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VOL. 121 | NO. 32 | Monday, February 06, 2006

Private Involvement in Public Schools Offers Hope

By Andy Meek

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KISSING BABIES: Bob Byrd, chief executive officer of Bartlett Bank, and his brother Harold, the bank's president, are shown here with 3-year-old twins Laniee and Lillie Montgomery at a recent unveiling of the bank's new education initiative. -- Photograph By Andy Meek

In a speech to the nation's governors at an education summit last year, Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates called the nation's high schools obsolete - and his ideas about how to fix that problem are having a profound effect on the way Memphis schools operate.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest charitable foundation in the world, recently made a sizeable contribution to the California-based Coalition of Essential Schools, which in turn helped donate $100,000 toward funding a new alternative high school in Memphis.

The school should open by August and will share space with BRIDGES at 477 N. Fifth St. BRIDGES is a nonprofit group in Uptown that has a broad slate of after-school programs for children.


Tragic flaws

At the education summit, Gates told state leaders that America's high schools have deep institutional flaws that must be scrubbed out, and that smaller, nimbler alternative schools like the one coming to Uptown are one way to do that.

"By obsolete, I don't just mean that our high schools are broken, flawed, and under-funded - though a case could be made for every one of those points," he said. "By obsolete, I mean that our high schools - even when they're working exactly as designed - cannot teach our kids what they need to know today.

"Training the workforce of tomorrow with the high schools of today is like trying to teach kids about today's computers on a 50-year-old mainframe. It's the wrong tool for the times."


Investing in people

A movement is afoot in Memphis to change that. Borrowing a page from the radical playbook of Microsoft's billionaire chairman, a smattering of local entrepreneurs, business leaders and visionaries with ties to some of Memphis' oldest schools are quietly reshaping them in a way that cash-strapped governments can't.

"What I think we're doing here is we're appealing to the community spirit, to the heart, to the better angels in people ... We all need to do a better job giving our teachers and schools more resources to do what they do so well."
- Harold Byrd
Bank of Bartlett president

Charles McVean, a successful commodities trader who graduated from East High School in 1961, has financed a multimillion-dollar fund-raising campaign for East that's well into its second year.

Late last year, Dr. Thomas Stern kicked off a $3.5 million fund-raising campaign for Central High School. Stern is a Central alum and a cardiologist with Stern Cardiology Clinic.

Central principal Greg McCullough said he's hopeful that a trust fund can be set up to hold leftover funds from the campaign to address future renovation needs at the school.


Better angle on education

And more efforts are getting started. About a week ago, executives with Bank of Bartlett unveiled a school fund-raising campaign with a twist: Open a checking account or home equity line of credit with the bank, and you'll be given money to donate to the school of your choice.

"What I think we're doing here is we're appealing to the community spirit, to the heart, to the better angels in people," said Bank of Bartlett president Harold Byrd. "We're appealing to the nobility, if you will, that, hey, we all need to do a better job giving our teachers and schools more resources to do what they do so well."

There's also a symbolic gesture wrapped up in that campaign. In addition to money, the bank will send an apple to the donor's favorite teacher. Bank of Bartlett held a press conference at its 1870 Kirby Parkway headquarters last month to announce the initiative that was attended by school board members, PTA officials and parents.


Backing the backers

It may be a precursor to similar events. McVean's eighth-grade teacher at East, Margaret Taylor, is director emeritus of his foundation, which he hopes will inspire more business people to get involved at local schools.

In January, his group invited two national educators to East from Providence-St. Mel in Chicago, a school that's become a national model for how to succeed in urban education. Administrators Paul Adams and Jeanette DiBella observed classes at East, as well as the student tutoring program that's run by McVean's foundation.

Bill Sehnert, director of the East foundation, said the visit was one more in a string of small victories for the ambitious group.

"So often in Memphis I hear the excuse that, well, (the kids) come from poverty," Sehnert said. "Well, Paul Adams came from poverty. I asked him last year, when I was up there right after Martin Luther King Day, what (he did to) celebrate, since I assumed school was closed.

"He said, 'We don't close the school on Martin Luther King Day ... These kids need every chance they can get.' Well, you know, I was about as prepared for that answer as snow in July."

Poor kids can achieve too

Sehnert said someone recently called him from Frayser about replicating the East foundation's model there. Others from out of town have also become interested in the group.

"If we're going to get people who can be employed by Fred Smith and employed by Billy Dunavant and employed by St. Jude and by Steve Reynolds out at Baptist Hospital or Gary Shorb over at Methodist, we have to have people who can read, write and do arithmetic," Sehnert said.

In a paper written by McVean in 2005, "The Privatization of Populism," he spelled out the case for education reform.

"The shocking image out of New Orleans, of a large dysfunctional society growing in our very midst, raises straightforward questions," he wrote. "Does the current generation of Americans, nearly 50 years after Sputnik, still have the right stuff to recognize and deal with an impending national calamity, while time still allows? Or, are we simply consumed by the unprecedented prosperity of this same past 50 years?"

Businesspeople like McVean and Byrd aren't waiting for fate to answer those questions.

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