The school is East High School, and the twin driving forces behind a new push to improve it are Principal Barbara King and Class of 1961 alumnus Charles McVean, a commodities trader who's as colorful as he is wealthy. This week, they launched the Greater East High Foundation with a pep rally. Their hope is that a $14 million renovation of the school funded by the Memphis Board of Education combined with an eventual $3 million in pledges from graduates and businesses will turn East around.
This is one of those fire-and-ice pairings that should be interesting to watch. King grew up in Memphis and attended city elementary schools before moving to Illinois for high school and college. She was lured back to Memphis from Texas in 2003 by new superintendent Carol Johnson to bring some stability to East, which had run through five principals in six years. King radiates clear-eyed calmness and toughness and won't let McVean or anyone else take up all the oxygen in a room.
McVean, known as "Chas" to his classmates, is a gambler/philosopher/economist/trader who made news in the 1980s when he nearly brought legalized horseracing with parimutuel betting to Memphis. During a visit to his high school alma mater last week, he readily admitted that he spent more than his share of time in the principal's office for being a bad boy. When he's determined to do something, watch out.
"Chas is on a tear," says Gene Carlisle, East High Class of 1960, who will lend his own considerable wealth and know-how as CEO of a company that owns more than 100 Wendy's franchises in the South.
"Barbara and I are 50-50 partners," says McVean. "My part of the deal is I'm always adamant but never dogmatic."
Replies King, "I think I've met my match."
He hopes the foundation will "shame Central High School into following suit." She wants to "move White Station down to second place."
That could be even harder than building FedExForum or AutoZone Park. East boasts a central location between Poplar and Walnut Grove just east of the Central Library, strong boys and girls athletic teams, an award-winning vocational-technical program, and a smattering of excellent students who earn full scholarships to four-year colleges. Overall, however, only about 25 percent of East graduates go to either a two-year or four-year college, and 80 percent of the student body is on free or reduced-price lunch. The optional program for college-bound kids has taken a hit, and the main building has fallen into such disrepair that the auditorium has been unusable for three years.
That would have been unthinkable back in McVean's day. As an all-white school drawing students from nearby Chickasaw Gardens and East Memphis, East routinely sent as many or more grads to Vanderbilt and Ivy League colleges as any school in Memphis. By 1970, East was often the focus of the busing-for-integration debate, and its student population rapidly changed over the next decade. The bottom fell out in the mid-1990s with a rash of shootings and principal turnovers.
There has been talk for years among alumni such as McVean and Spence Wilson, CEO of Kemmons Wilson Companies, about doing something, but it took the arrival of Johnson and King to get it going. The big picture includes new housing and retail along the north flank on Walnut Grove, a new feeder elementary school near Sam Cooper Boulevard, a refurbished building, and a unique operating agreement with the school board that will allow King and the foundation to cut red tape to fix the auditorium, wire the library for computers, and install a security system in the parking lot.
In addition to underwriting spirit-building dinners for students and teachers, McVean will pay student tutors $10 an hour and up to $400 a month to work with younger and underperforming students. He said the foundation will target median-level students and prepare them for jobs in, say, health care, distribution, or food service.
"Our target is to make the median graduate a person who, with one or two additional years of training, St. Jude and FedEx will fight to get their hands on," McVean says.
Carlisle, who grew up poor in Mississippi and Memphis, said annual turnover in the fast-food industry is nearly 100 percent. On the bright side, though, most of his managers are promoted from within and wind up running a $1.5 million-a-year store.
"I hire 4,000 people a year in my company," he says. "Over the 28 years I have been in business, I have watched the quality of education of these kids drop like a rock. The only way to make a difference is to put your arms around them and show them somebody cares enough to keep them in school."