Parents Mull Merged School District

Memphis, TN – On a recent Friday afternoon two forms of uneven height, both dressed in pink, crossed a drying field and entered Winridge Park in the Hickory Hill area of Memphis. Valencia Woodin came here to play with her 4-year-old daughter. Woodin looks forward to enrolling her daughter in a merged Shelby County school system.

"I just envision a bigger and better school system," she said.

Two years from now, in September of 2013 Memphis City Schools will consolidate with Shelby County Schools. The details of the merger will be decided by a newly formed transition team and a unified countywide school board, but the success of the new district depends on how parents, like Woodin, react.

State, local, and federal dollars all follow the child, so, if a parent takes a child out of public school, the system gets less money, but public schools lose something else, too, when kids go elsewhere. Parental involvement and community attention also tend to "follow the child." Those things are harder to measure, but just as critical to a school's success.

Woodin's oldest son attends Lakeview Elementary, a city school not far from the park and Woodin herself is a product of the Memphis City Schools. She says those schools are excellent, but she also says there are lessons she hopes they learn from the county schools.

"Sometimes I wish that we did have the little paddle sometimes, you know. And I wish that we didn't have to have so much security," Woodin said.

There are significant cultural differences between the two districts. County schools allow corporal punishment. City schools don't. City teachers have a union, county teachers don't. The city schools run an advanced or "optional" program that serves only small number of students, and the Memphis school board supports charter schools. The county board is opposed to both. All that will have to be worked out in the merger.

"I'm indifferent right now," said Geoffrey Buehler, Sr. "I don't really care because my kids aren't involved."

Buehler's two youngest children are scaling the slides at the edge of Overton Park. They're both in private school. Buehler has three older kids, too. More than a decade ago he enrolled his older kids in Memphis City Schools. He thinks it was a mistake.

"I didn't want to risk the little ones' education," Buehler said.

Buehler says his 16-year-old has Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder. Buehler didn't think he was getting the attention he needed in Memphis City Schools, so Buehler enrolled him at Concord Academy, a private school that specializes in teaching children with special needs. Then he enrolled his youngest son at De La Salle Elementary School and his youngest daughter at St. Agnes Academy. Buehler says there is only one way he will revisit his decision to switch from public to private school.

"Only if I can't afford to send them to private schools no more," Buehler said.

The merger won't effect that, but there are parents who say their decision will be influenced by school consolidation.

"I worry quite a bit, don't know what to expect," said Mike Abutineh, a doctor who lives in Cordova and has seven kids. On a recent, windy afternoon he brought two of his kids to Shelby Farms Park. As his youngest slept in a stroller, he chatted about his oldest daughter who was enrolled at Chimney Rock Elementary when it became clear the city was going to take control of that school from the county, after annexing the land around it. Abutineh pulled his daughter out before the city takeover.

"We didn't give it a chance. We were too scared," he said.

Part of Abutineh's nervousness comes from his own experience in public school in California. "It was absolutely horrible," Abutineh said. "I got straight As without ever studying. And when I went to college I was shocked at the competition that I had to face and almost flunked out."

Abutineh's parents are Palestinian and immigrated to the U.S. from Jerusalem. Abutineh says, being new to the country, they just didn't realize anything was wrong until it was too late.

"They didn't have a clue about how the school systems are in the U.S. and how things worked," Abutineh said. He is much more vigilant with his children.

"If we start having lower academic standards or if we start having ethical conduct that's allowed that is not now allowed, that would really upset me and we'd have to take them all out and put them all in private schools," Abutineh said.

When the systems merge, Abutineh and other parents will be watching.