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On Notice

On Notice

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Now that the initial shock of the catastrophe of September 11th has worn off and the nation has settled down for a long-term combat with an elusive -- and somewhat illusory-seeming -- foe, attention in Memphis and Shelby County has returned somewhat to more local and mundane concerns.

On the high side was the debut this week of the Memphis Grizzlies, the city's new NBA team, which had a long-awaited exhibition game with the Portland Trailblazers scheduled for The Pyramid. On the low side was the latest black eye received by our community, in the form of brand-new rankings of state schools which show that Memphis is home to fully 64 of the 98 Tennessee schools ranked as under-performing according to an official state measure.

Without intending to make light of the current national emergency, which is serious indeed, we would suggest that this showing by the city school system is, in its own way, an equally grave threat to the future of our community. And there is nothing at all illusory about this one.

Basically, these 64 schools have been put "On Notice" - - meaning that they have a year by the terms of the state's Basic Education Plan to show improvement. If they don't, they will be placed on official probation. If within two years of that point, the schools fail to show the necessary improvement, they are subject to state takeover. Nobody really knows what that means in the realm of change nor how soon or dramatic that change would be. (For the curious and/or concerned, this week's cover story by Mary Cashiola goes into the matter in some detail.)

What is demonstrable is that such a result would amount to a grade of F for the Memphis public school system, and even if the system could be upgraded via state intervention, the sense of failure would hang over the system and the city for some time to come.

In the short run, the city system still has a chance to mend itself through its own means albeit with some -- mainly professional -- assistance from the state. Unfortunately, the state's currently precarious fiscal condition ensures very little of that assistance will be financial. We hope for the community's sake that those conservatives who are always saying that "throwing money at a problem" doesn't fix it are right, because clearly there is precious little to throw our way just now.

In any case, we all have a stake in the Memphis school system's "instructional improvement initiative" (III), called into being to fix the problem. We can only hope that it calls upon real effort and ingenuity and does not become just another bureaucratic alphabet agency.

Otherwise, the community, as school board member Sara Lewis succinctly put it, is "going to be in serious trouble in about 15 years." As she noted, the 117,000 students currently at risk in our under-performing system constitute the pool out of which our future decision- makers will emerge.

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