Shelby County Schools, private funders eye Crosstown high school for midtown Memphis

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Crosstown Concourse, a building being redeveloped in midtown Memphis, is the site of a proposed selective high school.

Months after a charter network abandoned its plan to open a new school in a prominent midtown Memphis development, the district has another proposal for the space — a selective school that would appeal to the city’s middle class.

Crosstown High School would serve as a college prep school designed for students who perform on or above grade level on state tests, according to a proposal that the Shelby County Board of Education is scheduled to discuss for the first time Tuesday evening.

The proposal is a change of direction from an earlier plan by Gestalt Community Schools, which was named a year ago as a future tenant for the Crosstown Concourse development. The high-performing charter network, which pulled out of the deal last fall, focuses on serving students from poor families and does not screen students by ability.

It also would represent a new direction for the school board, which for years has focused almost exclusively on efforts to improve Memphis’ lowest-performing schools. Those efforts have included overhauling some struggling schools and ceding others to charter operators, causing the district to lose students and the state funding that follows them.

In part because of those efforts, the educational landscape in Memphis is becoming increasingly competitive and the district needs “as many good programs as it can” have, said board member Chris Caldwell, who serves the city’s midtown neighborhoods.

“If we’re trying to provide more environments and more schools that are high performing, we’re going to attract kids that may not be in this district,” he said. “The bottom line is: the more options kids have, the better.”

Ultimately, Caldwell and his fellow board members will have to weigh whether the advantages of creating a selective high school outweigh the costs. While the school has the potential to recapture some students who now attend private, parochial or charter schools, it also could drain higher-performing students from district schools, steepening challenges for existing schools.

The few details available so far about the planned 500-student school suggest that it would generally serve wealthier families than do existing district schools. The Crosstown school would aim for a student population with at least 35 percent who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, according to documents provided to the board. In contrast, 65 percent of students across the district come from families that poor.

Its midtown location is just a few blocks north of Northwest Prep Academy, a priority school scoring in the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools. But it is also less than two miles from Central High, a century-old selective school that scored in the state’s top 5 percent in academic gains in 2015.

And its location, in a high-rise building being redeveloped in a former Sears warehouse built in the 1920s, is likely to be a pull for families who live in midtown neighborhoods, an area east of downtown Memphis that serves as a hub for the arts, higher education and cultural attractions. Crosstown High would be located on the fourth and fifth floors of the Crosstown Concourse building, joining other tenants from mostly educational, healthcare and retail sectors.

After Gestalt decided last year not to use the space, a group of private funders approached Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson about creating a contract school governed by an independent board of directors, with operations funded by Shelby County Schools, according to several sources familiar with the discussions.

Shelby County school board member Chris Caldwell (left) listens during a recent board meeting.
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Board member Chris Caldwell (left) listens during a recent meeting.

The arrangement could be a boon to Shelby County Schools. Contract schools are similar to charter schools in that they are operated by third-party organizations, but unlike charter schools, they remain part of the district. That means that the district retains funding for students in contract schools — and credit for their successes.

Hopson declined to discuss the proposal over the weekend, but a memorandum before the school board calls it a “unique opportunity to create a college preparatory school that, by virtue of its location in the Crosstown Concourse building, can leverage partnerships with well-respected organizations including St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Methodist Le Bonheur, the Church Health Center, and local universities to provide a rich educational experience for students.”

The memorandum provides a starting point to discuss the Crosstown proposal, according to Caldwell.

“It’s not a forgone conclusion that it’s going to happen,” he said. “It’s a board decision. I’m only one member of the board, and I think that it ought to be an interesting discussion.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”