Saturday, January 08, 2011

The C Word

I'm talking about consolidation, what did you think I meant? Although, if you live in Memphis or especially Shelby County, that word may seem as dirty to you as...whatever else you thought I meant.

For those who live outside Memphis, (or under a rock), here's my brief and succinct synopsis of the required background knowledge: Memphis is contained within Shelby county, but is surrounded by unincorporated suburbs heading East to somewhere near Jerusalem. Memphis City Schools (MCS) administers all schools inside a certain line, and Shelby County Schools (SCS) has the outfield. They are two completely separate school districts, with separate superintendents, teachers, student bodies, etc. To understand how angry this fact makes some people, you'd have to know more about the peculiar and special dynamic that defines the Memphis metro area, and frankly, we don't have that kind of time. In addition, I am firmly in the Memphis city camp, so I'm not the one to offer an objective view of the issues involved, and I want to be very clear that I'm not claiming any such thing. I will say that I, like most Memphians, know people who will readily proclaim that every criminal from killers to carjackers to small-time grifters is just crouched at the city/county boundary, waiting for another chunk of the suburbs to be annexed into the city so they can wreak havoc on a fresh group of victims who were safe in the arms of the county just the day before. I've heard of mothers who simply will not bring their children inside Memphis proper. Of course this is absurd, to put it mildly. On the other hand, many of us who live in the city view the suburbs as somewhat like a prissy cousin who thinks she is far too pure and perfect to associate with the likes of us, when we don't even like her anyway!

Moving on, my purpose here is to talk specifically about the current situation with the schools. The county decided to engage us (I said I'm not objective, didn't I?) in a game of chicken by announcing its intention of applying for special school district status, which would effectively freeze the city/county boundary and prevent the future absorption of any more SCS schools into the MCS system. That's what normally happens when a part of the unincorporated area is annexed by the city. (See fairly recently: Cordova.) In response to this announcement, the MCS board voted to dissolve its charter. What that means is that, upon voter approval, MCS will cease to exist, and all schools contained anywhere within Shelby county, whether inside or outside city lines, will be Shelby County Schools. Needless to say, this was a bold move that has drawn both support and criticism from both sides of the line. MCS, as an administrative body, has long been plagued by incompetence, corruption, Sartre-esque levels of bureaucracy and red tape, and periodic flareups of scandal. In addition, MCS is charged with educating kids from some of the most socio-economically disadvantaged neighborhoods not only in the state and region, but in the country. However, it also has some jewels in its crown, not to mention hidden gems where learning is happening every day in every way. I firmly believe and know that inside every single MCS building, on any given day, miracles take place. I also know that it is a fantasy and a mistake to believe that we can measure the worth and effectiveness of a school based solely on measurable and visible markers such as test scores and elaborate displays of student work. And finally, I know that for many citizens of the Memphis metro area, none of that even matters because any school "tainted" with the MCS label is automatically, in their mind, a "bad" school. And while I'm out here, I might as well say it: to many of those same people, any school that serves a predominantly African-American student body, as is the case in most MCS schools, is a "bad" school. In Memphis, the term "good" school is too often a euphemism for a white school.

I know, I said I was going to talk about consolidation, and I am, I swear! I just feel like the context is crucial to understanding this issue, and more specifically, to our ability to step back and look at it objectively. As a life-long Memphian, a teacher in MCS for a combined total of about fourteen years, and the mother of three children who attend MCS schools and a fourth who will enter kindergarten in the fall, this issue is very important to me. The personal is political, as they say. And as someone who grew up in a now-annexed suburb and attended then-SCS schools, then chose to move to the city proper and stay in it, I have at least some insight into both sides of the issue. I also consider myself a liberal Democrat, which is where the call for consolidation of the two systems has typically come from over the years. I have believed in consolidation for a long time; I've argued for it, rolled my eyes over it, been outraged over the slowness of it, right along with my compatriots. But y'all, I'm here to say that I have a very bad feeling about this.

This is not how it was supposed to happen. We are delivering ourselves into the hands of the people who sought legislation just to keep us away. They hate us! Why are we so happy about putting them in charge? Are we cutting off our nose to spite our face? Believe me, I did a little gloating in the beginning over the poetic justice of it all. You asked for it, I thought. That will teach you to make threats. But the more I thought about it, the more my thoughts went more along the lines of oh crap, what have we done? As a teacher, I do not trust SCS to care about my school or my students. I also know first hand that MCS knows how to do certain things right, no matter what anyone says. For example, we are masters of compliance. Many MCS schools receive special funding based on the number of disadvantaged students enrolled, and this involves a whole lot of documentation and proof that we are using that money the way it is meant to be used. In my experience, SCS sucks at this kind of thing, because they have very little experience with it. Another thing MCS excels at is providing services for exceptional students on both ends of the spectrum. The gifted program in MCS starts in pre-K. In SCS? Third grade is my understanding. I was enrolled in the gifted program in a Shelby County School as a child. We met once a week, and as often as not, we sat out in a portable, forgotten. There wasn't even a teacher for us. All three of my school-aged kids are in CLUE and they go anywhere from twice a week (pre-K-5) to every day (7-9) to a dedicated, qualified teacher of gifted students. They have IEPs that we have input into each year. The same is true for students with learning disabilities. MCS knows only too well that failure to provide services means they pay for private school for that child.

