If University of Memphis president Brad Martin has anything to say about it — and he does — there will be a new optional high school on the campus in a year or two.
In a meeting with Mayor A C Wharton last week, Martin proposed a college prep school that would have a high entrance requirement and specialize in training future teachers. Such a school would complement the SCS Campus School for 330 grade 1-5 students and the University's College of Education, Health, and Human Services, which Martin envisions becoming an all-honors college on the rigorous Teach For America model. Like private schools and charter schools, it would attract supplemental funding from philanthropists.
There is a need for such a school, and Martin is the person who can make it happen. He is on a one-year appointment as interim president of his alma mater. He was chairman and CEO of Saks Inc., served five terms in the Tennessee House of Representatives after he graduated from college, and runs a venture capital firm. Rich, politically savvy, and connected, he could do anything he wants, wherever he wants, and he wants to do this here.
The optional schools program in the former Memphis City Schools started 38 years ago and includes such schools-within-schools as White Station High School and Central High School. There are 44 optional schools in all, but the only all-optional school by academics — that means you have to make high grades and test scores to get in and stay there — is grades 1-8 John P. Freeman Optional School in Whitehaven.
Nashville has two academic magnet high schools that select students by test scores and a lottery. The former Shelby County Schools system does not have optional schools. The Hollis F. Price Middle College High School is a non-optional public school with 143 students on the campus of historically black LeMoyne-Owen College.
The former Memphis City Schools system is 93 percent minority and 95 percent Title 1 schools. That means they're poor. The former Memphis school system is more segregated than the former Shelby County Schools system.
The labels can be confusing, and they get even more confusing when you throw in charter schools and Achievement Schools District "failing" schools, and private schools. All of this innovation is happening, of course, in the Year of the Big Change to the unified Shelby County Schools system, which is likely to disintegrate next year when the suburbs bolt.
Let's time travel back to 1981 when a young, idealistic administrator at Memphis City Schools was setting the stage for a bold new school improvement program backed by the Ford Foundation. This is what he wrote.
"Surveys indicated that the private school parents perceive the Memphis City Schools as being unsafe, having poor discipline, and lacking an environment conducive to academic excellence. In addition, the chamber of commerce has cited difficulty in attracting new businesses and industries to Memphis because of the poor image of the public school system."
When that was written, MCS was 76 percent minority enrollment. Now as then, most parents who live in Memphis and can afford it send their children to private schools or move to the suburbs.
Bike lanes, free concerts, pro sports, and trendy restaurants are nice, but parents of school-age children don't buy a house because it's near Local or the Greenline. What Memphis needs to repopulate the middle class and rebuild its tax base is public schools that can compete with private schools. If I were running a private school in Shelby County or starting a new suburban public school system, I would be thanking my stars every day that Memphis has defaulted so much.
Without the suburbs in the unified system, we're back to the old "public" equals "poor" mindset. There are exceptions, however. Wharton has a grandchild at Idlewild Elementary School in Midtown, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has a daughter at Idlewild, and school board members Billy Orgel, Dr. Jeff Warren, and Dr. Kenneth Whalum support Memphis public schools with their children as well as their rhetoric.
A high school on the U of M campus would give faculty members and staff another public school option for academic high-achievers who now go to private school. Enlist the experts. Do the graduation speech in English, Spanish, Mandarin, and Arabic. Track down former Memphian Bob Compton, creator of the schools documentary Two Million Minutes, and hire him as a consultant.
That would be a magnet, and Brad Martin is the man to do it.