It has been a whirlwind for Dr. Mary McDonald since the end of June when she left as the superintendent of schools for the Catholic Diocese of Memphis. Just in September, she spent some 20 days on the road.
Former superintendent of Catholic Schools Dr. Mary McDonald speaks to a language arts class during a tour of Holy Names - Jesus and Mary School.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)
McDonald had been advising school systems and educators in other parts of the country, as well as writing about education while she was running a growing school system.
But since founding her own business, MCD Partners, McDonald has had a more national view of ongoing education reform that confirms much of her experience in Memphis.
She’s working with inner-city schools in Philadelphia and she is a consultant to the University of Notre Dame.
The view in Shelby County is that Memphis is unique in the amount of change. But McDonald is quick to say that education is changing everywhere nationally.
“The challenges of the urban areas for education are the same,” she said recently while on her way to Tulsa, Okla. “The children are different. The situations are a little different. It’s very heartening and empowering to recognize that people are saying no more – let’s do something. Maybe the problem got big enough that everybody is taking a bite out of the elephant in the room.”
When McDonald became superintendent of Memphis Catholic schools in 1998, she was assigned the challenge of reopening schools in inner-city Memphis, where Catholic parishes used to operate schools.
Catholic schools were once predominantly single institutions unique to and run by the parishes that supported them. That was the case right up to the decline and closing of those schools in Memphis in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Today, those schools that go it alone are the most endangered nationally, according to a 2011 national study of Catholic schools by the Boston College School of Education.
The report by Erik P. Goldschmidt and Mary E. Walsh on “Sustaining Urban Catholic Elementary Schools” cites the 1998 “jubilee” schools effort in Memphis.
They write that the Memphis schools are “a rare example of a diocese that opened schools and experienced increased enrollment.” They also say the schools “revitalized Catholic education in Memphis.”
McDonald remembers the opening of De La Salle Elementary in the Blessed Sacrament parish in Binghampton.
“Binghampton was a word that nobody mentioned. … Nobody was looking there,” she said. “There were children that needed an education to succeed and not to leave that neighborhood but stay in that neighborhood and lift it up through their own education. After 14 years, I see that is beginning to happen.”
The jubilee schools were the start of a competition among schools that has blurred the lines between public and private education in Memphis. The growth in charter schools followed. And McDonald has a broader view of the competition elsewhere.
“People still choose their neighborhood schools. Most people in this country are educated in public schools,” she said. “Choice provides an opportunity for a little competition that makes everybody better and raises the bar.”
The eight jubilee schools are a bridge over the chasm in which public schools are defined as schools for students who can’t afford to attend private schools and private schools are defined as schools for those who can afford not to go to public schools.
Ask McDonald about her experience running private schools and she will tell you that Catholic schools are not private schools.
And with her travels, McDonald sees even fewer boundaries especially among urban schools.
“Most of the schools that I work with throughout the country are in urban areas. They are fragile,” she said. “But I think if they are academically sound, they won’t be economically fragile. Money always follows a mission. If you are doing something worthwhile and you are succeeding with children in helping them to be better then people will invest in that mission.”
But she is quick to add that the mission has to come before the money. And how teachers are managed is crucial to holding them accountable.
“Give people a fair amount of time to improve, to be empowered, to succeed in the classroom,” McDonald said. “I don’t mean a negative focus. … Forget that, just forget about it. Let’s not play the blame game anymore. If there is an issue or a problem or challenge, what is it and then let’s identify it. And then let’s do something to help, to empower the teacher.”
The alternative, she believes, is a high turnover rate.
“In urban environments, what you are really looking for is stability and you count on teachers to provide the stability in the classroom,” McDonald said.