Prep Academies Try to Address Over-age High School Students' Needs

Memphis, TN – Memphis City Schools is home to 110,000 students. Superintendent Kriner Cash says that 30,000 of those are at least a year behind. To address the needs of those over-age for grade by two years or more, Cash announced last fall that he would open MCS Prep Academies -- one in each quadrant of the city. Candice Ludlow reports.

"With all the prep schools we try to offer a private school feel in a public school environment."

Joris Ray is the director of Innovative Schools for Memphis City Schools. The Southwest Prep Academy is just blocks away from Stax on College. Colorful posters promoting citizenship and no bullying are splashed on the freshly painted cream hallways of the Stafford Academy, which houses the prep academy with about 150 students.

"It's an engaging lesson, which draws the students. It's your learning environment, it's your climate. It's that the student knows that someone here - if I'm absent, I'm not just in a large school where no one may or may not know that I'm missing. Somebody here if you're out, we're gonna call, we're gonna follow up, we're gonna check. And with all of our prep schools we try to have an intimate relationship with each student, so that we really know and so the students can share."

The Prep Academies are not just a stop along the way to a diploma, says Ray. Students and their parents must apply. The students are expected to dress in uniform most days and business attire on Wednesdays. Principal Walker walks the halls and calls the students by name. We visit Mr. Fletcher's U.S. History class, and Roosevelt Joy tells me what they're learning.

We're studying on the Great Depression the last couple of weeks. And about the Dust Bowl and how it had an effect on the economy and how it can translate to the world today and what's going on.

Will Jordan is an associate professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at Temple University. He's not convinced that the kids will be reached. He's concerned that the students are being warehoused, as a means to raise test scores in the traditional schools.

I'm not persuaded that warehousing isn't going on anyway. And it may be sort of a stopgap. I mean I think that kids for example who already know are left back, they're behind in grade. They're older already. Now, not only can they go to their regular school with all the friendships that they may have created along the way, but now they're sent to this special place that's just for them. That has to be demoralizing for a teenager.

Willie Rhodes is a regional superintendent for Memphis City Schools. He says they're not warehousing the students and creating separate schools for students who are violent.

"One of the biggest challenges is ego and the stigma that's attached to, "I'm going to a MCS prep school because I'm behind." Because for the most part if a kid is 17 in the 9th grade, he's not going to graduate," Rhodes said.

"If they're combining kids who are not doing well because they're not attending or they have learning issues along with kids who might be fighting or doing violent things. I'd worry about that and how they're discerning kids the reasons for our kids' failure in the first place," Will Jordan said.

Rhodes disagrees. "I think the misconception was that you have older kids in the same classroom with younger kids. It was more bullying than violence, so we separated them in order to reduce the possibility of bullying in the classroom."

The students at the prep academies range from 14 to 19 years old. Currently, the class sizes remain small, but Principal Walker expects enrollment to increase by 100 next Fall.

Myca is 17. She started Southwest Prep in January and plans to go to college to become an OB/GYN after she graduates next year. For her, the learning environment is better. "I do get a better understanding in math and English now. What's different? More help and breaking down things," Myca said.

Donquarius is 16 and he got into trouble because he likes to "check and play." He says he likes the school, but misses his friends. "It's like I can't open up to them cause I just met them. I don't know. I just can't open up to these people." Donquarius hopes to graduate in two years.

The Prep Academies have two years to prove themselves, and if they don't make the grade, they'll close.