SCS simply does not have any experience with the student population that MCS serves. They do not have an Optional (magnet) program; we do. They do not offer choice transfers; we do. They do not fund athletics or, in some schools, art and music classes; we do. Their students don't wear uniforms; ours do. An article in yesterday's Commercial Appeal stated that the current SCS board members would serve out their existing terms, and that "SCS board policy would trump MCS policies. That includes issues such as dress code and discipline." The same article quotes "attorney Chuck Cagle, who has had a major role in at least five school consolidations in Tennessee," as saying that "Consolidation does not lead to tax savings. Funding bodies find other ways to use the money." I understand that jobs are replicated in the two systems, but really, when you triple the size of a school system, can you still expect one person to do all the work his/her job previously entailed for the new district?

I am having a hard time coming up with any likely benefits of this merger happening in this way. How is it going to be good for my kids--the ones I teach or the ones I live with? I've never wanted my kids to go to County schools. How is it going to benefit, or at least not hinder, me as a teacher? I have never wanted to work for SCS. (Not that I love everything about MCS at an HR level, but still, how is SCS any better?) How is it going to benefit the city? How?


Rita said...

Oh, reading this made my eye twitch.

I feel for your position--as a teacher and as a parent. Every thought that crossed my mind as I was reading this was something that later you addressed. I'd be concerned, too. I think that eventually the SCS will get things figured out with the new population they're serving and be able to feel out how many people they need to serve the new size, since with the addition of the different population and their needs, the same ratio of personnel per student might not be enough.

But, the kids and teachers are going to suffer in the meanwhile and it just sucks that you'll be suffering as a parent and as a teacher. It seems it would make more sense for the administration of the more diverse district to absorb the one with the more homogenous one instead of the other way around, since they already have experience with it.

Anonymous said...

Please do not be so quick to generalize the SCS and Shelby County residents. I agree that many County residents act as if they feel the way you claimed BUT it's not everyone. And it's not just a few who don't see Memphis as the "big, bad, black" part of town. After all, we still chose to live in proximity. I teach in MCS and I live in SCS. I love being a teacher. I love Memphis. I love living in Shelby County. These ideas can exist simultaneously.

Sassy Molassy said...

You're right, not everyone who lives in the county is like that. I was trying to describe the overall dynamic rather than the full range of what individuals on either side may think.

fancycwabs said...

As a liberal who believes (generally speaking) in consolidation, and a former MCS teacher, I feel your trepidation. Since I taught at one of the worst, most overlooked schools in MCS, I don't necessarily agree that MCS can handle all its problems alone, but this particular method of consolidation seems poorly-thought-out, and is going to cause harm to students on both sides for the benefit of powerful administrators.

sbanbury said...

Sassy, WE will be the new Shelby County School District and current County students will benefit from our diversity and broad range of special education initiatives and options.

As long as smart parents like you engage the process, this consolidation, albeit rushed and charged with emotion, will result in better opportunity for ALL of our kids, no matter which side of the lines they live on now.

Sassy Molassy said...

Scott,that may be true eventually, but everything I'm seeing from legal says the SCS board will serve out its term and that SCS policy will trump all, at least in the beginning. I just want answers and something solid backing them up. What will happen to the optional program and CLUE? What will happen to choice transfers? If the county folks, including most residents, have any say, those programs will go away because they don't want "our" kids in "their" schools.

April "Grim" said...

Well all I know is if they cut out choice transfers I'll be moving that will be the last straw for me and this crap city. There is NO way I'm sending my kids to Kingsbury or Wells Station I have worked too hard to keep them in Richland. I didn't know about the other differences in the schools but clue and many other programs ran by MCS do a lot of good for kids and it would be a sad mistake to cut those programs out our kids need them.

Jennifer said...

They don't need to worry about me. I don't want my kid in their schools either. That's why I don't live in the county. What I am really, really concerned about is what will happen to Campus School. We don't even have a district. We are completely separate from all the optional schools when it comes to enrollment; we even have a separate waiting list. We are also one of the best elementary schools in the state and one of only a few (none of which are County schools) that I want my child going to. I'm also very concerned about choice transfers going away because that will KILL my property value. I know this all sounds very selfish, but never has a political issue had the potential to affect my family this close to home and I'm finding the feeling quite disturbing. I'm generally a pretty optimistic person, but this makes me very uneasy since I also think it is not a good solution anyway.

sbanbury said...

Sorry I walked away for a minute. My kids are in optional at Snowden and both in Clue. I would likely be a homeschooler if these programs weren't available. That said, I don't believe for a minute that either program would actually be dismantled however chips fall. IMO, threats being made about their discontinuation under the SCS are just that, and intended to sway the vote in favor of continued segregation.