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VOL. 132 | NO. 35 | Friday, February 17, 2017

Dan Conaway

Dan Conaway

Publicly Advancing


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WHEN PUBLIC GOES PRIVATE, WE HAVE IT BACKWARDS. My kids and I know more about public schools and public school innovation than our brand-new secretary of education and voucher poster girl, Betsy DeVos, and our own state senator and voucher poster boy, Brian Kelsey.

We actually went to public schools, actually benefiting from the innovative thinking, planning and dedication of professional educators looking to advance public education. In my case, it was Memphis State Training School – now Campus School – with a couple of student teachers in every classroom, laboratories for the newest ideas and teaching techniques. For my children, it was the optional programs at Idlewild Elementary, Snowden Middle and White Station, and interaction and relationship with and understanding of and respect for their city and who lives in it, top to bottom.

You don’t truly know a kid until you’ve raced each other down the same hallways, or traded lunches, or given yours to somebody who didn’t have one.

No, not every child in public schools is fortunate enough to land in an optional program or be in an experimental classroom, but what happens in those programs and classrooms, what happens when new ideas are tried in public schools, stays in public schools and serves as a model to potentially help every child in public schools. 

When Betsy and Brian use our tax dollars on vouchers to send a few kids to private schools, they leave every other kid behind. Every one of those public dollars is spent, well, privately, and whatever happens to those few children and how and what they’re taught remains private, the antithesis of the public process. 

Retreat into private enclaves doesn’t solve any of our public problems.

What Christian Brothers University is doing is a lesson in how private/public partnerships can advance public education.

Rather than let the failing public school across the street continue to fail, the private university took it on. Working with – with is such a better word than against – Shelby County Schools, they turned Fairview Middle School into the Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, concentrating on science, technology, engineering, arts and math – adding arts to the STEM curriculum that is garnering praise across the country.

As CBU president John Smarrelli told me, “Our students mentor their students, our faculty mentors their faculty, and everyone learns.”

I’ll say. Students can end up with as many as 30 hours of college credits and an immeasurable supply of self-worth – in short supply in so much of our city. Put another way, straight from the school’s pledge:

“The world is a better place because we were born.”

And CBU is doing it again. They are behind Crosstown High School, opening in the Crosstown Concourse in 2018 with as innovative an approach to public education as that “vertical urban village” is to inner city living.

CBU isn’t retreating into ivy-covered towers or private classrooms; they are publicly engaging in their city and committing their expertise to improve it.

We can learn a lot from that.

I’m a Memphian, and I vouch for public schools. 

Dan Conaway, a communication strategist and author of “I’m a Memphian,” can be reached at dan@wakesomebodyup.com.

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