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A Line of the Times: School Choice in Tennessee's Worst School District

Christopher Blank

In a county with dozens of optional school programs, many parents still see few options. Why does Shelby County Schools struggle to retain the best and the brightest?

Every year, in the middle of January, hundreds of Memphis parents load up their mini-vans with tents, portable generators and a few days’ worth of provisions. Then, the stakeout begins. They drive past the Shelby County Schools administration building, waiting for somebody to start the line.

This year it happened at 6 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, five days before the suggested arrival time. Eldridge Bobo, doing a favor for a friend, unfolded his lawn chair near the building's entrance. 

“It's a tradition," Bobo says. "It's the school system. It's the way they have it set up. It's been done for years.” 

By the end of the day, a tent city had sprung up behind him. Some call this "Occupy Shelby County Schools." 

The board of education doesn’t sanction it, except with a couple of Porta-Johns. The parents organize themselves. 

Ed Shaw explains: "Somebody will pull out a notepad and say, 'Okay I'm first. Why don't you write down you're second. You honor this and I'll honor this and it's an agreement between us.' And every person who signs on the list becomes part of the compact."

Their list keeps tabs on who’s in line for which optional program: the city has nearly fifty to choose from. But these parents – the ones determined to camp out in 20 degree weather – all have the same option in mind. 

White Station Middle School.

Linda Sklar, director of optional schools and advanced academics, attributes White Station’s popularity to its good publicity.

"The parents are always talking about their school," she says. "The students are always talking about their school, they have a great word of mouth…"

And just to put it on the table: It's also Memphis’ only middle school where whites and Asians combined outnumber black students.

Optional or magnet programs have long been seen as a way to rehabilitate Tennessee’s worst school district. But parents vying for programs in whiter, higher income schools expose a taboo that some say is the real source of the district’s woes. Middle class parents of all races simply don't see their children as being culturally or academically compatible with a traditional educational system whose students are predominately black and poor -- a system with the state's lowest graduation rate, one of the highest drop-out rates (16.4 percent) and the lowest combined test scores. (A note on the figures.)

Marcus Pohlmann, a political science professor at Rhodes College, says that some of the problem is the long-term effect of white flight.

"It's not so much that there aren't still white students within the boundaries of the city of Memphis; it's that they're not going to public school and black students are."

Pohlmann wrote a book, "Opportunity Lost: race and Poverty in the Memphis City Schools." He and other educators note that the "de facto" segregation that has evolved in the years after legal desegregation extends beyond racial lines.

"The problem is it's not just that there are just enough white students," Pohlmann says. "It's that there are not enough middle and upper class students is the big problem. The trend really in public school systems like Memphis is that many of the middle class and upper class blacks have left the system as well, and what's left is not just black students, but particularly poor black students."

Pohlmann says that while optional and magnet programs appeal to middle class parents, they also perpetuate notions of good schools and bad schools -- schools for the privileged and schools for the children left behind.

"One of the continuing sore points in the whole optional school discussion by the parents whose children are in the regular schools as opposed to the optional schools is that the optional schools cream off a disproportionate share of the resources," he says.

As temperatures plunged into the teens, the parents waiting outside the Shelby County Schools building hunkered down. Friends and relatives traded off shifts. Some joked about hiring stand-ins.

Critics argue that this line-up favors families that can take off a chunk of work for a camp out. Even the timing of the line, in the coldest month of the year, is designed to grab up ultra-motivated middle class parents before private schools get to them.

Lolly Easley says that the line-up system rewards "determined" parents, whereas a full lottery system would only benefit the luckiest.

"If it were a lottery, that would be distressing, 'cause then it would just be chance, and I don't know what to think of that," she says. "I don't think it's good."

For some parents, there's only one reliable way to get their kids into the best schools, and that's living in -- or moving to -- the right neighborhood. 

"I have actually bought houses twice because of school choice," said Marci Lambert. 

Lambert's first purchase got her daughter into Richland Elementary, the whitest and highest income school in the city’s system. Her second move took more strategy – finding a sliver of neighborhood where the Richland and White Station districts overlapped so that her two children could respectively benefit.

"I feel like I know a lot of people who made that school decision well after they bought their house," she said. "I made that decision. I made that decision with my head before my heart."

Some parents believe that the only way to improve the system is to simply… stick it out. 

Tom and Tracy Word put their kids into both Snowden School and Central High School, both of which are majority black. Tom says that most people can’t see past the social stigmas.

"Parents who are the same color as me have that fear, 'Oh my son's going to get picked on, or my daughter is going to get attacked or whatever,'" says Tom Word. "They think it's a jungle and it's not."

It’s a sentiment shared by Dr. Brenda Hardy, who lives nearby. As an Ob-Gyn, her household has options and mobility. Her daughters have attended private and public schools in and out of their zoned areas. With Snowden and Central becoming more multiracial, the schools better matched her own parenting philosophy.

"I want them to live now in as diverse a world as possible," she says. "It's a big world out there, as much experience and exposure to the different people and the different situations that are out in the world, I think it will better prepare them."

The classrooms at White Station Middle may separate the cream from the milk, but in the cafeteria, the school is a noisy and diverse mix of children. For its reputation of being whiter, richer, safer and smarter, White Station is in fact half white and half minority. About 40 percent of its students are economically disadvantaged.

Principal Shawn Page says that what makes this school different from the others he’s worked at as both a principal and special education teacher isn't the number of bright students, or even the diversity.

"We do have the parents' concern in their child's education and their concern in what they're doing. I think that leads to our success," said Page. 

Linda Sklar says the types of parents who’d risk frostbite for their children share a similar characteristic.

"Very demanding," she says. "And that keeps all of us on our toes. When you think we're really doing a good job here, somebody comes up and goes, 'well that's good, but why aren't you trying this?'"

For many city school advocates, that's a question they'd also like to ask of those concerned parents. Why not invest that cultural and intellectual capital back into the larger system, or into neighborhood schools, instead of stockpiling excellence within optional schools?

It's a question that parents shivering in tents outside the school system are apt to ponder every year-- a puzzle akin to choosing which has to come first: the chicken or the egg.

Reporting from the gates of Graceland to the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, Christopher has covered Memphis news, arts, culture and politics for more than 20 years in print and on the radio. He is currently WKNO's News Director and Senior Producer at the University of Memphis' Institute for Public Service Reporting. Join his conversations about the Memphis arts scene on the WKNO Culture Desk Facebook page.