Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Some Inspiration from Memphis

Why am I about to post something about Memphis City Schools, you ask?  Unfortunately we suffer from some of the same perceptions and misconceptions about our schools that so many people have about Memphis.  My wife and I went to school at The University of Memphis and lived there for a total of about 5 years before moving to Jackson.  Memphis is a great city, and I still keep up with the news there every day.

This article was published in the Commercial Appeal back in December, and every time I read it, it's just as inspiring and resonates just as much as the first time.  Anybody that has young children in Humboldt inevitably has been or will be asked the same question parents in Memphis are asked.  "Where are you sending your kids to school?  Because public schools obviously aren't an option." Well, this couple decided that their options weren't limited to private schools or moving to a "better" district.  It's long, but completely worth the read.  If you don't read anything else, at least read the last paragraph.

Not long after Mandy and Robert Grisham moved to Midtown five years ago to start a church, they began hearing about The Decision they were going to face as their son Adam got closer to school age.

Stay in Midtown, get in line for private schools, and spend tens of thousands of dollars and countless hours in a car over the next 13 to 15 years. Or move to the suburbs. 

The Grishams didn't want to move. They loved the diversity and urban amenities of Midtown. It reminded them of the San Francisco Bay Area, where they lived while Robert attended Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary.

They also loved the convenience of Midtown. In Northern California, they lived in one county, Robert worked in another, and Mandy, a teacher, worked in still another. Even if they could find a way to pay for private schools, they didn't want to live their lives in a car.

The couple knew there was a public school in their neighborhood. Peabody Elementary near the corner of Cooper and Young was within walking distance from their home.
They wondered why there wasn't a third option.

They also wondered why the children coming and going to Peabody were black, while nearly all of the children in the neighborhood around them were white.

"We couldn't find anyone in Cooper-Young who was sending their child to Peabody," Mandy said. "We thought it was a quality issue, but we investigated. It's a very good school. That wasn't the issue. It was a perception thing."

Robert grew up in Tipton County. Mandy was a pastor's kid who grew up in rural areas of Texas and Missouri. They met at Union University, a Baptist college in Jackson, Tenn.

Since then, they have been very intentional about where they live and why.

They moved to Northern California so Robert could attend a Southern Baptist seminary outside the Bible Belt. "We wanted a different experience, a different evangelical perspective," he said.

They moved to an inner-city area of Oakland, Calif., so Mandy could live in the same neighborhood as the children she taught in a public school. "I had some anxiety about it, but the children won my heart," she said.

They moved to Memphis because they liked urban life, but they also wanted to live in a community steeped in faith. "Church is important there, but it's a way of life here," Robert said.

They moved to Cooper-Young because it seemed to be such a thriving urban neighborhood filled with people who were actively involved in the community. It had a strong community association, a small but cool business district, a big annual arts festival, even its own neighborhood newspaper, The LampLighter.

They started a church in their home with one other couple and called it The Mustard Seed Project, hoping their tiny congregation of five would grow into a Christian community actively involved in its neighborhood, not just located there.

About two years ago, they moved into the chapel at Union Avenue Baptist Church. They renamed their community of faith The Neighborhood Church.

They still had hopes for a neighborhood school.

"We want to raise our children in faith and diversity," Robert said. "Racial diversity. Socioeconomic diversity. God's diversity."

When the Grishams moved to Cooper-Young in 2006, Adam was 6 months old. Mandy was a new mother in a new city. They both needed friends, so Mandy decided to host a Halloween party. She put a notice in the LampLighter. About 40 adults and children showed up.

That was the beginning of the Cooper-Young Parents Network, a way for families to share information about everything from play dates to pediatricians to plumbers. The parent-to-parent e-mail group became a Yahoo Group, and a Facebook page.

Through CYPN, Grisham met dozens of Cooper-Young parents with small children. None was considering sending their child to Peabody.

Why were folks so connected to their neighborhood so disconnected from their neighborhood public school?

Mandy met with Kongsouly Jones, Peabody's principal. She joined the school's advisory board so she could learn more about the school. She talked to teachers and parents and students.

