Memphis City Schools is probably not "the best part of wakin' up." Good things don't "come to those who wait." And students can't "have it your way." But the school system is trying to create a brand that will be as ubiquitous and memorable as Folgers, Heinz, and Burger King.
MCS is in the midst of a revamped campaign surrounding its "Every Child. Every Day. College Bound" tagline. After months of using the phrase on the district's Web site, letterhead, and signage, the school board voted this month to make it the district's official "brand" with a community-wide awareness campaign to follow.
Superintendent Carol Johnson has called the subject a civil rights issue, pointing out that citizens must have some form of post-secondary education to attain a decent standard of living. As it is, only a quarter of the city's population has a college degree.
The board's resolution cites a culture of lowered expectations and says that students are more likely to fall short of their potential without a specific goal. For at least one school board commissioner, however, "Every child. Every Day. College Bound" is a lie.
"It's ridiculous to me," says New Olivet Baptist Church pastor and at-large school board member Kenneth Whalum. "Every child, every day, is not college-bound. It's just that simple."
Whalum has no argument with the concept that every MCS student should be able to go on to post-secondary education. However, he feels the school board should focus on other priorities, goals he calls "no less fanciful" but "more realizable." One of which is school safety and curbing the number of on-campus assaults.
"How about 'Every Child. Every Day. Safe and Sound'? If you don't live until graduation, then you're not going to college," he says.
MCS' graduation rate is currently 66 percent, meaning that 34 percent of MCS students drop out or don't finish high school with enough credits to earn a diploma. Statewide, 81 percent of Tennesseans over the age of 25 have attained a high school diploma or similar status.
And now that the board has made the slogan official, Whalum wants to see it become the truth, as well.
"I want to see the results, and I want to see them soon," he says. "I want to see the data that every child, every day, is college-bound. I think that's fair. If you say it, mean it. If you don't, why are you saying it?"
I think the school district has good intentions. Even if every child isn't going to college, at least the district is saying that it believes every child should be educated as if they were.
I believe in high expectations (especially if the other option is low expectations), but it takes hard work on everyone's part. The danger is in students becoming frustrated and giving up before they have a chance to succeed.
But the thing that interests me the most is the use of the word "brand." Not "motto." Not "mission." Not "slogan." "Brand."
When Johnson first came to MCS, she made no secret that public schools compete for children, or, as they are called in other service realms, "clients." Parents can choose private schools, parochial schools, home schooling, or charter schools for their children.
It's one thing to promote that every child in an urban school district can be prepared for a post-secondary education. But in adopting a brand, the school system itself becomes the product, not the students it serves.
Communities based around more affluent school districts often assume that every student is "college-bound," especially as it is defined by MCS: any post-secondary education, whether it be technical training, two-year colleges, or military service. But in promoting the idea that every MCS student goes to college, the district is not only changing their students' worldview, but sending an important message to parents who might be considering other educational options. Or other school systems.
Whalum is probably correct about one thing: There's not always truth in advertising. Wearing deodorant is good, but it's not going to make you a chick magnet. A pair of sneakers isn't going to turn you into Carmelo Anthony. And not every MCS student is going to college.
But "Every Child. Every Day. College Bound" sounds a whole lot better than "You want fries with that?"