Richland, a 67 percent white and 18 percent black elementary school that sits in the third-most affluent neighborhood in Memphis, is getting a $4 million renovation.
The East Memphis school is slated to get a new gym and two-story classroom building by next fall to replace the school's portable buildings. Because apparently, classrooms in portables just won't cut it for the kiddos at Richland.
That's all fine and good, but having to go to class in portables is not the worst thing in the world. What about the other schools in some of the city's lower-income neighborhoods that lack more basic necessities — like teachers and other personnel, supplies, and equipment?
What about the 43 schools in Memphis that are in the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in the state?
Not having doors on all the bathroom stalls, a current problem at KIPP Academy in North Memphis, seems like it would be a higher priority for school board members than a school having to hold a couple of classes in portables — especially at a school that is already ranked the 10th-best elementary school in the state. Doors on bathroom stalls are a standard privacy need, and privacy is a basic human right. A Basic. Human. Right.
Just as disconcerting is the situation at Booker T. Washington High School, where students went nearly the entirety of last school year without a chemistry teacher, at a school where 96 percent of students are black and 99 percent are "economically disadvantaged," according to Shelby County Schools (SCS). Instead, for the majority of the year, the students were taught a complicated subject by a substitute teacher with no teaching license or background in chemistry.
So, when it came time for the state chemistry test last year, it's no surprise that 92 percent of the 65 students there who took the test scored in the lowest percentile.
- Shelby County Schools
Quite frankly, that's not fair at all. From the start, they didn't even have the chance to perform as well as their counterparts at other schools in higher-income neighborhoods.
Currently, only 39 percent of third-graders in Memphis are proficient in reading; by seventh grade, that percentage decreases to 38. That's an issue.
Although this can't be completely attributed to the school board, perhaps instead of SCS focusing on building state-of-the-art gyms and classrooms for elementary school kids, they should invest equally in every school, to ensure that each has at least the fundamental essentials for students to adequately learn.
It would seem to be common sense that schools need well-trained teachers who are invested in their students' learning. Schools need textbooks. And schools need doors on the bathroom stalls, running water, and clean classrooms.
If you were the coach of a basketball team in a developmental league, would you spend limited resources training the few star players who are already scoring 20 points a game, or would you use those resources to develop the less-skilled players who have not yet reached their full potential?
It's the same for schools. It's only fair that every school gets an equal amount of proper attention and care to help level the playing field for all students. It all goes back to the claim of "liberty and justice for all" — words of a pledge that most students are strongly "encouraged" to recite every day. True liberty, justice, and equality for all would mean that every child in Memphis has access to a quality education, no matter where they grow up or where their neighborhood school happens to be.
This issue is not isolated to Memphis. Nationwide, 67 percent of third-graders are not reading at proficiency levels. More than 80 percent of those third-graders are from low-income families. If the problem goes unchecked, efforts to end intergenerational poverty, close the achievement gap, reduce high school dropout rates, and increase college enrollment are undermined.
If something is not done about the disparity in facilities and personnel present across the county's school system, and in systems throughout the country, then how can we expect all students to thrive in school and have equal opportunities of success in the future?
The short answer is: We can't.
Maya Smith is a Flyer staff writer.