Back To School

The only thing missing in some new Memphis schools is students.

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City and county public schools opened this week, and students aren't the only ones who could use an orientation.

Kriner Cash, his staff, and members of the Memphis City Council and school board should climb on a yellow bus and check out three new high schools their predecessors left them — and taxpayers — at a cost of nearly $100 million.

Each of the schools — Southwind High School, Douglass High School, and Manassas High School — comes with the latest furnishings and technology and some important unfinished business. Taken together, they offer a lesson in school choice, city-county politics, urban renewal, flight from the inner city, and the underpinnings of the current conflict between the Memphis school board and the City Council.

Southwind, located in an unincorporated area of suburban sprawl between Germantown and Collierville, opened in 2007 as a Shelby County school but will become a city school when Memphis completes a politically touchy annexation of the adjacent area. The school has 1,484 students this fall in grades 9-11 and will add the 12th grade in 2009. More than 90 percent of the students are black. U.S. district judge Bernice Donald has ordered Shelby County Schools to make all of its schools within 15 percent of the system's overall 35 percent minority enrollment. The school system has appealed the order, and a decision is expected later this year.

Manassas, which opened in January, is in a blighted neighborhood near the abandoned Firestone manufacturing plant about two miles north of downtown. Famous as the city's original high school for African Americans, Manassas graduated just 38 students in 2007 before the new building was completed. Capacity is 800 students. Current enrollment is just over 500, according to Principal Gloria Williams.

Douglass, located in a hardscrabble industrial area of North Memphis dotted with small businesses on Chelsea Avenue and single-family homes, is one of the feel-good stories of the year. It was closed in 1981 and rebuilt in 2007 and 2008. On Monday, alumni from as far away as California came to a 7 a.m. dedication ceremony called "Coming Home and Giving Back."

"It's all about school and community pride," said Principal Janet Ware Thompson.

Completion of the gym and auditorium are behind schedule, however, and the school opened Monday with about 350 students, well below its capacity of 800 students.

Douglass and Manassas are touted as prototypes of smaller neighborhood high schools. Their revival is due to dedicated alumni and political muscle. Former Memphis school board member Sara Lewis championed Manassas, her alma mater, and city councilman Barbara Ware, a Douglass graduate, did the same for her old school. Even if Douglass and Manassas reach their capacity, their enrollment will be about a third of the largest and most overcrowded high schools in Memphis — Cordova and White Station — which each had more than 2,200 students last year.

Southwind is likely to be at its capacity of 2,000 students by 2009. Super-sized Southwind sprawls across a 62-acre site jointly approved in 2006 by the city and county school boards and purchased for an eye-opening $5.2 million. At 325,000 square feet of space, Southwind is tied with its design twin, Arlington High School, as the biggest public school in Tennessee. Neighboring subdivisions along Hacks Cross and Shelby Drive boomed before the subprime mortgage crisis came along and are still marked by signs that say "NO CITY TAXES."

Most City Council members and MCS leaders were not in office when construction of these three schools was approved. Cash succeeded former Superintendent Carol Johnson in July. Nine of the 13 members of the City Council are newcomers this year, and that number will rise to 10 when Scott McCormick resigns in two weeks. Former school board member Wanda Halbert moved over to the City Council, and Lewis was named to a full-time city job.

At a Southwind High ribbon-cutting ceremony last week, there was little recognition of its city-county parentage. City officials were invited, but only school board member Betty Mallott showed up. The City Council voted against completing annexation of the Southwind area in 2007 (shopping centers and commercial areas have been annexed but not schools and houses), and another push could be five years away, according to Shelby County Schools superintendent Bobby Webb.

The Central Nutrition Center is the symbol of excess in Memphis City Schools. But pricey catering and spoiled food are small potatoes compared to the cost of new high schools. Shelby County, with city and county tax money and the blessing of the Memphis school board, built near suburban subdivisions where population is increasing. MCS builds in declining neighborhoods as a catalyst for redevelopment. Either way, it's an expensive proposition.

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