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VOL. 127 | NO. 180 | Friday, September 14, 2012

Herenton’s Hands to be ‘All Over’ Charter School Project

By Bill Dries

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A memorandum of understanding is still to come. And there are the details of curriculum not to mention funding and a budget.


But former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton will open the first of what he plans to be several charter schools in August, probably at Northside High School, for children in grades 6-12 who are in Memphis-Shelby County Juvenile Court custody.


“Some of you look at me as a politician,” Herenton, also a former Memphis City Schools superintendent, told reporters at this week’s announcement of Thurgood Marshall Academy. “My passion is education. It always has been. Being mayor was something of time and space. But I never left schools.”

The charter school is a project he’s been pursuing in some form since he resigned as mayor in July 2009. The Herenton who announced the project was more focused than he was toward the end of his 18-year tenure as mayor when he admitted at one point that he had lost interest in being the city’s chief executive.

“My hands will be all over this project,” he said Wednesday, Sept. 12.

The school will allow students to remain in the academy, with their parents’ permission, after they are released from custody.

Memphis City Schools currently operates a school called Hope Academy for children in juvenile detention. But when their time in detention ends, those children cannot attend the academy any more and often return to the schools they left.

The technical term for the phenomenon city schools Superintendent Kriner Cash, Herenton and Juvenile Court Judge Curtis Person Jr. all agree is a problem is “disproportionate minority contact.” And it is a national problem not unique to Memphis.

It means that more black children have contact with the juvenile justice system than is proportionate to their numbers as part of the total population of Shelby County. And the problem was one of many cited in the recent U.S. Justice Department Civil Rights Division report that the court is working to resolve on a number of points.

Person talked Wednesday of visiting children in the central intake unit at the court and seeing a child in custody because he wouldn’t tuck in his shirttail at school.

“That took the child away from school. It took the officer off the beat. And once he brought him to the court it would be an hour to an hour and a half to process the young man,” Person recalled. “It was an offense that should have been handled on the school campus. … It keeps children out of the juvenile justice system. Once they get into the system on many occasions they get deep into the system and unfortunately end up in the adult system.”

Cash has wanted a state-sanctioned police department for the school system almost since arriving in Memphis. The idea met resistance on several fronts in Memphis and Nashville. But Cash’s goal has been to give school officials more control over whether children are transported to Juvenile Court detention or not.

Without the schools police force, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. moved early in his tenure to allow police to write citations to juveniles for non-violent offenses instead of taking them to detention. That and other reforms have dramatically dropped the number of children in detention.

Herenton’s W.E.B. DuBois Consortium was among the groups rejected last year in its application for charter schools to the countywide school board. The board, acting on the recommendation of Cash and Shelby County Schools Superintendent John Aitken, rejected them arguing they would pose a financial hardship on both school systems and the merged school system to come.

Tennessee Treasurer David Lillard, who heard the appeal of the rejection, found there was no basis for the claim of financial hardship. With state approval, the school board had no choice but to approve the applications by Herenton and the other operators.

“We have the option of devoting one of the nine approved to fulfill this mission. I think that’s the road that Dr. Cash would like us to take,” Herenton added at the end of a press conference in which Cash talked openly of his desire to see the first academy opened within Northside High School.

“It already has a health clinic there. It already has a small program that serves adjudicated kids,” Cash said. “We can grow and build that into a really comprehensive all-services high school where the Thurgood Marshall Academy becomes the epicenter for the high school.”

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