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VOL. 6 | NO. 3 | Saturday, January 12, 2013

Making Sense of the Merger

What to expect when city and county schools unite in August 2013

By Bill Dries

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There are several certainties for public education in Shelby County when the new school year begins in August.

Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools will be consolidated into a single countywide system and there will be more competition than most Memphians can remember in their lifetimes for that single consolidated school system.

The view of how a consolidated school system will look in August  – when Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools merge – can appear distorted, but as some realities come into focus, many more need to be clarified before the opening bell.

Memphis News File Photo: Lance Murphey

Public schools in the six suburban towns and cities in Shelby County will be part of the consolidated school system for at least the first year of the merger.

As the new calendar year began, leaders of the suburbs were negotiating with other parties in the Memphis federal court lawsuit over possible terms for the formation of separate municipal school districts they favor.

But parents of children in both school systems are starting to make decisions for the first year of the merger that are more basic than the broad political questions still to be answered in courtrooms and at school board meetings.

The basics are: Will their child stay at the school they now attend? And will they have the same teachers and principal?

“Some are already going to private schools. But for most of the people in my neighborhood and my friends who have kids in the elementary, middle and high school – especially the high school – they are not really worried about anything,” said Sharon Farley, president of the Shelby County Council of PTAs. “It seems that the school board and the system are not going to make any changes. They believe they are set.”

Brandy Rogers DeWeese of Memphis is the mother of two children – one in second grade and one in third grade – who attend Campus School at the University of Memphis. She has a few more years before deciding to keep the kids in the new school district or sending them elsewhere.

“I think we are going to be fine where we are. We’re lucky in that way,” DeWeese said. “But we’ll have to make some big decisions sooner or later.”

When DeWeese and Farley talk about not being worried, that is relative. Parents have perennial concerns about changes at schools even without such a historic merger. There are concerns about a beloved teacher retiring or a trusted principal moving on or attendance zone boundaries changing. And at least one of those types of changes is going to happen several times during a child’s journey through a school system.

“I think we saw a lot of private school kids go to the public schools during the recession," DeWeese said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there might be a slight swing the other way. Parents are willing to do that kind of crazy budgeting where you will do whatever it takes for your child’s education. This is something I keep hearing from friends – we don’t get a second chance on that. … It’s not something that we just sort of make a casual decision about.”

But Beth Rooks of Briarcrest Christian School, one of several private schools with ad campaigns under way, said Briarcrest hasn’t seen an increase in interest over last year or recent years.

Private school campus visits by parents start each year in November and run through January with contracts for the next school year signed in February.

“We have the same number of tours and same level of interest as we’ve had in the past,” Rooks said. “We haven’t seen a drastic increase in people wanting to come tour the school. It’s really kind of remained the same.”

The speculation about a noticeable private school shift is based on what happened in the 1970s during the last major change in public education in Memphis – court-ordered bussing. Then white flight from Memphis City Schools not only filled local private schools, it led to the creation of numerous new ones.

“The environment is totally different,” Rooks said. “We’re just kind of sitting back waiting to see what is going to happen. I don’t think anybody has a crystal ball.”

The game changer for parents who might be looking for alternatives in general is charter schools and the state-run Achievement School District, which, starting in August, will have control of 12 low-performing schools in Memphis.

The schools eligible are the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state in terms of student performance, and the schools selected so far have spawned a competition for students by Memphis City Schools and ASD leaders for students as well as teachers in those areas.

The competition is an indication that while much of the attention in terms of judging the success of the merger is on parents of children in high performing schools who can go elsewhere, there is already a search and market for alternatives among parents of children in low performing schools with or without a merger happening.

This month, they begin looking over material on the set of optional schools the still-to-be-merged school system will offer for the first year of the merger.

That is happening even though the countywide school board still hasn’t made any final decision yet on how the optional schools will be structured countywide.

However, the board has voted to close Humes Middle School as the first step toward making Humes an optional school for the music arts starting in August. The reason for the board vote in December was so Memphis City Schools officials could have information for parents reviewing the optional school programs.

The county schools version of optional schools is the International Baccalaureate program, which starts later in a student’s learning path.

Farley said there is interest among some county schools parents in the city school system’s version of optional schools.

“The ones that have babies – they’re taking kind of a wait-and-see attitude. They are waiting to see if they can get into optional programs,” she said. “I think most people are taking a wait-and-see.”

Parents of students in the CLUE (Creative Learning in a Unique Environment) program for gifted children have been showing up at school board meetings for several months on the basis of emails sent from administrators or other members.

But CLUE hasn’t been on the agenda of recommendations from the consolidation planning commission the board has voted on to date.

That is the issue that prompted DeWeese to begin reaching out to other CLUE parents and put together a grapevine through email and other social media while being careful to avoid political land mines in assembling the network.

“The CLUE parents are apolitical. That was our only concern,” she said. “We didn’t want to alienate anybody. So, we thought if we sought to be apolitical and to be a loosely based email chain of folks, that was our best strategy.”

So she has been showing up with lots of other parents at school board meetings since late last year.

Farley’s proximity to the process has included serving on the school board’s ad hoc committee that recommended a process for selecting the merger superintendent who is to be hired and working by mid-February.

She says county parents have the same concerns about which programs will continue or how similar but not identical programs in each school system will be combined and funded.

“A lot of the programs that are not state and federally mandated are basically unfunded – nice to have,” Farley said. “Those are the things that if they are important to you, you are going to want to push really hard to make sure that they stay there. It isn’t going to be the principal. You are going to be discussing it with the commissioners because they are the ultimate final decision makers.”

DeWeese agrees.

“I think quality is really a huge issue for us because we already have such a case of the haves and have nots in the city schools,” she said. “You can see that when you have children crying, begging for their schools not be closed and then we go up and we’re at great schools and we’re asking for them to preserve gifted services. I often feel foolish about that but I want to make sure that all kids in Memphis have access to high quality and continuity.”

Some county schools parents have a different perspective on the same issue.

Farley said she questions parents who say they want to have nothing to do with Memphis City Schools.

“I want to know where they are coming from. Are you saying it because it’s a knee-jerk reaction or do you know something I don’t know,” she said. “They see what happens in the Memphis City Schools and there are so many layers before you get to the top and so many layers of bureaucracy. They think if I have a problem – if my child is not being served the way I think my child should be served, they don’t see that there are avenues they can go. It’s overwhelming.”

And she encounters city school system parents who say, “I want what you have.”

“And I say, ‘What is it that we have that you want?’ And the first thing I get more often than not is the accessibility and the visibility of the superintendent. Whether they like him or not, it’s just the fact that he’s there and he’s in the schools. That’s what they like. To them, that’s important.”

Farley sees many county school parents who are willing to wait a school year to form the school systems. She doesn’t see those parents being reluctant to leave the merged school system after the first year if there is a path left open.

“I personally do not think that they would stay. If the door is opened and the judge rules you can, but you have to do it in 2014-2015, they are gong to run with it,” Farley said. “I don’t think it has anything to do with being part what is essentially going to be Memphis City Schools just by the sheer numbers. It’s more that they feel like they would have more control.”

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