The Transition Planning Commission charged with planning the merger of Memphis and Shelby County Schools gathered ideas and inspiration for the new district through a grueling series of public listening sessions.
Commission member and co-chair of the Community Engagement Committee Kenya Bradshaw said there was one group whose comments really stood out, “Our students are much more thoughtful about this process than adults have been.”
The student listening session was held in the auditorium at Colonial Middle School. As you might expect from a group of mostly teenagers, there was discussion of uniforms and food. Kenya Bradshaw isn’t sure there is much the commission can do about that. She urges students to bring their concerns to the school board. But other issues brought up by students are central to what Bradshaw says the planning commission will be working on in the coming months. For example, about half-way through the evening a junior, a skinny kid with braces and dressed in a suit and tie, stood up.
Justin Pearson attends Mitchell High School and he’s upset because his school has a limited selection of Advanced Placement courses. (Advanced Placement, or AP courses, are some of the highest level courses a high school student can take. Some colleges give students college credit for these courses. And the most selective colleges weigh them heavily when they make their admissions decisions). Pearson’s school in South Memphis has two AP courses, whereas about 15 miles away, students at White Station High School can choose from a smorgasbord of more than 20 AP courses.
“There is a lack of equity in the current system. So, when you attend certain schools, like you attend White Station, means that your possibilities are higher than if you attend Westwood,” Pearson said and got a loud cheer.
Pearson is not your typical high-schooler. Already, he carries his very own business cards. The card reads simply “Academic, Athlete & Advocate.” I asked him why he wasn’t at White Station, or one of the city’s nine other Optional high schools, which tend to have more AP courses. Pearson says he only recently moved back to Memphis from Virginia. It was an adjustment and not just academically. Pearson thought Mitchell would be a better transition school, because he knew people there.
“The coach there—head coach—he’s the best friend of my uncle for like the past 30 years. He knew me before I knew me,” Pearson said. “And hearing everywhere you go, ‘You should go to White Station, you should go to this…’ Well, instead of making schools Optional, why don’t you just make them equal? And everyone have the same possibilities and potential, so that I can go to Mitchell and be just as proud as if I go to White Station.”
Plenty of adults, at other listening sessions, stood up and echoed Pearson’s concerns. But there were also lots of adults who stood up and said they really liked these smaller, more rigorous programs (like the city’s Optional Program, or the county’s International Baccalaureate Program, or IB Program) and didn’t want to see them disappear. And this is something that came up again and again, if you attended enough listening sessions—not everyone wants the same things.
So, when the planning commission hears contradictory comments from the community it serves, how does it reconcile them and make everyone happy?
“I think that that’s the core of the work that we’re having to do,” Bradshaw said. “It’s never to diminish programs. It’s recognizing that we need to have multiple IB programs, so that every child can have access to it in the area that they live in,” Bradshaw said. “I am so excited about this process and what I really hope to see is we are providing an educational system that every person in our county will be proud to send their child to.”
The commission will have more specifics about how they’ll accomplish that in June.