are adamant that Cash is the right man at the right time, but they also know the issues faced by a large urban school district such as Memphis are far too large and complicated to be solved by one person.

They also point out that MCS is the second-largest employer in Shelby County, and that whatever problems fester in neighborhoods lacking good jobs and healthy infrastructure will inevitably be imported into the schools.

"He will not be able to erase on July 2 issues and problems that took a decade to build," said Martavius Jones, vice president of the school board.

"We understand and cannot say it enough that it's just never going to be just one person, that the superintendent is just one piece of the puzzle," said Tomeka Hart, the board president.

It's the economy

There is one issue about which critics and defenders of the Memphis City Schools tend to find unity, and it is voiced often by Herenton when addressing school-related issues. As the mayor likes to put it, "So goes the city of Memphis schools, so goes the city of Memphis."

But is it really the job of schools to solve all of a city's problems? For a system where 83 percent of students come from economically disadvantaged households, is that a fair burden?

Are the magic wands of reading, writing and arithmetic potent enough to conjure high-paying, high-skill jobs out of the muggy Memphis air?

On his blog (smartcity memphis.blogspot.com), former county government administrator Tom Jones has been relentless in advocating the view - similar to the mayor's - that high-performing city schools could serve as an economic catalyst.

"Schools ought to see themselves as in the talent business, because cities are winning and losing, succeeding and failing now essentially on whether the percentage of college graduates is going up," Jones said.

The numbers, Jones said, show that "Memphis has an unusual bulge in school-age kids compared to the top 50 metro areas."

That could be Memphis' competitive edge - if the schools can succeed in producing an educated work force .

"The good news is we have this bulge of kids and we will not be grappling with where will we get those workers," Jones said. "The bad news is we are doing a very poor job of educating them."

Some defenders of schools would point out that, in fact, city schools are showing success in reaching children - improving test scores while retaining more borderline students should count for something, they say.

But those children often come into the schools from families and neighborhoods where socioeconomic challenges - unsteady jobs, violence, poor nutrition, unstable housing - conspire against academic achievement.

The research of education reform scholar Jean Anyon constantly references studies showing how even small improvements in a child's socioeconomic reality can greatly boost academic performance. Anyon stresses the need for communities to link education reform efforts with real efforts to alleviate economic insecurity .

As Anyon co-wrote in a paper last year, "Education did not create the problem of widespread poverty wages, and education will not solve the problem. ... Only employers and governments can raise wages."

She also points out: "For more education to lead to better jobs, there have to be jobs available."

David Ciscel, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Memphis, has been in Memphis for more than three decades. Like Anyon, Ciscel sees the intense focus on education reform as pointless if it is not accompanied by a unified effort to address core economic issues in a city with persistent and widespread poverty.

"All the wringing of hands over the performance of Memphis City Schools is a lot of foolishness - they produce the work force that is needed for the Memphis economy," Ciscel wrote in an e-mail.

That economy is dominated by what the Memphis Chamber of Commerce calls "logistics" - warehouse jobs related to the distribution economy.

"Workers that command $50,000 to $100,000 per year are not in great demand here," Ciscel writes. "Workers that are willing to work for $8 to $12 per hour are in great demand - but nobody is going to complete high school for $10 an hour.

"The incentives in Memphis are backwards, and have been as long as I have lived here."

Facing the truth

Before she succumbed to her family's urge to educate, Latasha Gentry Holmes worked in the airline industry.

"I used to do recruitment and my challenge was finding candidates able to read and fill out an application," said Holmes, now the Memphis City Schools director of teacher recruitment. "I saw so many, day after day, and it was like, 'Oh, my God. This is an adult.'"

So Holmes did something that, as the daughter of two teachers, she vowed she would never do - she went into teaching. Her father, Joe Gentry Jr., actually began his career in the early 1960s with Herenton at Shannon Elementary, and Holmes would teach for five years before moving into administration in 1998.

Now, Holmes is in charge of finding and attracting capable teachers to Memphis. The billboards and bus advertisements seen around the city since April, featuring teachers as heroes and showing numbers of "lives touched," support that mission.

She said the first time she saw one, she pulled over and snapped pictures, unable to stop herself from crying.

She said that despite the unrelenting stream of negative news about the schools in 2007-08, the schools have attracted nearly 700 qualified applicants into the new teacher pool - about double the number at this time last year.

When her staff meets with new teachers, Holmes says they do not shrink from sharing the huge challenges encountered in Memphis classrooms.

"We like to give them the down and dirty," Holmes said. "We tell them these are the challenges, this is a large urban school district no different than any large urban school district. We are very up front with them about these are our kids and our demographics.

"I tell them I taught in a challenging environment and it was my first choice because I knew those children needed me."

Cash, the new superintendent and Holmes' new boss, has seen similar challenges in Miami, and in Memphis the mission remains the same.

"We know that no one person can alone accomplish these tremendous tasks," Cash said when he was hired. "I ask all of us to lock arms around our children with each other and join together on this journey to greater educational excellence."

Even with that hopeful rhetoric, the central question awaiting Cash remains: Can Memphis City Schools be fixed?

For those such as Holmes and the teachers she puts in classrooms, for parents such as Constance Terry-Morris whose child begins kindergarten this year, for an economy that needs an educated work force, there is only one possible answer.

Memphis City Schools must be fixed.

"I get a sense we are hopeful and definitely focused," Holmes said. "We could spend a lot of time wondering what's going to happen, but I keep saying that on Aug. 11 they are going to show up with sharpened pencils and shiny shoes and new uniforms wanting to learn.

"We better be ready."

- Zack McMillin: 529-2564


Kriner's cash

Newly selected superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash is expected to sign an employment contract Monday at a special meeting of the school board.

Terms: 4-year contract worth estimated $260,000 per year.


Originally published by Zack McMillin [email protected] .

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