The charter school that opened for class Thursday, Aug. 15, in North Memphis is unique for several reasons.
Former Memphis mayor and Memphis City Schools superintendent Willie Herenton on Thursday visited Thurgood Marshall High School – a school for teens in Juvenile Court custody – to talk about his upbringing and how students can pursue their own success story.
(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)
A total of 130 children, all of them in the custody of Memphis-Shelby County Juvenile Court, are assigned to Thurgood Marshall High School of Career Development. Of that number, 86 had registered on the first day of classes at the school within a school at Northside High School.
The two schools are among seven that opened last week as charter schools run by the W.E.B. DuBois Charter Schools Consortium. The consortium’s founder and CEO is former Memphis mayor and Memphis City Schools superintendent Willie Herenton.
Herenton saw a teenager in the school uniform of blue shirt and tie and khaki pants Thursday that he had talked with several weeks ago about the school’s uniform.
“He said he’s not wearing that,” Herenton remembered and said that’s when he remarked on the orange scrubs children in detention wear.
“I said, ‘Did you tell that man that you weren’t going to wear that orange uniform? You didn’t have a choice did you?’” Herenton said. “When you come to Thurgood Marshall you are going to wear what we tell you to wear.”
Sonny Hicks, a Memphis City Schools veteran who is principal of the high school, said the school is able to keep the children enrolled beyond the time that they are in Juvenile Court custody.
“At the point that they are assigned to us, they have to finish with us,” he said. “It’s not like they come and spend nine weeks or a month and go back to a home school. Once they are assigned they have to carry their programs through.”
Juvenile Court officials as well as Herenton indicated last year they wanted a school that would continue to be the school for juvenile offenders after they left detention, citing the problems they often have when they return to their old schools.
There are some unique challenges although the school is held to the same state Common Core standards with the same achievement tests required and the same strategy of immediate intervention when students begin to fall behind.
The school year for the students begins with assessment batteries of tests “to get some kind of diagnostic indication of where they are,” Hicks said. “We know that we have to be more of in a nurturing kind of mode and more about healing.”
Hicks is realistic about the challenges but also said he sees them as “diamonds in the rough.”
“I look at them as being no different than the kids that are in school that haven’t come by way of the court system. There are some kids that are challenged and struggle there,” he said. “Once we remove that mindset from them and have them to understand that this is the opportunity they need – as long as they take advantage of that, we can help them.”
Northside is one of 13 schools the countywide school board will consider closing in the 2014-2015 school year. If Northside closes, interim superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the W.E.B. DuBois consortium would continue to lease part of the building under its present contract terms.
Juvenile Court is also changing with last year’s settlement with the U.S. Justice Department on due process issues the department’s attorneys found in court procedures and racial disparities among those juveniles detained and those transferred for trial as adults.
As the Justice Department issued its findings last year, the court had already reduced the number of juveniles it held in detention and dropping that number even more has been one of the key terms in the settlement.
The court already had an arrangement with the old Memphis City Schools system to educate children in detention. But Juvenile Court Judge Curtis Person Jr. was receptive to the idea of a charter school that retained children who had been in detention after they were released.
“The juvenile justice system in the state of Tennessee is about rehabilitation,” Person told the teens. “It’s not about punishment.”
Earlier Herenton had noted that the boy he talked with several weeks ago referred to Juvenile Court detention as being “in jail.”
“In life we all make mistakes,” Herenton added. “Prison shouldn’t be your destination.”
A few of the students looking elsewhere looked toward Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell when he mentioned that he had worked for 30 years in prison as a warden and director.
“The common denominator in prisons is a lack of education,” he said. “Look around here at all of the people who believe in you. Don’t take that lightly.”