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VOL. 127 | NO. 131 | Friday, July 6, 2012

Herenton Wants Juvenile System Charter School

By Bill Dries

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Former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton wants to open a charter school that draws its students from those youths in the custody or care of the Memphis-Shelby County Juvenile Court.

Herenton talked about the still forming proposal for a charter school under the name W.E.B. DuBois Academy this week as he returned to City Hall. He sought City Council support for a Memphis City Schools collaboration with charter school operators offered by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. MCS leaders declined to participate last year.


During council committee sessions Tuesday, July 3, Herenton took a familiar seat at the end of the committee table during executive session.

“It’s like old times,” he said.

“That’s why we’re all quiet,” council member Harold Collins replied as other council members laughed.

Herenton came to urge the council to specifically express its support for his call for the Memphis City Schools to sign a compact with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that binds school districts with charter school operators to share best practices and resources.

The compacts come with a $40 million pot of competitive grants and 14 school systems had signed at the end of 2011 including those in Chicago, Nashville, Los Angeles, Boston and New Orleans.

“It is of critical importance that the city of Memphis join these major cities,” said Herenton, the former MCS superintendent. “It doesn’t cost you any money. It doesn’t cost you any political scars. It’s just a good thing to do.”

The council is scheduled to vote on the resolution of support at its July 17 meeting.

Herenton’s proposed set of DuBois Academies have won approval from state officials. That forced reluctant approval of the applications by the countywide school board who are currently focused on a charter school that would work with Juvenile Court to educate children who are “under court jurisdiction,” Herenton said.

“I’m not so much interested in the money as I am in the symbolism of collaboration between the school districts and the charter school community,” he said. “There’s no intelligent reason why there should be a rift.”

Herenton is also seeking support for the compact from the Shelby County Commission, which is the dominant local funder of both public school systems and will be the only local funder of the merged school system.

MCS leaders declined to participate although the Gates Foundation is funding separate reform initiatives in the city system to the tune of $90 million with a $40 million local match from private nonprofits and donors. That Gates Foundation involvement is now broadening in the form of a new contract being worked out that would involve the consolidated school system to come.

The MCS refusal to participate in the charter schools compact reflects the serious reservations the school system has long had about the institutions even as the Tennessee Legislature first raised the cap on the number of charter schools permitted in the state in 2010 and then eliminated the cap entirely in 2012.

MCS has more charter schools than any other public school system in the state.

Herenton has his own reservations, which were reflected when council member Jim Strickland asked him about the criticism that charter schools take the best students from conventional public schools.

“Charter schools in Memphis – it’s kind of a mixed bag,” Herenton answered as he said his set of charter schools would seek “students with the greatest academic needs and deficiencies.”

“Without being critical of some of the other schools, it’s apparent to me that there may be some selectivity involved in the student enrollments, how they are managed. And that’s not what we are all about,” Herenton said.

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