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VOL. 121 | NO. 182 | Friday, September 15, 2006

Small High School Clicks Along With Eye on Being Different - and Better

By Amy O. Williams

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CLASS IN SESSION: Kana Mabon is the principal of the New Small High School inside Caldwell Elementary School at 230 Henry Ave. in the Uptown community. The school opened Aug. 14 and has 47 ninth graders. -- Photo By Amy O. Williams

For the first couple of weeks of the 2006-2007 school year, high school principal Kana Mabon was a math teacher. Until Memphis City Schools found someone to teach that subject, the principal of the New Small High School did her best to convey her knowledge of ninth-grade mathematics.

"It's been very busy," Mabon said of the first few weeks of classes.

The new high school opened Aug. 14 inside Caldwell Elementary School at 230 Henry Ave. The second floor of the Uptown Memphis elementary school temporarily will house the high school in the former classrooms of the Memphis Academy of Health Sciences, which moved to a new location at 3925 Chelsea Ave. Ext. earlier this year.

Funding for the new school comes primarily from Memphis City Schools, and officials with the district hope to have a location selected for it by next summer, said Elsie Lewis Bailey, high school academic superintendent.

Busy is as busy does

One month into the school year, Mabon has the same hopeful outlook for the school that she had when Supt. Carol Johnson first called her about the job last year.

"This job is what I am," said Mabon, who lists among her previous positions a job as a U.S. Army intelligence officer and teacher and assistant principal at Cypress Middle School at 2109 Howell Ave.

The new high school started with about 50 new ninth graders and a staff of five new teachers. Some dropped out because of transportation problems, so 47 students now attend the school. A grade will be added each year, and the school will accept about 60 students in each grade.

The New Small High School - as it is being called until a name is determined - is designed to provide a small setting that allows for more personalized learning. The plan for the school originally was for it to be a partnership between Memphis City Schools and BRIDGES USA Inc., and have space inside the BRIDGES Center at 477 North Fifth St.

The staff of the nonprofit BRIDGES, which teaches life skills to young people, realized during the planning stage that they would need another year before a small high school could be opened in their facility. Lisa Moore Willis, vice president of planning for BRIDGES, said the staff needed more time for planning.

"We are in conversation with Memphis City Schools about there being a second small school here next year," Willis said. "The hope is that there will be Kana's school, and then an additional small school here at BRIDGES that is part of the whole small school movement.

"We're committed to supporting Kana and working with her in leadership training and staff training for her faculty and any way that we can be supportive, as we do with any school, particularly wanting to support her in this smallschool effort."

Climb every mountain

But that speed bump didn't stop Mabon and Memphis City Schools from moving forward with the small high school.

"Dr. Johnson and I believed we would get the kids to come here," she said.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded a $100,000 grant through the Small Schools Project of the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES) to start the high school. CES is a nonprofit organization based in Oakland, Calif., that works to promote "personalized, equitable and academically challenging schools," according to the coalition's Web site.

The remainder of the funding will be provided by MCS, Bailey said. The school is the smallest of three small schools in the district including Hollis F. Price Middle College at 807 Walker Ave. and Middle College High School at 737 Union Ave.

Small classes, big successes

Students are able to have a sense of ownership over their educations at the small schools, Mabon said.

In their freshman years, students prepare a life plan for the next four years and beyond. They establish career goals and research what level of education will be required to get them there. In the second semester of their senior years, students will have an internship in their chosen fields.

Mabon said the students at the small high school will be different from students at other public high schools in Memphis, and she plans to give them the tools to do just that.

"In order to be different, you have to look different, think different and act different," she said.

To prove that point, Mabon eventually will require the students to wear buttoned-down shirts, and will encourage the boys to wear ties.

"It's a competitive world," she said, and she tells her students they should "do anything you can - that's legal - to get you where you need to be."

Part of that approach involves teaching the students to respect other people by giving them respect.

"That's the only way I know how to manage a school and a classroom," she said.

She expects students to learn how to talk to adults, and how to interact with one another - something Mabon said she learned from her mother. She wants to build a culture and climate at the school where everyone is respectful - including students, teachers and herself, she said.

Mabon plans for the school to form partnerships with community organizations such as BRIDGES.

Though nothing is definite yet, Mabon said Johnson has been talking with officials at the National Civil Rights Museum about a partnership that would allow the students of the small high school access to the museum for research and community service. She said by performing community service, students will learn to develop a giving mentality instead of expecting things to be handed to them.

She also hopes that with the small classes and individualized curriculums, students will avoid some of the problems faced by other schools in the district.

"This is a fight-free school," she said. "We don't fight here. We have too much to do."

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