She found out that Peabody offers an enriched academic program in international studies. Students in each grade study a different country each year. The school's 333 students even receive 30 minutes of Russian language instruction every day.

The school provides a full-time counselor, CLUE classes for gifted students, Orff music, art and phys ed. Teachers use SmartBoard technology in every classroom. The school has mobile laptop labs and wireless Internet. Students can join clubs for dance, digital photography, chess, science, arts and crafts.

Nearly half of the students at Peabody are transfers from other districts.

"You could see why so many parents were choosing Peabody," Mandy said. "The principal was great. The teachers were passionate and creative. We saw parents involved during and after school. The students were happy and well-behaved. It was exactly the kind of neighborhood school we wanted for our children."

Mandy organized meetings with Peabody's educators. She arranged open houses and tours of the school. The CYPN helped the school replace its 30-year-old playground equipment with donations from Cooper-Young residents and a hundred neighborhood volunteers.

"I became an evangelist for Peabody School," she said.

Two of her converts were Ginger and Josh Spickler. From the day their son Walt was born, the Spicklers assumed they would send him to private schools.

"I certainly never intended to send my kids to Peabody," Ginger Spickler said.

"It's quite a leap to send your kid to the neighborhood school that isn't actually educating any (or at least many) of the neighborhood kids, has so-so test scores, and where he'll be in the extreme minority. And if we hadn't felt so confident in Peabody's leadership, I'm not sure we'd be having this conversation."

"Ultimately, it did come down to making a leap of faith. After making what we felt was the best decision for our family, we had to trust that God loves our child even more than we do and would take care of him if we'd screwed up. Honestly, we probably went into it feeling that we would be making some sacrifices by sending him there, but at least so far, I would say it has been one of the best parenting decisions we've made. I can't imagine feeling as positive about any school as I do about Peabody."

Lurene Cachola Kelley, a University of Memphis professor, and her husband, Chris, also are converts. They lived in Cooper-Young. Lurene's parents live right across the street from Peabody. But they were planning to send their son Maddox to Campus School, near Kelley's office.

"Our experience with Peabody has made me question even more all the negative things I've heard about Memphis City Schools," Kelley said.

"I know there are serious problems, and more so in certain schools, but I know there are so many amazing teachers and students throughout the system. ... There is a certain amount of your future that you have to put in the hands of a higher being to override the concerns, distrust and fear surrounding public schools today."

This past August, Adam, Walt and Maddox entered kindergarten at Peabody Elementary, along with five other Cooper-Young children. The Grishams say there are at least eight Cooper-Young families who are considering sending their 4-year-olds to Peabody next year.

"By sharing her positive experiences with other parents and community members, Mrs. Grisham, along with other CYPN members, continues to change the negative perception about public education," principal Jones said. "Her involvement has dramatically increased the level of family and neighborhood engagement at Peabody Elementary School."

Forty years ago, nearly half of the 150,000 students in city schools were white. Today, there are about 7,000 white students in city schools, despite the presence of about 40,000 white school-age children in Memphis.

The Grishams are aware of some of the legal, political, social and cultural forces behind the abandonment of city schools by so many parents.

They are more concerned with the spiritual forces bringing Cooper-Young families together to support their community and its children.

"It's a God thing," Mandy said. "No one wants to do this alone. We couldn't do this alone. We all want to be part of the change in Memphis."

The Neighborhood Church has grown to about 30 adults and 15 children, including the Spicklers.
The neighborhood school is growing, too. 
"We're not going to sacrifice our son to a movement," Mandy said. "He's our baby. We're going to do what's best for him. But what's best for his neighborhood and community is best for him, too."
I couldn't have said it better myself.   This is what it's all about.  With great faculty and the right programs, our schools will sell themselves as long as parents are willing to give us a chance.  As a school board member, I won’t be able to force parents to send their kids to Humboldt.  But I can make sure we are doing absolutely everything as best as we can with the resources we have, so the only thing we will be fighting is leftover perceptions.